By Lisa Freeman, DVM, Ph.D.



When a bitch is unable to provide milk, we have several options to help ensure that her puppies will grow into healthy, well-nourished dogs.

There are many reasons why an owner might have to hand-raise a puppy: The bitch may be ill or not producing adequate amounts of milk, or the puppies may have been abandoned. Whatever the reason, hand-rearing a puppy is an intensive endeavour, but it can be very rewarding. To be successful, it is important to know a little about what constitutes normal nutrition for newborn puppies.

The first nutrition all puppies require at birth is colostrum, the specialized milk produced by the bitch the first one to two days after whelping. Colostrum provides the puppy with protective antibodies, and it is extremely high in calories, protein and vitamins. Therefore, it is critical that a puppy nurse within the first 12 to 24 hours to obtain the important benefits of colostrum. After the short period of colostrum production, the puppy's caloric, protein, fat, vitamin, mineral and water requirements must be met by a steady supply of nutritionally balanced milk. Under normal circumstances, the puppy's requirements for all these nutrients are matched perfectly by the nutritional content of bitch's milk.

When the bitch cannot provide milk, it becomes our responsibility to provide it. There are a number of methods you can use. The most natural and least labour-intensive is to foster a puppy on another bitch who is currently producing milk. Unfortunately, foster mothers are rarely available. A second option is bottle-feeding. This method works well for vigorous puppies with a strong suckle reflex. Healthy, vigorous puppies will suck until they are full. Weaker or sick puppies usually will be unable to get enough milk this way. If the puppy cannot suck adequately, tube-feeding becomes necessary. Some people prefer tube-feeding because it is less time-consuming than bottle-feeding, especially if a whole litter has to be fed. If you choose to tube-feed, however, you must be careful not to overfeed. Remember that with this method it is you who is determines how much the puppy ingests, as opposed to bottle-feeding, where the puppy decides when it is full.

As previously mentioned, the ideal diet for puppies is bitch's milk, but this is usually not available in adequate quantities for hand-rearing. Therefore, the goal is to match bitch's milk as closely as possible in terms of protein, amino acids, fat, vitamins and minerals. In addition, the digestibility should be high (at least 90 percent). Although it is impossible to exactly match the nutritional quality of bitch's milk, many commercial milk replacers do come close. One advantage of commercial milk replacers is that the nutrient content is guaranteed. If you start with a brand that approximates bitch's milk, you can be assured that it will support growth. Nutritional content does vary widely, however, among the various commercial products. As an example, a puppy's dietary protein requirement is 7.5 percent (on an as-fed basis), while the protein content of commercial milk-replacers can range from 4.8 to 14.7 percent. Talk to your veterinarian or to a veterinary nutritionist for assistance in selecting the most appropriate milk-replacement product for your puppies.

Some owners prefer to use homemade milk replacers, but formulating a nutritionally balanced homemade milk-replacer is difficult. Bitch's milk contains high amounts of fat, low amounts of lactose and moderate amounts of protein. Cow's milk and goat's milk, on the other hand, are high in lactose and lower in protein and fat. Cow's milk and goat's milk are also lower in caloric density than bitch's milk. Although supplements can be added to cow's milk and goat's milk to make them more closely approximate bitch's milk, they will still be too high in lactose, which increases the risk of diarrhoea. Recipes for homemade milk replacers can be nutritionally unbalanced, some of them extremely so. As just one example, a puppy's dietary calcium requirement is 0.24 percent, whereas the percentages of calcium in published homemade recipes range from 0.09 to 0.29 percent. Again, it is wise to talk to your veterinarian or a veterinary nutritionist before deciding to use a homemade diet.

Monitoring Growth
Puppies usually double their weight in the first week and then gain 1 to 2 grams per pound of anticipated adult weight each day. (In other words, an Airedale puppy that is expected to weigh 50 pounds as an adult should gain approximately 50 to 100 grams per day as a puppy.) Puppies that are hand-reared may not grow quite as fast as nursing puppies, so you should not be too concerned if they fail to meet these expectations. 

Weigh the puppy daily for at least the first two weeks; monitor growth, and adjust the amount of milk replacer accordingly. After that, monitoring growth every three to four days is sufficient. A poor growth rate suggests that there is a problem either with the milk replacer, the amount being fed, or the method of feeding, or that there is an underlying problem with the puppy. Be sure to monitor the room temperature and humidity level, provide stimulation for elimination, keep the environment sanitary and ensure proper socialization. All of these actions are necessary if you wish to raise a happy, healthy puppy.

Sometimes hand-rearing will be complicated by problems such as vomiting, diarrhea, bloating or aspiration of food. If any of these occur, examine the following aspects of your feeding methods:

  1. Feeding position. The puppy should not overextend its head during feeding. This increases the risk of aspiration.

  2. Temperature of the food. Make sure that food is at body temperature when feeding. Cold food can cause vomiting, but food that is too hot can burn the puppy's mouth.

  3. Speed. Watch out for feeding too quickly. Rapid feeding by tube can cause vomiting or bloating. Infuse the milk over one to two minutes.

  4. Mixing the milk replacer. If the milk replacer is not mixed according to directions, it may be too concentrated (which can lead to vomiting, bloating and diarrhea), or too diluted (which means you will have to feed more to supply more calories).

  5. Total amount. Overfeeding can also cause problems. If there is resistance during tube-feeding, this usually means the stomach is full. Avoid overfeeding, especially at the beginning. If the puppy is not gaining adequate weight, you can always increase the amount you are feeding. This is easier than dealing with the consequences of overfeeding, such as vomiting, diarrhoea or aspiration. On the other hand, to avoid underfeeding you must make sure the puppy is gaining weight adequately, as discussed above.

  6. Hygiene. In order to prevent infections that can cause vomiting or diarrhoea, it is especially important for puppies to have a clean environment. Be sure to carefully wash all feeding equipment, mixing only enough replacer to last for 24 hours and refrigerating any unused quantities.

  7. Underlying problems. If you have double-checked all of the above, consider taking the puppy to your veterinarian to make sure there is not an underlying problem.

Feeding of a semisolid gruel, comprised of a good-quality commercial puppy food mixed with water, can be instituted at 3 to 4 weeks of age. Milk replacer, however, should continue in reduced amounts until 6 weeks to maintain adequate growth. Careful attention to the puppy's diet and growth rate during these first six weeks will get it off to a good start on the road to becoming a healthy, well-nourished dog.

By Lisa Freeman, DVM, Ph.D. 
Lisa M. Freeman is a veterinary clinical nutritionist at Tufts University. 



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