Good nutrition is never more important than during pregnancy and nursing. Pregnancy has a significant effect on the nutritional requirements of a mum-to-be. The production of milk is one of the most nutritionally demanding activities in a dog’s life. Like puppies, pregnant or nursing bitches need an extra boost of protein and energy to help them through this period of physical stress.
A basic adult-formula dog food won't provide the extra nutrients your dog requires, particularly if she has a large litter of puppies. The ideal solution is to switch her back to a high-quality, commercially manufactured puppy formula, from immediately before mating until some weeks after birth, depending on body condition and any medical problems. Puppy foods are richer in key nutrients, have a higher energy value and are more easily digestible; supporting her through all stages of the breeding cycle. Select a puppy food, wet or dry, appropriate to your dog’s breed and size. If your dog prefers wet food, it may be advisable to mix some dry food into her meals to reduce the volume of food required, as dry food contains more calories per gram than wet food. Always ensure a fresh bowl of drinking water is available and consult your vet to discuss feeding options during this important time.
As with the transition to any new food, moving to a different formula should be done on a gradual basis. Progressively substitute a little of the new food for the old over a period of about a week, until your pet is eating only the new food. As long as mum is on a complete diet, any further supplements will be unnecessary.
Changes in appetite
Gestation in dogs takes approximately 9 weeks. Pregnancy can be confirmed by your vet from 4 weeks after mating by physical examination, but earlier using ultrasound. Up to week 5 the foetuses grow little, and there is no need to increase the amount you feed above pre-mating levels (depending on body condition). Between weeks 3 and 4, your bitch may lose her appetite and suffer from a little nausea, similar to morning sickness. If she suffers an upset stomach, loss of appetite, or seems at all listless or unwell, you should contact your vet. From week 5 onwards an expectant mother’s requirements to nourish herself and the developing litter will gradually increase. For a dog with a typical litter of up to 4 puppies, food intake should be increased by up to 5% per week so that by 9 weeks her rations will be 20-30 % above pre-mating requirements. Her weight will then be about 25% higher than before mating (more for larger litters).
Most of this weight gain is due to the development of the unborn puppies and placenta. Carefully measured portion control is advisable to avoid unwanted extra weight gain. In the later stages of her pregnancy there will also be less room in her stomach for food, so feed little and often. Obesity can cause problems during pregnancy and labour, so ensure your bitch is at her ideal body weight before mating, and contact your vet if you are concerned she is gaining too much weight or she has a history of being overweight.
A certain loss of appetite can occur before delivery, although food and water should still be available. However, if your bitch appears at all unwell, distressed or you have any other worries at this time, consult your vet.
Feeding during nursing
For dogs, the nursing period lasts a minimum of 6 weeks, with the first solid foods introduced to the puppies by 4 weeks at the latest, and weaning usually completed by 8 weeks. Nursing a newborn litter is one of the most nutritionally demanding tasks in a mother’s life. Puppies grow extremely rapidly, requiring a huge volume of milk from the bitch. Relative to their size bitches match the volume of milk produced by a cow and exceed that of women. Milk production increases week by week to peak lactation at 4 weeks after the birth, when it is 50% higher than in the first week.
Naturally, nursing bitches require the highest quality nutrition to provide the energy to help them through this period of physical stress, and ensure the quality and quantity of their milk. Therefore, as during pregnancy, it is advisable to continue feeding a high-quality puppy food throughout nursing, depending on body condition and any medical problems, as the additional calories and higher levels of other key nutrients are just what she needs. If you are unsure what to feed your bitch during this important time, consult your veterinary practice for advice.
How much and how often
The amount of food your dog will need while nursing depends on her individual metabolism and the number of puppies she is suckling. Calculate based roughly on an extra 25% for the basic maternal activities of nursing, plus an extra 25% per puppy. This may vary with breed and activity levels. For energetic breeds feeding requirements will be more than double pre-mating needs. Typically, while maintaining the quantity of food offered at each meal, increase the number of meals served during the day to three, and then four at peak lactation. If your bitch is nursing a large litter, it may be necessary to give her free access to food on a continuous basis. If she has only one or two puppies, meal feeding may be preferable, with a close eye kept on her body condition to ensure she neither gains excess weight, nor loses body condition during this important time. If you have any concerns about your nursing bitch, consult your vet.
If the litter is large it may be necessary to provide a more concentrated energy source such as a complete dry puppy food, even if the mother is normally fed only wet food. Introduce the dry food gradually, over 7-10 days, to avoid stomach upsets. If feeding dry food, it may be beneficial to moisten the dry food in later lactation to encourage the pups to take an interest in their mother’s solid food. Plenty of water should always be available. Seek veterinary advice if your bitch has a large litter as it is important to ensure each puppy is receiving adequate milk.
From six to eight weeks after birth a gradual weaning transition should see the mother reducing, then stopping, her milk production. Her food intake can be reduced, gradually, over the same period, back to pre-pregnancy levels depending on her body condition.
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