Newborn Puppies: Be Ready For When She Whelps

Under ideal circumstances, once your pregnant dog has whelped her litter, she would take over and assume full care of her newborn puppies until they are weaned and have mastered the basics of bladder control.

But even among wild dogs, it is common for the greater pack to pitch in to help her rear her puppies. After all, the larger her litter is, the more fatiguing it is to take care of all those puppies all on her own. Your dog giving birth is a lot of work for her and you can take steps to help her energy stay high.

All that to say, it can be a very wise idea to learn how to care for newborn puppies before whelping day arrives, and that’s what we’re going to cover here.

An x-ray before whelping,
taken at 54 days.

Average Gestation Period for Dogs

You are probably reading this post right now because your dog has become pregnant. If this is your very first time supporting your pet through dog pregnancy, you probably have all kinds of questions!

We get asked a lot about how long dogs stay pregnant and the timing really does vary. The timing of your dogs giving birth is often miscalculated because it is based on ovulation date, not breeding date.The more answers you can gather in advance, the better prepared you will be on whelping day.

The average dog gestation period can range from 58 to 68 days. The actual day of your dog giving birth can vary based on her age, weight, health, size, breed and at what point in the estrus cycle she mated.

While there is no precise way to identify the actual “day of” in advance, your vet can assist you with narrowing down the date range. Doing progesterone testing throughout your dog’s heat cycle can aid in narrowing this down. As well, there are some behavior changes and signs you can look for to indicate puppies may be on their way.

Your vet can also help to determine the number of puppies in your dog’s litter through an x-ray, which can help you decide on the size of the whelping box and surrounding den, the amount of supplies you will need and other important preparations.

Post Whelp Newborn Puppy Care

Ifyou haven’t participated in the process of dogs giving birth in the past, you may not know that newborn puppies are born deaf and blind. With eyes and ears not yet opened, no teeth and an inability to retain their own body heat, they rely solely on their sense of smell (which is also not very well developed yet) and the warmth of their mother to survive.

Clearly, whelping day and the first several days thereafter can be a scary time to be a puppy!

Happily, you can ease the challenges your dog’s newborn puppies will face by preparing in advance to make sure all of their basic needs are met.

Anewborn puppy, like a newborn human baby, needs protection, a warm and draft-free environment plus near-immediate nourishment. Under ideal circumstances, your dog would provide all of this and all you would have to do is sit back and watch (and take lots of cute pictures to share on social media).

Your dog needs care herself after the puppies are born. She may develop one of the common health issues that can arise following whelping. Or she may be so wiped out she has little energy left on whelping day to feed and care for her own puppies too.

Track Your Newborn Puppies

When your dog’s puppies are first whelped, they may all look exactly the same to you (which is why many breeders tie different colored ribbons around each puppy’s neck to identify them in their notes).

The ability to tell one puppy from another can be important as you monitor each puppy’s progress and health in the days to come, and especially if you are serving as a surrogate mama to your dog’s puppies. It is very important to have puppy collars ready; we take vigorous notes on the puppies weight and development.

We use puppy id collars
for every litter. Have them in advance.

There are some fairly universal signs of a healthy puppy, including these:

 

  • Regular eager feeding (look for an average of every 2 hours).
  • Regular elimination upon proper stimulation (urine and feces).
  • Urine should be clear or pale yellow.
  • Feces should be brown and partly formed but not hard.
  • A shiny coat.
  • Plumpness.
  • Body warmth.
  • A relatively calm demeanor (i.e. free from excessive crying, whining, whimpering).
  • Energy and vigor (once the puppy’s eyes and ears have opened).
  • Steady weight increase (from day 2 onward).
  • Weight should nearly double in the first 10 days.

You Need a Whelping Box

In month 2 of the dog gestation period, and at least a week before you anticipate having newborn puppies, your dog will need to have access to her whelping box. She will want to follow her instinct to den and it is important that you offer this to her.

At first, she may not be keen to go into the unfamiliar box (especially if this is her first time being a mama), so you may need to give her a bit of encouragement in the form of a favorite toy or treat placed in the box. You can even get in the whelping box with her if need be.

Your dog will want a place to
feel safe and secure. You should
definitely have a whelping box.

But as she gets closer and closer to her delivery date, she will likely seek out the whelping box because of the increase in her instinctual urge to “nest.” As part of this nesting instinct, she will likely crave shredding things such as newspapers and puppy pads. She will want to shred these to line her nest with (just as she would prepare in the wild by digging a private, secluded burrow, hole or hollow and filling it with soft dirt or grasses). You might notice her digging at the floor of the whelping box. Not to worry, she is simply following her natural desire to dig.
 

Get The Whelping Box Ready In Advance

 

  • Lay down a large plastic tarp (this is to protect your floor as well as make it easier to spot-check and clean up after the puppies).
  • Place the whelping box on top of the tarp in the most quiet, private, warm and draft-free corner of the space.
  • Use a gate or barrier to cordon off the whelping area from the rest of the space if needed/possible.
  • Place a waterproof heating pad under the whelping box and secure the cord so neither the mother dog nor her puppies can gain access to it.
  • Have a sheet or light blanket on hand to drape over the whelping box for more of a natural cave-like feel.
  • Keep a small space heater in the room to assist you in making sure it is warm enough.

Newborn Puppy Timeline

Here is a timeline you can use for general information only. This is intended as a guide based on our experience and should not replace receiving information from a licensed veterinarian:

Whelping day: Puppies are born blind, deaf and toothless. So it is easy to see why their instinct to seek out the mother’s warmth and protection and to feed is very strong!

Whelping day to 3 weeks: The puppies will sleep most of the time unless they are feeding or doing their business. It is normal for the newborn puppies to jerk and twitch while sleeping – this helps their nervous system and motor control system to develop properly. Since the puppies cannot eliminate waste on their own yet, the mother dog will lick the puppies on their undersides before and after feeding to stimulate elimination.

Weeks 2 to 4: The puppies’ baby teeth will begin to appear. Your vet may begin their de-worming treatments as early as Week 2.

Weeks 3 to 8: At some point during weeks 3 or 4, the puppies’ eyes and ears will finally open and their sense of smell will become much keener. They will start crawling first, and then they will begin learning to walk. They will also begin to socialize and the mother dog will begin teaching them discipline and pack social skills.

Week 4: Most puppies will begin eating some soft solid food in addition to nursing.

Weeks 5 to 7: For puppies living in areas that are considered high risk for parvo virus, some vets give that vaccination early at 5 weeks. Consult with your vet about the best course of action here. Vets also typically do health checkups on the developing puppies during weeks 7 and 8. You should have your newborn puppies get their legally required vaccinations by week 8.

Week 8: Week 8 is a common week to begin housebreaking training because the puppies are beginning to develop more advanced motor skills. Week 8 is also when most puppies enter a short period of insecurity around everything and everyone, making it a great week to begin pairing puppies with their new human owners (to encourage the bond). Your vet may begin heartworm treatments during Week 8, likely depending on where you live.

Weeks 12 to 24: Many breeders call these weeks the “Chewing Weeks.” During this time period, the puppies will begin the process of replacing their sharp baby teeth with their permanent adult teeth. Just like human babies, their gums and mouths can feel raw and sore throughout this process and they will want to chew to relieve the discomfort. Obedience training during this period will necessarily focus heavily on teaching the puppies what can be safely and appropriately chewed and what is off-limits.

Weeks 24 to 48+: During these weeks, which breeders often dub “The Teen Dog Years,” the puppies will begin to really gain confidence, and may begin testing boundaries with their new human owners. These are also critical weeks for socialization so the puppies can continue to learn pack social skills.

Whelping Problems To Look For

If you see any of these warning signs (or anything else that gives you cause for concern) be sure to contact your vet immediately. If necessary, you may need to quarantine that puppy away from its siblings to give it special care.
 

  • Frenetic energy followed by weakness.
  • Excessive whimpering, whining or crying.
  • Poor motor skills and muscle tone.
  • Lackluster and limp when handled.
  • Excessive sleeping after the eyes and ears have opened.
  • Lack of appetite.
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea.
  • Pale gums and mouth area.
  • Not eliminating.
  • Discharge and/or swelling from the eyes, nose.
  • Wheezing, coughing or visible difficulty with breathing.
  • Green feces = infection; hard feces = not enough food.
  • Dark yellow or orange urine = not enough food.

We have milk replacer
on hand before each whelp

Milk Replacer for Newborn Puppies

It goes without saying that the mother dog’s own milk is by far the best nourishment for newborn puppies.

But sometimes, through circumstances beyond anyone’s control, the mother dog is not able to nurse her puppies herself.

If this occurs, it is very important to feed the newborn puppies a milk substitute that is safe for puppies. We have always used Esbilac Milk Powder for Puppies.

Tube Feeding Newborn Puppies

For newborn puppies, tube feeding is occasionally necessary to turn to. It is easier to ensure the right amount of milk substitute is ingested and it satisfies the deep newborn instinct to suck. However, tube feeding is also more dangerous than bottle feeding. It requires use of a catheter appropriately sized for the puppy.

Your vet should teach you how to use the catheter to tube feed puppies before you attempt it on your own. Since you may not know in advance if you will need to feed the puppies yourself, it can be a good idea to have your vet help you select the right sized catheter and teach you the technique before whelping day.

After each feeding, you will need to watch carefully to ensure the puppies do not vomit up their food. If they do and it happens continually, immediately contact your vet.

You will also need to manually stimulate the puppies to eliminate just as the mother would do. You can use a warm wet cotton ball or very soft towel over each puppy’s genital area. 1 to 2 minutes should be sufficient to prompt elimination. You can try doing this before and after feedings to see how the puppies respond best.

NOTE: If for any reason your vet is not available to teach you how to tube feed in an emergency, do NOT attempt it on your own! It can cause aspiration by improper tube placement or stomach wall injury by too harsh insertion, either of which can be fatal. Rather, use a bottle fitted with an appropriately sized nipple instead.

Have bottles ready
before you find out you need them.

Bottle Feeding Newborn Puppies

Bottle feeding is less efficient for newborn puppies, but if you have not been trained to tube feed, it is by far the safer and more reliable choice.

You can use a small bottle fitted with a soft nipple and heat the milk substitute to between 98 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit in a small pan of water before serving.

As with tube feeding, you will need to burp each puppy after feeding to prevent aspiration of the meal.

Here again, you will also need to wipe each puppy’s genital area with a warm wet cotton ball or very soft towel to stimulate elimination. Try doing this both before and after feedings to see what is most effective.

Transitioning Newborn Puppies to Dry Dog Food

By Week 6, the puppies should be largely transitioned away from the milk substitute and eating dry puppy kibble. Ask your vet for guidance on the best type of kibble to offer.

It is very important to feed a kibble that is specifically formulated for puppy nutrition. This is because the nutritional balance is different than it is for adult dogs. Puppy kibble will include about one-third protein plus extra vitamins and minerals to nourish a fast-growing young dog.

There are 3 different formulations of puppy food: dry, semi-moist and moist.

Dry kibble is the least likely to cause cavities and its hardness and crunch will help ease the incessant chewing instinct when the puppies begin teething.

However, when transitioning from milk substitute to kibble, it can be helpful to mix dry kibble with moist dog food, since it is mostly water and thus is easier to digest and get used to. Or you could opt to feed a semi-moist food temporarily as your puppies transition to dry food. Another option is to mix a bit of thawed canned meat, cottage cheese or cooked eggs in with the dry kibble to make it a bit softer and richer in protein.

Many vets recommend feeding a bit of yogurt with live and active yogurt cultures twice per week to ensure the puppies’ digestion is in optimal health.

You can ask your vet about feeding yogurt and also ask for recommendations on the best puppy kibble/food combination to offer.

It is always best not to feed any puppy-safe “people food” treats until after your puppy has fully transitioned to dry food and is eating well. It will also be important during this rapid growth phase to monitor the puppies to ensure they do not gain too much weight! You can feel for the rib cage in between vet visits and keep a weekly weight gain record for each puppy as guided by your vet.

A Few Final Thoughts

Just as with human babies, a lack of physical contact can contribute to a failure to thrive and/or a failure to become well socialized as an adult.

So even if you notice the puppies cuddling close to one another, in your role as the surrogate mama dog, you should still spend some time cuddling with each puppy individually. Before and after each feeding is often a good time to do this.

By Weeks 5 and 6, you can also include other people and pets in the socialization process, but only under direct supervision. You can also begin to expose the puppies to different noises, to gentle grooming, to interesting suitable puppy-safe toys and to new environments (such as the common areas of your home). This will be very helpful for the puppies to develop the ability to feel safe and secure in new places.

By gently cuddling, patting and speaking lovingly to the puppies and exposing them to new mental and physical experiences at the appropriate times, you will help each puppy grow up into well socialized, loving and trusting adult dog.

In all of this, no matter how steep the learning curve may seem, remember you are not alone. Your vet can provide support, guidance and timely medical care. The internet contains a wealth of whelping information such as what you are reading now.

But best of all, your own dog is the ultimate authority on what puppies need on whelping day and thereafter. By learning what your breed of dog naturally does and studying up on puppy care, puppy food and growth benchmarks, you will be able to give your dog what she would never receive in the wild – knowledgeable and loving assistance on whelping day and a ready surrogate if emergency strikes.