Joan illustrates how the puppies like to feed out of a baby bottle. The key to the puppies getting enough milk substitute is the bottle's juice nipple.

When Puppies Are Orphaned

Gun Dog Magazine(April/May, 1995)
By Carl H. Altenbernd

The joy you feel when a litter of puppies is born can turn to heartache when the mother dies due to the stress and complexities of giving birth- or becomes too sick to care for her litter. It can happen to any dog. It happened to one of mine after fifteen years' experience with healthy litters.

Our four-year-old black Lab became lethargic and was not eating on the twelfth day after giving birth to a dozen puppies. Her condition did not change for 24 hours. Normally, a bitch will eat three to four times her typical daily food intake to get enough nutrition and to develop milk for the puppies. A new mother that's not eating is the first sign that something may be wrong.

A veterinarian identified the problem as an inflammation of the breast, commonly referred to as mastoiditis. Mastoiditis creates an infection in the breast gland area. Under the worst case scenario, the infection can be transferred to the pups through the milk. As the infection develops in the dog, a breast can swell to the size of a softball and feel like a hard, textured gland. Besides the swelling and the dog not eating, another sign is elevated temperature. Any temperature above 103 degrees should be of concern (101.5 degrees is normal).

According to my vet, mastoiditis is quite common in dogs. Treatment includes various dosages of antibiotics and application of hot packs on the infected breast. A microwave and a couple of wet wash towels make applying hot packs an easier chore during treatment. The hot packs are usually applied two times a day for ten to fifteen minutes.

My dog's case was too advanced for the hot packs to work. To clear up the infection, my vet suggested taking the pups off the mother's milk. Thus, we found ourselves responsible for filling the hungry mouths of twelve two-week-old "orphaned" Lab puppies.

Twelve puppies in two large boxes with a newspaper floor covering and a heat lamp make for a comfortable home.

My first step was to gather what little information was available on feeding puppies by hand. I talked to my vet, did research in the local libraries, and phoned several kennels. Then we moved the pups from their heated whelping box in the shop to our house, primarily to make their frequent feedings a little more convenient.

Puppies need a clean, warm, draft-free area. The air temperature in the puppies' immediate area should be 85 to 90 degrees F. for the first week and between 75 and 80 degrees for the next three to four weeks. Two large boxes, a thick newspaper floor covering, and a heat lamp installed over the boxes makes a nice home. Use an outdoor thermometer to monitor the boxes' temperature. Adjust the height of the lamp to achieve the proper temperature. Be sure to use a red bulb in your heat lamp; a white heat lamp bulb may damage the eyes of newborn puppies.

Feeding the puppies is the hard part, although the pet food industry has developed several milk replacers (with instructions) that match the nutritional composition of mother's milk. Pups can be fed by bottle or stomach tube. Stomach-tube feeding is fast and handy with large litters but can be trick, so consult your vet before attempting to feed by this method. I used the bottle feeding method because I felt the physical contact would help socialize the puppies.

Newborn puppies need five to six daily feedings. At two weeks of age, four bottle feedings are sufficient. Finding the right type of bottle and nipple is tricky. I found that plain baby bottles (without the sacks) and a baby juice nipple worked best for our litter of twelve. It is important to mark the sides of the bottle with a black marker to make it easier to monitor puppy intake.

Use the following table to determine the daily calorie requirements for pups under four weeks of age:

Puppy Calorie Requirements


of body weight daily*



*Milk substitutes contain around 1 calorie per ml.
Source: Valley Veterinarian Hospital,
Fargo, ND 1994.

For example, a five-ounce puppy at two weeks of age needs four daily feedings. The puppy requires 4.5 calories per ounce of body weight. 4.5 calories times 5 ounces of pup equals 22.5 calories in one day. You are feeding four times a day. Therefore, 22.5 divided by 4 equals 5.63 calories at each feeding. Your milk substitute contains 1 calorie per ml, thus the feeding is 5.63 ml or about 6 ml at each feeding.

To weigh your puppy, get a postage meter or rig up a harness and weigh the puppy on your fish scale. As a general rule, frequent crying or failure to gain weight indicates a problem. A pup's weight should double in eight to ten days. Do not overfeed and weigh each pup every other day.

You will find the task of bottle feeding a litter of puppies to be incredibly time-consuming. Until we figured out the right bottle and nipple combination, it took us one and a half hours each feeding for a litter of twelve puppies. After making adjustments, we learned to cut each feeding to thirty minutes.

Baby-milk formula or homogenized milk, eggs, cooking oil and vitamins can
be substituted for the costly commercial milk replacers.


The problem with the commercial milk substitutes is their cost. My vet suggested that I mix a formula of one cup of homogenized milk, three egg yolks, one teaspoon cooking oil and a small dose of general vitamins. Using this mixture, my pups achieved excellent weight gain and felt content. I recommend mixing up a two-day batch of formula and storing it in the refrigerator. A microwave is used to heat the bottles to room temperature prior to each feeding.

Puppies need help when it comes to urinating and defecating. After each feeding gently stroke the genital area of the pup with a tissue dipped in warm water.

The final step is to wean the pups at three to four weeks of age. Weaning is the gradual changeover in the pup's diet from milk replacer to solid food. To start, give milk substitutes to the pups in a small pan. During the first few feedings, you will find more milk on the pups than in them. As the puppies learn to lap up the pan milk, gradually substitute a quality moist puppy food for some of the milk. Eventually, you will be feeding the pups a mixture that contains more moist puppy food than milk substitute. After the puppies grow teeth, switch to a dry puppy food, making sure that a dish of fresh water is available in the whelping box at all times.

This story has a happy ending. All twelve puppies not only survived the loss of their mother's teat, each one grew into a healthy, well-socialized dog.

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