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Care of and Feeding the Bitch with Pups - Part II

by Martin Coffman DVM

Milk production is an energy consuming process and the energy level in the bitch’s food is very important to the lactation process. It is recommended that, soon after whelping, the level of Metabolizable Energy (ME) intake by the bitch be increased to 200% of the maintenance amount normally utilized. In other words, the bitch must eat twice the food she ate before she was bred. The intake level of ME should be increased to 300% of the maintenance level during the peak lactation period 3-4 weeks post-whelping.

Many bitches cannot consume enough calories to insure adequate milk production and the maintenance of her body condition in one or two meals per day. Total food quantity should be divided into four or more servings per day to make the total ME more available to the female. In addition, dog foods with minimum levels of 430 kilocalories ME/cup should be utilized to insure energy density and adequate calories in small quantities of food.

Often, the easiest method of providing this large number of calories plus the high digestibility required of the lactating bitch is to offer a "performance” type dog food. Designed for performance dogs like typical field dogs, these foods have very high energy levels in a dense, highly digestible matrix. The best choice uses fat as the energy source. Since fat has over twice the calories per gram as carbohydrates, this allows the nursing mother to get large quantities of energy in a few bites of food.

Characteristics of a Performance Food Suitable for the Lactating Bitch
Energy Density:4500 kcal ME/kg or greater
Fat:50-65% of calories
Protein:30-35% of calories, meat source
Carbohydrate:10-15% of calories
Fiber:3% to 7% of a moderate source of Fiber
Fatty Acid Profile: omega6:omega3 ratio between 5-10:1

Note: The best way to compare foods is based on this “percentage of calories method”. Dogs eat to get calories so the most accurate measurement is via a percentage of the calories in a food.

These “performance” foods also have a balanced formula that will supply the nutrients needed as the bitch’s milk changes over the nursing period.

When a highly digestible, performance food is fed to a nursing bitch, no supplements will be required. Overall, this is the simplest, least expensive method of feeding the lactating bitch.
Puppies should be offered semi-solid food at 3 to 4 weeks. This will coincide with the bitch’s decrease in milk production. A simple method is to use the “performance” food being fed to the bitch, soak it in warm water to a milk-shake consistency, and put the little pups in it. They will make a big mess, walk around in it, and some may actually eat a bit of it! Regardless, the bitch will clean them up and finish off the food they leave when she is readmitted to the nursery area. It is perfectly fine to feed the performance product until the pups are eight weeks of age. At that time, retriever and most upland breeds should be fed a special food designed for large breeds. This will help prevent skeletal problems as the pups grow.

Raising a quality litter of healthy pups is a very rewarding experience.
The quantity of food fed to the bitch should be gradually decreased until the pups are weaned. On the day of weaning, the bitch should receive no food. This will encourage drying up of milk production and decrease the incidence of breast infection. A normal dog food can then be fed to the bitch until hunting season or training for testing begins again.

Raising a quality litter of healthy pups is a very rewarding experience. With proper preparation and care during the process, your bitch and her puppies can give you a gratifying event and your breed will benefit, too.

1.Lonnerdal B: Lactation and Neonatal Nutrition in the Dog and Cat, 13-15 Canine Reproductive Health, The Iams Company, 1997.
2.Moser JE: The puppy from birth to six weeks. Vet Clin North Am Small Anim Pract 8:79-100, 1978.
3.Oftedal O: Lactation in the dog: Milk composition and intake by puppies. J Nutr 114:803-812, 1984.
4.Moser D: Feeding to optimize canine reproductive efficiency, Probl Vet Med 4:454-550, 1992.
5Lepine AJ: Nutritional Considerations Affecting Canine Reproduction, Managing Canine Reproduction, The Iams Company, 23-27, 1997.

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