How Long Do Puppies Nurse

Picture of a puppy in bed

In order to grow properly, newborn puppies must nurse. The initial 24 hours after puppies are born is a critical time when puppies gain maternal antibodies that help to provide a measure of protection against disease in addition to the nutrients they require to grow. Sometimes, a mother will be unable to nurse her young, and when this occurs, breeders must assist with feedings or find a surrogate mother to provide the milk their puppies need. If you’ve ever wondered how long puppies need to nurse, read on to learn more in the following article.

What is the Role of the Breeder in Puppies Nursing?

Most mothers are born with natural instincts that guide the nurture, care, and feeding of their puppies. Because of this, it is best for the breeder to trust a mother dog to do her job. To ensure a mother dog has adequate milk production, she requires the following items:

  • Access to a plentiful supply of drinking water
  • A high quality, nutritionally balanced diet
  • A warm whelping environment

Sometimes, a litter may be too large for a mother dog to feed on her own or the mother may not be able to produce milk. When this occurs, it is necessary for the breeder to step in and provide assistance. This situation is less than ideal but can be accomplished when needed through the breeder assuming the role of bottle feeding, cleaning, and burping the litter themselves. During the initial weeks of life, feedings occur every few hours, making this a monumental task for the breeder to tackle on their own.

At What Age Do Puppies Start Nursing?

Immediately following whelping, the mother dog will clean her puppy and sever the umbilical cord connecting her pup to her. Since puppies are born blind, deaf, unable to walk, and also unable to regulate their own body temperature, they need to remain close to their mother both for food and for warmth. 

Once the puppy has been cleaned and its mother has stimulated the puppy to relieve itself of any bodily fluids and fecal matter, the puppy will immediately look for the warmth of their mother’s body and the nourishment she provides. If cold or hungry, the puppy will cry.

During the initial 24 hours after whelping, the mother dog produces colostrum, a  thick milk supply that is filled with maternal antibodies that provide the only protection baby puppies have against disease until they are old enough to receive their first vaccinations. Without receiving this colostrum during this time frame, baby puppies are left completely defenseless. For this reason, puppies nursing immediately following their whelping is critical to their ongoing health, development, and protection.

In some cases, the mother dog may still have other puppies to whelp. When in active labor, she cannot continue to nurse her pups. Most breeders keep a warming box or a heating pad they can place their puppies on to keep them warm when their mother is mid-whelp.

Interestingly enough, though newborn puppies cannot see or hear, they intuitively know who their mother is. They are born with the instinct to seek out warmth and milk. When a puppy finds a teat, they latch on to it, and this action causes the mother’s milk to release. Nursing is the activity that causes a mother’s milk to continue to flow.

At What Age Do Puppies Cease Nursing?

Though puppies will nurse as long as their mother dog will allow; typically, their mother will discourage nursing when the puppies’ teeth come in (approximately 3-4 weeks of age.) Mothers most often begin this process when the puppies are 4 weeks of age. The move from nursing to mush, and ultimately, solid food, occurs on a very gradual basis. Moving at a slow pace accomplishes several different purposes which include:

  • Helping the mother’s milk supply to dry up
  • Transitioning puppies from liquid nourishment to semi-solids and finally to solid food

Weaning puppies is a very important step that helps pups to become prepared for life in their new homes. Since puppies must be able to eat solid food when they leave for their new families, most breeders aim to have their puppies fully transitioned to a diet of solid food alone by age 7 weeks.

The gradual shift from nursing to semi solid food is important for the continued health of the mother. The breeder will begin to introduce a puppy mush at age 3-4 weeks while still allowing the mother to nurse her puppies periodically. If a mother dog were to cease nursing immediately, the risk of her developing mastitis, a potentially life-threatening infection of the mammary gland, is quite high. In addition to this, the engorgement of the breast as a result of excess milk supply that is not being used can cause the mother dog great discomfort. By permitting periodic nursing but allowing the puppies to gain their primary nutrition from puppy mush, and later solid food, the mother dog’s body is able to adjust. Her milk production decreases from the lack of demand and eventually ceases altogether.

Puppy mush can be a commercially purchased diet of puppy mousse designed specifically to meet the needs of growing baby puppies or can simply be some puppy kibble that has been softened with goat’s milk, water, or puppy formula then pureed. As a general rule of thumb, puppies are ready to begin consuming some puppy mush as a part of their daily meals as early as three weeks of age.

How Frequently Do Puppies Nurse?

When first born, puppies typically require nutrition every two hours even throughout the night. As the puppies grow, the amount of time between feedings will increase with puppies able to go from 4-6 hours between feedings. 

Is There a Specific Feeding Schedule for Newborn Puppies?

Puppies will naturally gravitate to their mother’s teats when they are hungry, and thus, the breeder’s help is rarely required. However, if a mother dog is unable to nurse her pups, it is important to have an idea of how often neonatal puppies should be fed during these critical first weeks of life. As a general rule of thumb, puppies need to be fed 8 times daily during their first week of life with the second week decreasing to only 5 times per day. By weeks three and four, four feedings per day is ample to encourage appropriate growth and stave off hunger. By three weeks of age, a puppy’s milk teeth will break through the gumline, and nursing will become uncomfortable for the mother. Typically, by week four, the mother will begin the natural yet gradual process of weaning her puppies herself. 

How long do puppies nurse? The simple answer is as long as their mothers will allow it. For best results, assist the mother dog with the weaning process by introducing some puppy mush as early as 3-4 weeks of age. Puppies should be fully weaned by 7-8 weeks and onto solid food in preparation for the move to their new families.

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