The term “runt” is often used to denote puppies that are born at a smaller size or lower birth weight. However, runt puppies aren’t always small. Instead, puppies taking this term may differ only from their siblings by their strength, being weaker and failing to thrive. Not all litters contain a runt; in fact, many mother dogs give birth to a group of puppies that are of average size and weight and that are in excellent health.
What Does Runt Mean?
Though most people associate the term “runt” with an undersized pup, the truth is this word has no official definition and can mean different things to different people. Veterinary professionals agree that it is a term that is applied generally in reference to a puppy that in some way is developmentally behind its littermates.
What Factors May Lead to a Puppy to Being Born a Runt?
All puppies’ ultimate growth is determined by their unique DNA. With this in mind, the rate of growth and final size when development is complete has already been predetermined for the puppy when conceived. However, the amount of nutrients received from the mother during gestation will also impact the size a puppy will reach prior to the mother whelping the litter.
In some cases, congenital defects are to blame for a puppy failing to develop as it normally would. These cases can be heartbreaking as sometimes the defect will mean the puppy will suffer if human intervention prolongs its life. Sometimes, the defect is minor enough that it can be corrected or managed throughout the life of the puppy.
Another factor which may be to blame for a puppy being born a runt is the implantation site of the placenta was poor, meaning the flow of nutrients to the puppy while in the womb was not optimal. As a result of this, the puppy’s development was slightly stunted, leading to a smaller size or lower birth weight.
What are Some of the Myths Concerning Runts?
There are many different myths circulating about runt puppies. Many people believe that runt puppies are the result of their positioning in the uterus or were perhaps among the last of the mother’s eggs to be fertilized. Neither of these assertions are true.
An old wives’ tale purports that a puppy located in the center of the uterus will be born undersized. This myth traces back to the anatomy of the uterus. Dog uteruses resemble a “Y.” Because of this unique shape, people have theorized that the puppy located in the middle of this Y is too far away from the nutrition supplied through its mother’s blood to develop at a normal rate. We know that this is not true because research shows that puppies do not remain in the same position in the uterus throughout the entire gestational period. Puppies are consistently in motion, swapping positions with their siblings up until the point of birth.
Likewise, the belief that the last fertilized egg will result in a runt puppy is untrue. Since a female dog ovulates only once per heat cycle and releases all of the ripe eggs she has at that time, these eggs are all fertilized within a very short time period, most often at nearly the exact same moment. This means that all pups in a litter vary only minutely from each other in age.
What are Some of the Problems Runts Face?
Because runts are born struggling due to low birth weight, small size, or delayed development, there are some challenges they face. One of the biggest problems a runt encounters is the lack of strength to push his way to his mother’s teats to receive adequate nutrition through nursing. Since the runt’s littermates are physically stronger, they are often able to push the runt out of the way, leaving the runt hungry and desperate for food. This battle for nutrition leaves the runt struggling for survival, and the breeder must often intervene to help the pup receive the food it needs to grow and thrive.
Among the challenges runts face:
- They have a difficult time nursing
The first 24-48 hours of a puppy’s life is a critical time when adequate nutrition makes the difference between living and dying. In the initial 24 hours post whelping, mother dogs produce colostrum, a thick liquid which contains vital maternal antibodies that provide protection for baby puppies until they can receive their vaccinations when old enough. Puppies that do not nurse from their mothers during this time will suffer from weak immunity, leaving them at risk for disease. For puppies that struggle with nursing, breeders will need to tube or bottle feed using a mother’s milk replacement product.
- They lack proper attention from their mothers
Mother dogs sense when one of their puppies is struggling. Since in the wild animals that are weak would simply die, mothers are genetically wired to ignore puppies that are failing to thrive. Often this is because they sense there may be more wrong with the puppy than what meets the eye, so they conserve their resources for those who will live and become a part of the family pack. As cruel as this seems, it is a very normal part of pack hierarchy. It is in this process that we see survival of the fittest at work.
- They are more likely to become ill
Puppies that have a difficult time nursing may also succumb to other health problems which can put their lives at risk. Sadly, many puppies that are born weak, too small, or at low birth weights have other health conditions that may be beyond repair.
Unfortunately, some runt puppies often face more challenges than simply low birth weights, small size, or slow development. For every fifty healthy puppies that are born, one puppy will enter the world stillborn or will succumb to death before reaching their six week birthday. Sadly, puppies that are born underweight or too small are at a far greater risk of failing to thrive and ultimately dying. A Kansas State University study reported that puppies born at a weight that was 25% lower than the average size of a newborn for that breed would not survive.
What Can Be Done to Help Runts Prosper?
In the wild, runts simply would not survive. Their size and inability to care for themselves would be too great a burden for them to overcome, and they would eventually succumb to death. However, for litters born in a breeder’s home, these pups can be helped along through the love and skillful care of a dedicated breeder and veterinary staff. If provided with additional assistance, many pups develop normally and go on to live healthy, and happy lives.
Here are some steps breeders can take to help give runt puppies their best chance at life:
- The runt should be examined thoroughly by a veterinarian.
Once a breeder determines a puppy is struggling or undersized, it is important that the pup be taken to a veterinarian for a wellness exam and assessment. Many runts are plagued by health abnormalities which would compromise their quality of life. Sometimes, a veterinarian will be able to identify a condition that is easily fixed; other times, the issue may be beyond repair and to try to promote life would be cruel. In these heartbreaking instances, a breeder must make the most difficult decision, and the one that is in the best interest of the puppy, and allow their veterinarian to humanely euthanize the pup.
- The runt may require assistance with being fed.
Newborn puppies require regular nutrition via their mother’s milk to remain properly hydrated and for their blood sugar levels to say optimized to promote growth. If the runt puppy is too small to properly latch on their mother’s teat, bottle or tube feeding with an appropriate puppy milk replacer or milk expressed from the mother dog may be necessary.
- The runt’s weight should be regularly monitored.
During the first few weeks of a puppy’s life, breeders regularly weigh their pups several times a day and record their weights. This allows a breeder to identify how the pups are progressing and if some puppies are not receiving adequate nutrition and should be supplemented to improve growth. This practice is particularly important with runts. For best results, the runt should be weighed morning and night.
- The runt puppy must be kept warm.
Neonatal puppies are not able to regulate their own body temperature, and thus, must be kept warm. Puppies typically stay close to each other or press up against their mother’s breasts to keep their bodies at the ideal temperature. During these early weeks of a puppy’s life, a slight chill is enough to kill it.
There are several different ways breeders can keep their puppies warm. Keeping the puppy room at a high heat is one way of providing the heat control needed for a runt puppy to flourish. Alternatively, a heat lamp or a heating pad or incubator is a great way to keep puppies warm and thriving.
- The runt should undergo a second wellness check once placed in his new home.
Reputable breeders are heavily invested in the future health and wellness of their puppies. This is especially true when it comes to a runt. Prior to the runt leaving for his new home, arrangements should be finalized for the pup to undergo a wellness exam and evaluation at his owners’ veterinary clinic. If a defect or health condition is discovered, most breeders will offer financial assistance to help offset the cost of treatment. In some cases, breeders will offer a full refund on the purchase price of the pup, and all should be willing to take the puppy back at any time.
Should Runts Be Sold for a Cheaper Price?
Most often, runt puppies make up for their differences in size and development as they grow. In some cases, runts finish their growth periods larger than some of their littermates with normal birth weights and sizes.
If the runt has been assessed by a veterinarian and deemed to be healthy, the pup should be sold for the breeder’s regular asking price. There is no reason to suspect the pup will encounter any problems later in life as a result of having been born small, underweight, or developmentally delayed.
However, for runt puppies with health conditions that will affect them throughout their lives, a special price and contract itemizing expectations for support and compensation throughout the puppy’s life should be arranged prior to a family taking their puppy home. Alternatively, many breeders prefer to keep these pups themselves, raising and caring for them in their own homes and ensuring the best veterinary care.
How Will Being a Runt Affect the Puppy’s Personality?
Though many believe having to struggle for food and to grow as a baby puppy may yield an adult dog with a more forthright and possibly even aggressive personality, there is no evidence to support this theory. These early experiences based on small size or low birth weight ultimately have no real effect on the dog’s adult temperament. As with all puppies, the runt will assume the personality traits of its parents and those that are characteristic of their breed.
Thinking of adding a runt puppy to your home? There is no reason to believe that having been born with a low birth weight, small size, or delayed development will have any lasting negative impact on your pup. A reputable breeder will provide support for the lifetime of your dog. Armed with assistance from a great veterinarian and a caring breeder committed to the lifelong health and wellness of the pup, most runts grow up to be happy and healthy, normal-sized adult dogs. For more information about runts, speak with a veterinarian or reputable breeder today.