Suckling

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In hormonal terms, the end of dioestrus (which corresponds to gestation or pseudopregnancy) is characterised by a drop in blood progesterone, a temporary rise in oestrogen leading to the dilation of the neck of the uterus and a rise in prolactin, the hormone that triggers the production of colostrum then milk.
These hormonal variations are similar in gestating and non-gestating females, which explains the frequency of pseudo-lactation. This is observed in packs of wild dogs, where it primarily affects females with low hierarchical status, which are thus able to provide food if the dominant females are unable to. This emphasises the importance of the mind in triggering lactation, which is also true for many species of mammals.

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Lactation

Bitches that are not comfortable in the maternity unit, unhappy with the whelping box or anaesthetised ahead of a C-section will typically be slow producing milk. This can be managed by changing the environmental conditions, giving a homeopathic treatment or administering anti-vomiting medication to stimulate prolactin secretion by the central nervous system.

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Once the first puppies have been whelped, milk production is maintained by a neurohormonal reflex mechanism, as the sucking or massage of the teats stimulates the secretion of another hormone, oxytocin, which in turn drives the milk towards the milk ducts. This mechanism is naturally proportioned to the number of suckled puppies, ensuring that milk production is adapted to the appetite of the puppies, whose health to some extent has priority over the mother’s.

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Milk production

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Colostrum is the first substance secreted by the mammary glands during the first two days after birth. Colostrum has a completely different appearance and composition to milk. It is yellowish and translucent, so much so that it can be confused with pus.

Colostrum has a much higher protein content than milk. In addition to its nutritional value, it also stimulates the puppies to defaecate for the first time and provides 95% of the antibodies they need to fight infection. In this way, mothers pass on their immune memory to their puppies for a term of between five and seven weeks, while they are still unable to defend themselves from infection.

The puppies are able to absorb these immune defences for no more than 48 hours after they are born. After this time, these antibodies will be destroyed in the stomach before absorption and will therefore be completely ineffective. At that point, the puppies’ only protection will be the antibodies that were passed through their placentas during gestation (no more than 5%).

An absence of colostrum can be compensated for in various ways. Colostrum taken manually from the mother or another bitch – possibly frozen and defrosted at 37°C – can be administered orally.

IV administration of antiserum (specific antibodies against parvovirus or distemper) is available in some countries but it provides limited protection against these diseases. Otherwise, IV transfusion of serum from the mother’s blood is an effective way of transferring a wider variety of antibodies to the puppy. Cow colostrum can be mixed with the mother’s or formula milk. This provides a certain degree of non-specific local immunity, although it is a product from another species and as such incapable of protecting the puppies from canine diseases or ambient bacteria.

After a few days the colostrum is replaced by milk. Its composition depends on the size of the breed (milk from large breeds has a higher protein content), individual genetic aptitudes and the teat (the rear teats are more productive). On average, lactation continues for 6 weeks after whelping, with production peaking around week 3.

Over the next few weeks, the decline in milk production causes mothers to regurgitate food to supplement the diet of their puppies, which spontaneously begin to show an interest in the bitch’s food bowl.

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Why is my dog producing milk when it has not whelped?

The present-day dog’s ancient ancestor is the wolf. In wolf packs only the alpha (dominant) individuals whelp. This increases survival chances, as even when food is scarce the dominant wolves eat first, which means that dominant females are able to suckle their young.

When food is plentiful the female wolves lower down the hierarchy eat well too and they also produce milk to help suckle the young. This helps ensure that the young survive even if their mother dies. Our dogs are fed very well and their food is of a generally high quality, which means that they are able to start producing milk around six weeks to two months after heat, even if they are not fertilised. This is a normal physiological process, known as pseudo-pregnancy, which occurs in two of every three females. The milk they secrete is almost transparent, white or a little brownish. All of these secretions are normal.

Pseudo-pregnancies may be accompanied by enlargement of the teats and behavioural changes (“adoption” of objects, aggressiveness, construction of a “nest”, nervousness, refusal to go out, fickle appetite). While it is a normal physiological process, it should not be ignored. It may lead to serious problems, such as mastitis and tumours. The veterinarian needs to examine the dog to check that it is not pregnant before deciding whether to start treatment or wait until the problem clears up of its own accord. Early neutering is the best way to prevent pseudo-pregnancy if the female is not going to be used as breeding stock or when its breeding days are over. In some cases, recently neutered females can also manifest this problem, if neutering is carried out at the end of the reproduction period.

Folch_Marin

Antonio Folch Marí, veterinary doctor
(Spain)

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This marks the start of a gradual weaning process that eventually leads to the puppy switching to a growth food around week 6. The quantity of milk produced by a bitch can be assessed by regularly weighing the puppies before and after they feed. These measures have enabled the establishment of a growth curve, based on the parameters that directly influence growth – size and weight of the mother, number of suckled puppies – and the proposal of an equation to estimate how much milk the mother passes on to the litter.

It is estimated that a female Labrador weighing 32kg that suckles eight puppies will produce 2.4 times her own weight in milk to raise the litter.

It is, however, very presumptuous to want to encapsulate milk production in an equation, which ought also to take account of such parameters as the temperature in the maternity unit, the mother’s water consumption, the size of the litter and the level of stress. And these are just the main parameters.

This equation can, however, be used to precisely calculate the quantity of milk produced at peak lactation at 4% of total production. This same female will therefore produce around three litres of milk per day at peak lactation, which naturally demands a considerable nutritional adjustment to avoid excessive weight loss during this most testing and demanding part of the oestrous cycle.

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Weight gain in the puppy

• Birth weight

The birth weight is an important factor for forecasting the newborn’s survival chances. Birth weight varies depending on the breed (100-200 g in toy breeds, 200-300 g in medium breeds, 400-500 g in large breeds and over 700 g in giant breeds). The average weight of puppies varies depending on the size of the litter (the larger the litter, the lower the average weight of the individual puppies), infections (including parasites) and environmental conditions (cleanliness in the kennels and stress).

• Weight gain

Weight gain is another important factor, as a failure to put on weight can often be the first sign of a general health problem. With this in mind, it is worthwhile weighing each puppy in the litter on scales that provide information in ounces (grams) at birth, 12 hours after birth and then on a daily basis for the first two weeks. This data should be noted down so that the puppy’s growth curve gain can be monitored and any abnormality quickly detected.

Puppies should normally gain around 2-4 g a day for each kilogram of an adult dog of the same breed (e.g. 50-100 g a day if the average adult dog weighs 25kg). 10-12 days after birth, the puppy should weight twice its birth weight.

• What to do if a puppy does not put on weight or loses weight.

In general, a puppy that fails to gain any weight for two consecutive days should be monitored very closely. The breeder needs to identify the cause of any slowdown in the puppy’s growth very quickly. This may be linked to the mother if the whole litter is affected (inadequate or toxic milk) or to individual factors if only selected puppies are affected (cleft palate, access to teats producing less milk and so on).

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Feeding lactating females

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Unlike gestation, lactation significantly increases the bitch’s nutritional requirements due to the exceptional richness of the milk (calcium, energy, protein) she gives to her litter (1,200-1,500 kcal per kg of milk depending on the breed and the day of lactation).

If the average energy value is 1,350 kcal/kg of milk and the yield is 80%, the bitch’s energy requirements rise by 3 x 1 350/0.8 = 5,000 kilocalories per day at the peak of lactation.

The priority during this period is to ensure that the bitch receives food of adequate quality and quantity to enable her to cover the growth needs of her litter without weakening herself. To do this, it is important to make sure the supply (lactation) is suited to demand (puppies’ needs).

In some cases, such as very prolific breeds like the Irish Setter, finding the right balance will be very difficult, bearing in mind that demand is up to four times greater than the bitch’s maintenance requirements.

During lactation, bitches need a highly palatable food with a high-energy content to meet their energy needs, so that the volume can be limited. A bitch used to consuming 1kg of maintenance food cannot be expected to eat 4kg of the same food when suckling her litter.

The majority of suckling females will be perfectly well served with a highly digestible food containing at least 30% protein, 25% fat (by dry matter) and around 4,500 kcal/kg. It is recommended that females are able to feed ad libitum during lactation, provided there is no risk of the food spoiling or being contaminated by excrement

Nutritional profile of a food for a lactating female (dry matter):

Protein 30-35% – Fat 20-30% – Crude fibre 1-2% – Calcium 1.5-2% – Phosphorus 0.9-1% – Vitamin A 10,000 IU/kg – Energy 4,200-5,000 kcal/kg – Protein/energy ratio 75-85 g/1,000 kcal.

The ideal solution is a complete starter-type dry food that has the huge advantage of covering the mother’s nutritional requirements while also functioning as a perfect weaning food for her puppies.

To summarise, the following criteria must be taken into consideration when selecting a “lactation” food:

• Palatability, which primarily depends on the quality and quantity of fat and animal protein

• Digestibility, which permits the proper assimilation of the feeding amount in a reasonable volume (absence of abdominal ballooning after meals, smaller stools)

• Energy value, which needs to be high, orientating the choice towards a dry food

• Protein quality and quantity, which must cover the puppies’ skeletal and muscular development

• Calcium, magnesium and vitamin D levels, which have to be high enough to limit the risk of eclampsia (convulsions during lactation), especially among small dogs with big litters.

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The litter’s harmonious growth is naturally a source of indirect information on the quality of lactation and so on the mother’s health. It is important to remember that a balanced formulation is vital, as the addition of any supplement to compensate a deficit risks at the same time disturbing the absorption of other ingredients. Zinc deficiencies due to the ill-considered addition of calcium, or tetany during lactation related to unregulated calcium supplementation, are the most common examples in dog breeding.

Regardless of the quantity of food in the ration, females must never lose more than 10% of their healthy weight after one month of lactation. A 10% loss is often unavoidable, but that weight must be put back on in the months after the puppies have been weaned.

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Supplementary feeding

If milk production is insufficient to meet the requirements of all puppies during the first three months, as is often the case with first-time mothers, it is advisable to provide the whole litter with an artificial substitute rather than isolating one or more individuals to feed them only artificial milk.

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Palliative feeding

If the mother dies or produces no milk (agalactia), insufficient milk (hypogalactia) or toxic milk (mastitis) and the entire litter needs feeding, special formula milk is available for puppies that will generally ensure the puppies survive, with only slightly lower growth compared with the average for their breed (less than 10% difference) This can, however, often be made up later by feeding them a weaning pap.

Puppies feed spontaneously more than twenty times a day and it will be difficult for the owner to maintain this pace. It is enough for the puppies to be fed every three hours during the first week at regular times, without interrupting sleep (over 90% of the time in the first week), which is essential for attachment and assimilation.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin
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The choice of powdered formula milk is much more appropriate, especially due to the controlled lactose intake.

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Although it is possible to modify cow’s milk to better meet the puppies’ requirements, the choice of powdered formula milk is much more appropriate, especially due to the controlled lactose intake.

As well as saving time and money, powdered formula milk limits the risk of diarrhoea in puppies, whose stomach acidity is still too low to effectively sterilise the bolus.

After it has been reconstituted and heated to 37°C, the milk is fed to the puppies in a bottle or by tube (urinary tube-type) if they refuse to suckle. Intubation demands technical expertise. The use of bottled water is recommended for reconstituting the milk, which should be prepared just before administration and not kept for more than a few hours, and even then in the refrigerator. If the milk is administered from a syringe in the mouth, it should have a firmer consistency like pap to stimulate the swallowing reflex and limit the risk of it going down the wrong way, or “false passage”, which can cause bronchopneumonia.

There is a simple way to establish how much formula milk the puppies will need:

– The energy value of a kilogram of mother’s milk is around 1,350 kilocalories.

– A puppy needs 3-4 ml of mother’s milk to gain one gram in weight.

– The maintenance requirement of puppies in the suckling stage is more than two and a half times greater than the maintenance requirement of an adult dog of the same weight.

So, a one-month old puppy weighing 3kg (adult weight 22kg) will need to put on 6 grams per day for every kilogram of its future adult weight, which works out at 130 grams per day.

To do so, it will have to consume 4 x 130 = 520 g of milk per day or approximately 0.52 x 1,350 = 600 kcal.

Adoption by a suckling female

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To avoid artificial feeding altogether, which is obviously preferable, the puppy can be “offered for adoption” to a female in the appropriate lactation stage, even in the event of pseudo-lactation.

Rubbing the orphan against the puppies in this female’s litter will result in the puppy being impregnated with an odour that appears to favour acceptance. While the puppies are not especially attached to their mother during the first two weeks after whelping, mothers are well able to recognise their puppies.

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Rubbing the orphan against the puppies in this female’s litter will result in the puppy being impregnated with an odour that appears to favour acceptance.

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From week 3, you can gradually get the puppies used to a growth food in the form of a lukewarm pap alongside the mother’s milk, production of which will begin to decline. Some puppies instinctively start to develop an interest in their mother’s own food, starting to lap and imitate her feeding behaviour.

Just like fledglings that are fed crop milk, some puppies demand maternal regurgitations at this stage.

Taken together, these observations show that it is time for weaning.

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