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Care of and Feeding the Bitch with Pups - Part I

by Martin Coffman DVM

For eons, mother’s milk has been proven to be the best food for newborns. Studies in several species have documented the mechanisms that keep milk high in nutritional value regardless of the condition of the dam.1 These studies verify that a lactating bitch will produce a sufficient quantity of nutritious milk to support her puppies even if her condition deteriorates. For conscientious dog breeders, the challenge is to provide nutrition for the dam that will allow her to not only feed her puppies but also to maintain her own condition. It is normal for a bitch to lose some bodyweight during lactation but, ideally, the amount lost should not exceed 10% of her original weight.4 It is much easier to attain this goal if the bitch is in good condition prior to whelping which usually reflects the fact that she was in good condition at mating.

Excellent nutrition, though crucial, is not the only step that breeders can take to insure a healthy dam after her puppies are weaned. Clean, dry facilities are important. Daily exercise and fresh air can make the nursing process more pleasant for the dam, too. Daily examination of the bitch’s mammary glands allows early detection of infection in the breasts allowing prompt treatment.

Of course, a plentiful supply of clean water is very important to the well being of the dam. Water turnover is very high in the newborn puppy.5 This function of nursing is often overlooked by breeders. A consistent fluid intake by the puppy is required to maintain blood volume and this can only come from adequate milk.


One of the fascinating features of the nursing process is the ability of milk to change over the lactation. For example, the energy content of dog milk increases steadily for the first 40 days of nursing then decreases by Day 50 coinciding with the puppies’ ability to eat solid food.1 This allows an early start on shrinkage of breast tissue to help the bitch end her milk production. Fat, too, varies over the lactation period. Early in lactation the fat level is about 2.4%. By the middle of the nursing period, the fat level increases to about 5% then decreases to about 2.6% near weaning. Calcium is high in milk during the entire nursing period but continues to increase as weaning nears. Magnesium, iron, and zinc all vary over the lactation stage.
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