How to Tell if a Dog Is Producing Milk for Her Puppies?

Picture of a mother dog and their puppies

From the time a puppy is born, it is entirely dependent on its mother for its food supply. Without these critical nutrients, puppies will not thrive, and eventually, will succumb to death. Since this mother’s milk plays such an important role in a puppy’s survival, ensuring a mother dog is producing milk is vital. Though engorged breasts are often a good indication that a mother dog has the milk she needs to feed her brood, this may not always be the case. This leads to a question of great importance for all breeders–how can I tell if my mother dog is producing milk for her puppies?

When Do Mother Dog Start Producing Milk?

Female dogs that are reproductively intact will begin to produce milk when their bodies identify they are pregnant and will soon have puppies to feed. This process typically begins a short period of time before the dog will give birth and will linger as long as the dog is continuing to nurse her puppies. The first indication a dog is producing milk is when her breasts begin to enlarge. On occasion, during the time leading up to the whelping of her puppies, a female dog’s nipples may leak small droplets of milk.

In order for a mother dog to begin producing milk, she requires the activation of four critical hormones. These are:

  • Estrogen
  • Progesterone
  • Prolactin
  • Relaxin

Each of these four hormones plays a different role in milk production. Estrogen is responsible for communicating with the mammary glands to inform the cells that delivery is imminent and milk will soon be required. Once the estrogen has started this process, progesterone is triggered to assist with a consistent flow and secretion of the milk. Prolactin assumes several different jobs, assisting with the preparation of the glands for milk flow and promoting maternal instincts in the mother dog. Lastly, relaxin assists with helping the body to get ready for birth and the subsequent lactation that accompanies it.

One critical component involved in the release of breast milk for puppies to consume is oxytocin. This important hormone sends a message to the mammary glands to push milk from the breast into the teats where suction from the puppies’ mouths allows the milk to freely flow.

It is critically important that all puppies begin to nurse immediately after whelping. The nourishment provided during this time is rich in colostrum, a thick milky substance that contains the maternal antibodies that provide protection against disease until the puppies are old enough to receive their first vaccination of their puppy series at their veterinarian. Colostrum is only produced for the first 24 hours. If a puppy misses out on these vital nutrients, they cannot be replaced via any human means. Their importance cannot be overstated.

What are Some of the Early Signs Your Dog is Lactating?

As early as two to three weeks prior to whelping, owners will notice the breast enlargement that indicates a mother dog will soon have the milk she requires to feed her soon to arrive puppies. During this time, many female dogs also experience a widening and darkening of their nipples, another sign to encourage breeders their dog is well prepared to feed and care for her brood.

Picture of a puppy feeding from its mother

How Will I Know if My Dog’s Puppies are Receiving Milk?

The act of labor itself is important to help get a mother dog’s milk flowing. When a female begins to whelp, the puppy places pressure against her cervix thus triggering the release of prolactin and her milk supply. When the first puppy begins to nurse, the milk enters the teats and continues to replenish itself with each feeding from her pups.

There are several ways a breeder can determine if indeed their mother dog is producing milk for her puppies. Gentle pressure applied against the nipple with a soft pulling motion should release a small amount of milk, indicating that lactating is occurring normally. However, it is important to note the condition of the breast as there are several problems which could present themselves, making lactation difficult, unsafe, or impossible. Normal breast tissue in a breastfeeding mother dog should feel soft and flexible. If the breasts are extremely warm to the touch or hard, a veterinary examination is necessary to ensure a serious health issue that could affect both mother and pups is not at play.

Another way to tell if a mother is producing milk is to carefully observe her pups. Puppies that are not receiving adequate nutrition will be both fussy and underweight.  A happy puppy will nurse quietly and contentedly. All breeders should weigh their puppies morning and night from the time of birth until the puppies are approximately two weeks old, looking for slow but steady weight gains as an indicator of good health.

What are Some of the Most Common Problems that Can Interfere with Lactation?

There are several different problems that can affect a mother dog, leading to issues with healthy lactation. These include:

Mastitis is a life threatening condition that occurs when the breasts become swollen, often indicating infection. These types of infections are typically bacterial in nature. The most common symptoms of this condition are inflammation, heat, pain, and unusually colored milk that may contain blood.

Agalactica is a health problem in which a female dog is unable to produce adequate amounts of milk to keep her puppies properly fed. When this occurs, immediate veterinary assistance is required. Breeders may need to tube feed their puppies until this problem can be identified and treated in the mother dog.

Galactostasis occurs when milk begins to gather in the mammary gland and cannot be expressed. The breasts become dramatically engorged with this condition, and veterinary assistance is required to relieve the issue.

What Can I Do if My Dog is Not Producing Milk for Her Puppies?

Most often, a mother dog that has whelped naturally and is fed a high quality diet and given plentiful access to clean drinking water will have no problem producing an adequate supply of milk for her puppies. However, sometimes, mother dogs run into issues with milk production, and when this occurs, there a few things breeders can try to help the process improve.

These include:

  • Offering more liquids

Dehydration can lead to a stall in regular milk production. It is important to ensure the mother dog is drinking consistently. If she is uninterested in fresh drinking water, chicken broth can be substituted to encourage her to take in fluids. Sometimes, it is necessary to heat the water or broth to a lukewarm temperature to make it more palatable for the dog.

  • Call for advice

Veterinary visits are not always required to achieve the outcome that is needed. A quick call to a veterinary professional to describe symptoms can help with establishing a course of action to get the dog’s milk flowing again. Should these measures not be effective, a shot of calcium or oxytocin may be required.

  • Provide assistance with puppies nursing

Sometimes all it takes for milk to begin to flow is a persistent puppy. For problems with milk coming down, it is a good idea to place the puppies with the best suction on some of the more stubborn nipples. This is often sufficient to encourage stubborn teats to yield the milk that puppies need. If this does not work, it may be necessary to tube or bottle feed the puppies until a vet is able to resolve the problem with the mother dog. 

  • Supplement large litters

With exceptionally large litters, it may be impossible for the mother dog to keep up with the demand for her puppies. In these cases, it is best to either enlist the help of a surrogate if one is available to nurse a few of the pups or to supplement them by alternating which pups nurse and which pups are bottle fed with each feeding time to ensure all puppies receive adequate nutrition and that all are given opportunity to nurse from their mother.

How will I know if my dog is producing milk for her puppies? If the puppies are content and maintaining healthy weights, you can rest assured your mother dog has lots of milk and her babies are eating well.

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