Breeding and Rearing Puppies

By Dr Joanna De Klerk

Hands up who loves puppies! Of course, we all do! So, it might seem tempting to allow your beloved female dog to bring a litter of pups into this world. However, the decision to breed puppies should not be taken lightly. There are more puppies being born in the world than loving homes available, and due to many dogs ending up in rescue centres, it is not a responsible decision to breed your dog just for fun. 

We do not agree with ‘Puppy Farms’ or the breeding of puppies for profit. Please consider adopting or rehoming a dog from a shelter. This guide exists to inform you how to breed safely in the event you have no alternative.

Breeding and rearing puppies requires extensive knowledge, finances, time and effort. Contrary to popular belief, producing puppies will also not make you lots of money. To ensure you are contributing to bettering the genetics of your dog’s breed, considerable investment needs to be made into selecting a top-quality sire, carrying out extensive genetic testing prior to mating, and providing excellent health care and nutrition while your girly is pregnant. Not to mention, if your dog needs a caesarean section to deliver the puppies, that can cost thousands of pounds (and pet insurances won’t cover it)!

So, you might want to think twice before taking the plunge. But if your girl is already in pup and you have no other choice, or you’re genuinely keen to make the investment into breeding high-quality puppies to improve a breed’s gene pool, then this article is for you. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive source of information on the topic in such a short space, but below we will discuss an overview of everything you need to know about breeding and rearing puppies.

Pregnancy

So, first things first, your mum-to-be will obviously need to conceive to have a litter of puppies, and finding a suitable mate is extremely important. Different dog breeds will have different genetic health ailments, so do your research and ensure that the chosen sire is free from genetic diseases (as well as testing that your dog is also free from these diseases). Also, consider the size of the sire, and what sort of size puppies he has fathered in the past, as if your female is too small for him, she might struggle to give birth naturally.

Mating can be performed by natural covering or artificial insemination during a narrow window in your dog’s reproductive cycle, known as when she is ‘in season’. She should not be mated on her first season, as her body is still growing, and neither should she be mated if she is over five years old or had five litters already in her lifetime. 

Once pregnant, there are some fundamental health considerations you should make regarding her lifestyle, to ensure both she and the puppies stay healthy.

Nutrition

Your pregnant dog should be gradually transitioned from her normal food onto a puppy food over the first few weeks of her pregnancy. This puppy food must be of extremely high quality, as it will be the food she stays on for the remainder of her pregnancy, while she is lactating, and it will be the first solid food for the puppies.

A puppy food is high in energy, protein, calcium and phosphorus for growing puppies, developing bones and producing milk. All things which are extremely important for your girly and her babies. 

You should never make a homemade diet for your pregnant dog or her puppies, as it increases the chances that you’ll end up with a malnourished mother and a litter full of puppies with bone developmental abnormalities. You will probably hear many traditional breeders talk extremely passionately about home-prepared raw feeding. Don’t be tempted to jump on the bandwagon. It does not provide the nutrition that your dog and her puppies need.

Exercise

Exercising your pregnant dog is important to ensure she remains healthy and fit. Just because she’s carrying puppies, doesn’t mean she should immediately stop all physical activity. However, you should limit is extremely strenuous exercise, and excessive jumping or activities where she could get hurt.

Your girly will appreciate you considering how she might be feeling towards the end of her pregnancy, carrying around multiple, heavy, wriggly puppies. She probably will want to rest more than usual and that is fine. When she reaches that stage, you can gently take her out for lead walks, as far as she wants to go (which might not be very far). It’s best just to let her take the pace.  

What to Expect as Pregnancy Progresses?

A dog is pregnant for around 63 days (or two months), but your vet will only be able to confirm that your girl is pregnant halfway through her gestation, at about 28 to 35 days. It’s impossible to confirm with an ultrasound exactly how many puppies there are, or their gender, so that will always be a surprise!

During the course of pregnancy, you’ll start to notice her belly developing, and during the last couple of weeks, might even see puppies wriggling around. Towards the end, her teats will begin to enlarge, and you might even see a little drip of milk just before she’s about to pop.

This time between the scan and the birth is an ideal time to prepare for the puppies. Make sure you read and learn everything you can about giving birth and caring for puppies, as it is not always as simple as leaving the mother to it. This is the time to also prepare where the puppies will be delivered as well as prepare for their and their mother’s healthcare.

Finally, the time has come when there is a drop in rectal temperature from around 37.5-38.8 degrees Celsius to under 37 degrees Celsius. This means the puppies are on their way within the next 24 hours!

Whelping

Whelping is the official term for giving birth. Most dogs have a natural instinct how to do this, but keep a close eye on her, without disturbing her.

Where to Give Birth

Before she gives birth, you should have already prepared a whelping box for her. This is a safe and hygienic place for her to have her puppies. 

It should be around 1 metre-squared with 30cm high walls. A box with no base is a good option, as it is the most hygienic. This can then be placed onto newspaper, which can be easily removed and replaced when soiled.

The Whelping Process

When your dog gives birth, she will give birth to one puppy at a time. Each puppy comes out covered with their amniotic sac around them, which the mother will pull open and lick away the fluid once the puppy comes out. This is really important as it ensures the puppy becomes dry and warm, as well as encourage it to breathe. Some owners like to step in and rub down new puppies with a dry towel, but this is only necessary if your dog is not showing very good instincts.

Puppies can be born with quite a bit of time in between them, and your dog might have a rest of 30 minutes to even an hour at some point, before pushing out more. However, there are certain things to watch out for in the whelping process, which can indicate that something is going wrong and you should take your dog to the vet immediately.

Signs to Watch Out For

Problems during the whelping process are an emergency. You should bundle up your dog and any born pups, and take them immediately to your vet if you notice any of the following signs:

  • Her temperature has dropped, and it has been over 24 hours with no signs of a pup.
  • She is showing visible signs of labour, but it has been two hours and no further puppy has been born.
  • There is green or black discharge from her vulva.
  • There is excessive fresh blood from her vulva.
  • She is no longer showing signs of straining, but you know there are more puppies inside (for example, she has had an x-ray to count the puppies before birth, or only one has been delivered but there were multiple puppies visible on her scan).

Aftercare for the Mother

After all the puppies have been delivered, your dog is likely to need to go out to the toilet to relieve herself. Once finished, allow her a little time to bond with her puppies and rest. You will probably need to change the newspaper in the whelping box, as this will be covered in birthing fluid, and might make the puppies wet, dirty and cold.

In the morning (if your girly has given birth in the night), or a few hours later, take her to give her a warm sponge bath to clean her up. You’ll probably notice some light discharge from her vulva, and this is normal after giving birth. It might go on for a week or so, so you’ll have to check she is keeping herself and her puppies clean.

Once your dog has settled into her new role of being a mother, and the puppies have all suckled well and are content, take them and your dog to your local vet for a check over. This should be in the first week of life. Your vet will check all the puppies for developmental abnormalities, such as hernias, cleft palates and heart murmurs, and they will check your dog’s general health and milk production.

Raising Puppies

If your dog is a natural mother, then your job becomes much easier. But unfortunately, many first-time mums find raising puppies stressful, and you might find you need to step in. Luckily, raising puppies is the fun bit (once you’ve got over the sleep deprivation!). There are many things you need to consider when raising a puppy:

Bottle-Feeding

If the mum is not letting the puppies suckle, you’ll have to bottle feed them with a milk replacer. It is important to use a puppy milk replacer. There are many homemade recipes out there, but don’t be tempted to use them. They will not give your puppies suitable nourishment. Puppy milk replacer can be bought from your local veterinary practice and is easy to use. Much like baby formula, you simply mix it with water. Be sure to stick to the instructions though, as mixing it incorrectly might give your puppy diarrhoea.

It’s best to follow the instructions on the packet regarding the frequency of feeding, but on average puppies under one week old need to be fed six times a day, or every four hours day and night. When they are two weeks old this feeding routine can be reduced to four meals a day or every six hours. 

You will need to use either a syringe or a puppy feeding bottle. But by the time the puppies are about three weeks old, they may be fed by lapping the milk replacer from a bowl.

Weaning

Weaning is the process of moving puppies from their mother’s milk onto puppy food, so that they are ready to leave their mum and go to their new homes.

Around three weeks old, puppies can start lapping up soaked puppy food mash from a bowl. You don’t need individual bowls for each puppy. Just a couple of shallow dishes is fine, as the competition with the other puppies will make them excited and encourage them to eat. This puppy food should be the same as what your dog is eating, so the puppies can also nibble on your dog’s food if they are interested.

Weaning is a gradual process, and the puppies won’t immediately stop drinking from their mother. However, by about six weeks old, they should be eating the puppy food exclusively.

In the beginning, the puppies will need four or five meals of soaked puppy food per day. By the time they are eight weeks old, this should have gradually been changed to less soaked, or even hard puppy food, and feeding three to four times a day. 

Deworming

Puppies are very prone to picking up intestinal worms from their mother and their environment. Therefore, regular deworming is an integral part of puppy care. Both your dog and the puppies should be dewormed every two weeks, at two, four, six and eight weeks old. They can then be dewormed every four weeks until they are six months old. This you’ll need to tell the new owners about.

There are many options available in liquid or granular form, but make sure to select one which is safe for puppies.

Microchipping

In the UK, it is a legal requirement for all dogs to be microchipped by eight weeks of age. It is your responsibility as the breeder to microchip the puppies (or have them microchipped by your vet), and you should be the first recorded keeper on the microchip database. When you sell a puppy, the new owner can pay a small administration fee to change the contact details on the system.

Vaccines

Puppy vaccinations usually have their first vaccine between six and eight weeks, and responsible breeders will make sure the puppies have had their first vaccination before they go to their new homes.

You will need to give the new owner the vaccine record, so they can continue with the puppy’s primary course of vaccinations, which will usually require another one or two vaccines over the following month, depending on the vaccine brand and vet’s vaccination protocol.

New Homes

As the breeder of the puppies, it falls on your shoulders to ensure that all the puppies go to responsible and knowledgeable homes. Don’t be afraid to ask potential buyers questions about their home and experience with dogs. Likewise, be prepared for them to ask you plenty of questions, as it is a sign that they are serious and keen. If you don’t feel comfortable with a potential home, don’t be afraid to say no.

You can allow potential buyers to visit the puppies from a few weeks old and reserve a particular puppy on receipt of a deposit. Experienced breeders usually learn the puppies’ personalities and help match the right puppy to the right home. Puppies can go to their new homes between eight and twelve weeks old. 

Take Home Message

Breeding and rearing puppies is a great responsibility and requires plenty of knowledge and dedication. It certainly won’t make you rich, but it can be incredibly rewarding to know you are contributing to bettering the genetics of your dog’s breed. Not only that, puppies are a bundle of joy and are sure to bring plenty of fun into your house as they are growing up.

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