Weaning Puppies

Weaning Puppies 



I have long heard about various weaning practices among breeders. Many start very young with the goal of getting the puppies "away "from the mother as early as possible. I have heard of people starting as early as 3 1/2 or 4 weeks. Starting with various concoctions mashed and pureed. The argument for early weaning is to avoid "running down" the mother. 

I strongly feel that we are causing health problems in our dogs by these practices. I base my opinion on what we have seen in human health care. Problems with weaning practices in infants can lead to a wide variety of health problems into adulthood. Much data is coming to light about the benefits of breast feeding, ranging from a decrease in allergies, to less risk of developing cancer. Too early an introduction of food to the infant translates into various allergies and sensitivities into adulthood. Mother's milk is the natural food for young animals. It is loaded with disease preventing properties, designed to be absorbed effectively by the digestive system without stressing the system in any way. It provides the puppy with enzymes that aid in digestion. It is liquid gold. 

The normal healthy bitch is well equipped to nurse her litter up to 5 or 6 weeks if she wishes. Feed her well, give her as much good, quality food as she will eat. Increase the calories in her regular diet. If the nursing mother is caring for her puppies, the puppies are gaining weight, and she is eating well, do not get overly concerned about how underweight she may get. She will bounce back quickly after her litter is weaned. The argument that you want to show the bitch will normally be very redundant. She may keep her weight by taking away puppies early, but she will still lose the coat. Normally the weight is back at the time the coat also returns. I know that unusual circumstances can occur that warranty supplemental feeding of puppies, but be sure there is a reason to do it, don't be fooled by a false sense of "do gooditis". A bitch may be unable to produce milk effectively, she may be unwell, the puppies may not be getting enough nutrition, puppies may be too weak. These situations are the exception, not the rule. 

Consider what your weaning practices are expecting your puppy's digestive system to deal with. This immature system is very sensitive, and designed to deal with mothers milk until 5 to 6 weeks of age. List the ingredients you may expose your puppy to: cows milk, cereal, eggs, canned food, (read carefully the list on that can - what different meats, chicken, beef, lamb, what grains, what preservatives, dyes). The list of different proteins that a very young puppy may be exposed to is very wide. Every single protein source is a potential allergen, or reaction causing substance. The goal is to limit the variety of protein and possible antigens that you expose the young animal to. The protein source is of little importance, a good quality food is essential, but limit the variety. Dogs are not human, they do not get bored with a diet. The reason lamb and rice and turkey and rice diets have become popular is because many dogs have sensitivities to other meat sources. I would speculate that many of these dogs were given those reactive foods too early when being weaned. 

When it is time to start to wean those puppies, at 5 weeks or more, select a food that is the same protein sources as the future adult food. This will limit the exposure to other sources, decreasing the risk of developing additional food allergies later. 

We have talked about how all this affects the puppies. There are also benefits to the mother in nursing her litter longer. Again if we look at hospital maternity wards, we will see a great difference between breast feeding mothers and those who choose bottle feeding. The uterus of the nursing mother involutes or shrinks back into place much faster than the mother who bottle feeds. The reason for this is the hormone oxytocin, responsible for milk production, is also the same hormone that shrinks the uterus back into shape. In the nursing dog I have often seen initial bleeding for a week to ten days gradually clearing to only clear mucous. Then, if allowed to nurse her litter, naturally there will usually be a final day or two of blood stained mucous passed from the vulva at about 5 1/2 weeks. This relates to the peek in milk production, hence the peek in oxytocin release. If we feed the puppies too soon, we are replacing milk produced by the mother, hence her milk output decreases. We avoid the height of milk production in the bitch, and also the height of oxytocin production. This oxytocin leads to a final shrinking of the uterus, effectively cleaning out any remaining debris, before the cervix finally closes. I speculate that by not allowing this to happen, as nature has designed, may lead to problems later. Could the debris left in the uterus be a possible Cause of infections or scarring, preventing future pregnancies? 

The benefits of longer nursing help both mother and puppies. This phase is also when a puppy may very well learn behaviors useful in raising their own puppies, often behaviors are imprinted. The controversy is always there, what is learned and what is instinct. I hope this is of interest to people. Have any of you had problems with allergies in your dogs, can you look to early weaning practices? We must remember this is only one component. In everything in animal care, we have the nature vs nurture controversy, the genetic vs environment components. We must be satisfied with the reality that both these things effect our animals, it is impossible to separate the two. The good news is, this knowledge allows us to better control the environment we provide for our animals. Your comment regarding this article are welcomed. 

Thank you Michael Guy 

Orient Express / April 1999