Weaning Puppies: What to Do
Weaning is the gradual reduction of a puppy's dependency on his mother's milk and care.
When Is the Best Time To Wean a Litter of Puppies?
Whether puppies are orphaned or with their mothers, weaning can generally begin between three and four weeks of age, and is ideally completed by about seven to eight weeks of age. Although it's often unavoidable, especially in the case of orphaned dogs, it's preferable to allow weaning to be a gradual process that occurs over several weeks. Puppies need time to learn important behaviors from their mother and littermates, including how to interpret signs of dominance, inhibit their own biting habits and submit to more dominant dogs.
It is also preferable for the mother dog to slowly dry up her milk supply. Weaning can definitely be a stressful time for puppies and mother dogs and, whenever possible, should be a gradual and supervised process.
How Do I Wean a Litter of Puppies?
Start by separating the mother from her litter for a few hours at a time. While separated, introduce the puppies to eating from a pan. This time apart will reduce the pups' dependency on their mother's milk and overall presence. The amount of food and the frequency and length of separation can gradually be increased. As the puppies become independent and self-confident, they can spend more and more time away from their mother until they are completely weaned.
What Should I Feed Puppies During the Weaning Process?
During the weaning process, it's a good idea to feed puppies the same high-quality puppy food they'll eat throughout their growth period right from the start. Be sure to moisten the food with warm water to create a soupy gruel that's appealing to their sensitive palates.
For the first few feedings, pups may need encouragement to eat. For example, puppies may be allowed to lick gruel from a finger dipped into the pan. Most puppies will quickly learn to feed from the bowl. Always have fresh water available.
How Should I Care for the Mother During the Weaning Process?
To prevent the mother from overproducing milk, which can lead to painful, engorged mammary glands, it is important to observe a feeding and separation schedule both for her and the puppies. This should be discussed with your veterinarian to ensure that the puppies are receiving adequate nutrition, and that the mother's food intake is being adjusted properly when she is no longer nursing her litter.
What if the Puppies Are Orphans?
If you stumble across a litter of orphaned puppies or you're volunteering at a shelter, you can start the weaning process as early as three to four weeks of age. In conjunction with bottle-feeding, provide the wee ones with canine milk replacer in a shallow bowl. (If they hesitate to drink, dip your finger in the milk replacer and let them lick it, but never force their noses into the bowl.)
The puppies should soon be off the bottle and introduced to moistened dog food. If they enjoy their new gruel, you can complete the weaning process with regular dry or canned food as described above.
What Are Some Tips to Make the Weaning Process Go Smoother?
- Take your time. It can be frustrating if puppies don't immediately take to the transition, but be patient-periodic setbacks are normal!
- Keep the babies dry and warm. Weaning is a messy process, and puppies will often find themselves covered in milk or food. Wipe off any “leftovers” and move the puppies away from drafts.
- Remember, size does matter. It's okay to leave dry food out for small- or medium-sized dogs to peck as they wish, but it's important to control portions for larger dogs, who can suffer from bone or joint problems if they eat too much during this period of growth.
- Check with your veterinarian to be sure that the puppies are progressing normally.
The ASPCA Virtual Pet Behaviorist specializes in the resolution and management of pet behavior problems only. Please do not submit questions about medical problems here. Only licensed veterinarians can diagnose medical conditions. If you think that your pet is sick, injured or experiencing any kind of physical distress, please contact his veterinarian immediately. A delay in seeking proper veterinary care may worsen your pet's condition and put his life at risk.
If you are concerned about the cost of veterinary care, please read our resources on finding financial help.
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