The first few weeks of a puppy’s life are crucial to their development, and are an exciting time for you to watch and be involved in. This guide takes you through the first 8 weeks, showing you what to expect as your puppies grow.
Four primitive reflexes
At birth, your puppy’s nervous system is still developing; however, it already has a certain number of reflexes enabling it to survive, the so-called “primary reflexes”:
- The burrowing reflex makes the puppy search for the warm parts of its mother’s body to snuggle up to it.
- The suckling reflex enables it to suckle.
- The perineal reflex expels urine and stools – the mother stimulates this reflex by vigorously licking her puppies on their belly and under their tail.
- The carrying reflex encourages the puppy to stiffen when grabbed at the neck.
Puppies cannot regulate their own body temperature, so it’s important that the whelping area is in a warm room. This is recommended for at least the first two weeks and the mother may even need to be intermittently taken out of the room for short periods to maintain her own comfort. The easiest way of checking the temperature is to place a thermometer in the whelping box.
The ideal temperature is not set in stone and differing sources have different recommendations, however the puppies need close contact with the mother to maintain warmth. Draughts of cooler air can present a real hazard to neonatal puppies and most sources cite a minimum room temperature of around 26°C1 as being recommended with some advising it be kept as high as 30°C.
Puppies are born deaf and blind
Puppies are born with their eyes firmly closed and with their external ear canals closed meaning their hearing and sight is very much impaired. However their tactile sensations are well developed. Through touch, they will manage to find their mother’s teats for suckling. In fact, observations of pregnant bitches via ultrasound have shown that puppies feel and respond to touch even before they are born!
Make sure that the bitch has enough milk and that the puppies suckle on the first day
In the first hour after birth, the puppies should suckle the colostrum – this first milk, rich in maternal antibodies, will help support them when their natural defences are challenged. In order to benefit most from this first milk, it is important that the puppies drink plenty of colostrum within the first 24 hours of life and ideally within the first 12-16 hours2.
Lack of milk supply from the mother is rare. To be on the safe side, you may want to check that it flows properly. With clean hands, gently press the middle of the teat with one hand and then pinch the tip of the teat with the other in order to see a drop of colostrum coming through. It looks slightly different to milk; it is lighter in colour, thicker and slightly transparent.
Although the puppies may have difficulty in finding the teats, don’t interfere too much as it could cause stress to the mother. On the other hand, if you see that the mother does not spontaneously push one of her pups towards the teat, you may gently guide that puppy in the right direction. The puppies should get the hang of it very quickly. After a few days, the mother will start producing milk instead of colostrum.
If the mother isn’t able to provide enough milk you should always ask your vet for advice. You can also plan ahead and prepare for bottle-feeding any puppies should this become necessary with adapted reconstituted milk. ROYAL CANIN®’s Babydog Milk and Puppy Protech are very similar in composition to the bitch’s own milk and are designed to cover such situations.
It is always advisable to have a tub of maternal milk on hand prior to the birth, just in case. Be sure to carefully follow the instructions for use and the recommended hygiene rules and only use replacement milk under close veterinary guidance (unless you are an experienced breeder).
Give your bitch a high-protein diet
Sometimes the bitch might lose her appetite immediately after birth, but this is most often only temporary; her nutritional needs are actually highest while she’s feeding her young and it is usually recommended that she is allowed to feed ad libitum. She may need two to four times as much energy as normal and much more protein than previously3. Lactation lasts around six weeks, which is often fairly taxing on the mother’s body.
ROYAL CANIN®’s Starter and Starter Mousse are specially tailored for the specific demands of late pregnancy and lactation. They were developed hand-in-hand alongside professional dog breeders and offer nutritional support for optimal milk production and the healthy maintenance of the bitch during lactation.
A bitch weighing 25kg, having given birth to 6 puppies, may produce 2 litres of milk per day during the 3rd week of lactation! Her energy needs will most likely be threefold.
Puppies gain weight daily
Except for the first day when the new-born pup may lose a very small amount of weight, the puppy should gain weight daily. In order to confirm, it is advisable to weigh each puppy every day using digital scales and note down their weight for your records. If a puppy fails to gain weight for two consecutive days you should seek advice from your vet.
Grooming the mother
After giving birth, it is important to check the hygiene of the whelping box, being respectful of the mother’s intimacy with her young. When the puppies are not suckling, remove all of the soiled bedding and replace it with clean bedding. Simply covering over the soiled layer with a clean layer is not hygienically sufficient.
Using a soft sponge and slightly soapy water, you may clean the bitch’s belly and teats, rinsing and drying the area afterwards.
If the floor surface is appropriate, you may wash in and around the whelping box with soapy water and disinfect as directed by your vet. It is important to rinse and dry the surface in order to remove all dampness and to ensure the puppies and dam never get cold or wet.
Even though the puppy’s life essentially consists of sleeping and drinking at this point, changes are starting to occur. With their nervous system developing, the puppy will be able to support its own body weight on its front legs, making movement towards the teats much easier. It will recognise the smell of its mother and develop a preference for certain teats. It is still unable to hear properly, but will be able to detect some sound vibrations.
Puppies’ body temperature in the second and third weeks: 37-38°C5
The puppy’s eyes start opening
From day 10, although the puppy’s vision is still developing, the eyes nevertheless start to open and the puppy’s hearing starts to improve. The puppy will be able to see and hear fully towards the end of the 5th week.
Welcome to the outside world!
Until the puppy’s senses have developed, it has minimal awareness of its own interactions. It’s not until this point that the puppy starts to be able to behave like a dog and communicate with other dogs. During this very short period, puppies create a reciprocal bond with their mother and develop relationships with their siblings. A single-litter pup won’t benefit from the brotherly and sisterly contacts that most puppies do and will require its learning process to be adapted.
This can be achieved by bringing the puppy into contact with other puppies. Single puppies need this type of education, essentially revolving around play and will require much more attention from their owner.
Even if the bitch was already wormed shortly before birth, intestinal parasites, amongst others, may still be picked up. If these parasites pass into the milk they could infect the puppies, potentially resulting in digestive sensitivities. Puppies can be wormed fairly early on. Your vet will be able to advise you on the best products to use to worm your puppies and will let you know how often to do this but you should seek their advice now.
Development of the puppy’s nervous system continues, enabling their hind legs to come into action, holding up the body and the weight of the puppy. The puppy should now start to be able to sit down, although perhaps first by leaning on their nearest neighbour in the litter!
Primary reflexes start to disappear
The burrowing reflex that makes puppies cuddle up to their mother usually disappears during the third week of age. By this point the puppy can start to better regulate its body temperature by itself. Similarly, the puppy’s exploration through touch starts to reduce during this time, with the puppy increasingly using vision for exploration instead. Disappearance of the primary reflexes is a sign of good neurological maturity. The perineal and suckling reflexes last a little longer, though will start to become less intense. The puppy will gradually develop continence and start to lick the weaning food.
When puppies are born they have no teeth, but teeth normally start to appear around the third week of life. Like us, dogs will have two sets of teeth during their lifetime– milk teeth (deciduous teeth) and permanent teeth. At around three months old, the roots of the milk teeth begin to dissolve and these teeth fall out by themselves. They are rarely found since the puppies tend to swallow them! They are then progressively replaced by the permanent teeth. The puppy’s dental development usually finishes at around 6-7 months of age.
A visit to your vet at this point is advisable in order to check the condition of the teeth and to check that all milk teeth have fallen out. A dog will ordinarily have 42 teeth in total, irrespective of its breed. As a rough guide you can expect the appearance of the milk teeth in the following pattern:
- 3-5 weeks old: the canines appear
- 4-6 weeks old: the incisors appear
- 5-6 weeks old: the third and fourth premolars appear
- 4 months old: the first premolar appears, this is a permanent tooth
When the incisors appear at around the 4th week it’s time to move the puppy onto a weaning diet as well as the maternal milk. Suckling becomes increasingly uncomfortable for the mother and she will become more distant and less ready to offer her teats for feeding. It’s time to introduce the puppies to a diet specially adapted for growth.
The physiology of the puppy changes quickly at this time, as well as the puppy’s nutritional requirements. The puppy requires extra energy at a time when its mother starts to produce less milk. From the third week, the puppy‘s ability to digest the lactose contained in the maternal milk begins to decline rapidly. All of these elements combine to kick start the weaning process for your puppies.
ROYAL CANIN®’s Birth Programme diets are designed to cater for the puppy’s nutritional needs during this dietary transition period. Starter Mousse can be provided, or you can use Starter kibble if you rehydrate it with water to form a porridge-like consistency. Puppies don’t eat much at first, so split their feeds into many small meals each day. After each meal, remove any leftovers to minimise the chances of food spoilage, which can provoke digestive upset. Always provide clean, fresh water at each meal.
Starting to move
At this point, the puppies may not be running around your house just yet but they will be increasingly mobile on four legs and ready to climb out of the whelping box. This is a good time to check that there is nothing potentially dangerous outside of the box in case they do manage to climb out.
Puppies’ body temperature by the start of week 4: 38.5°C (Adult Temperature)4
Puppies will start socialising from around 15 days of age but by now their socialisation will be at its height, especially for multiple-puppy litters. Now that all their senses have developed, the puppies will be able to familiarise themselves with other species and with the environment in which they live. Interaction with their mother is still essential during this period; through play, she will start to guide them in how to behave appropriately. In short, the dam will communicate with them and teach them.
This is an ideal time to make the puppies’ world “interesting”, by creating various stimulating situations. These situations could include introducing strangers of the human kind, television, music, early-learning games, people picking them up in their arms, children, unusual sounds, etc. Any exposure to various experiences should of course be progressive so as not to frighten the puppies.
The experiences that puppies encounter during this phase are crucial, as they will be locked into their memory and will always appear ‘familiar’ to them. If socialisation is poorly accomplished, this could create fear and inappropriate behavioural responses later in life, which may then be much more difficult to remedy.
Fear of the unknown
In contrast to their earlier readiness to explore, around week 6-8 puppies will begin to withdraw, appearing more reserved when faced with new and unfamiliar experiences. Puppies should continue to be offered as many stimulating socialisation opportunities as possible, yet everything new must now be introduced with greater care. Failure to do so could make the puppies frightened, which is highly undesirable. Children are wonderfully imaginative and tender, but, especially at this stage, it is important for them to properly understand that the fragility of any young animal is not just physical.
Supporting the development of natural defences
At birth, puppies rely on the colostrum provided by their mother to support their natural defences. Between the 5th and 12th week of life the nutritional support that was provided by the colostrum decreases. The puppy’s own self-defence system is not yet fully developed and they enter the so-called “critical period” where they must start to defend themselves.
During this period, the puppy’s natural defence system obviously needs extra support, so we recommend feeding ROYAL CANIN® Starter, which from weaning to the start of growth at two months actively helps to nutritionally support the puppy.
Vaccination and identification
Vaccination is an essential tool for supporting your pets when they face the main infectious diseases that can affect dogs. Your vet will be able to advise on the vaccination schedule to follow. Just as for the primary vaccinations, it is important not to miss the dates for your dog’s annual boosters.
In terms of identification, this involves (as its name suggests), a unique identification number, which is usually contained within a microchip implanted under the skin. This is most useful for helping to find lost animals.
Microchipping became a legal requirement in the UK in April 2016. Puppies must be microchipped and registered on a microchipping database by the time they are 8 weeks of age, unless they have veterinary certification that there is a valid reason for a delay. You’ll also need your pet to be microchipped if you are taking your dog abroad.
The mother now pays less attention to her young, allowing them to suckle less and less. This development in maternal behaviour is quite normal. The puppies have now reached an age where they no longer need their mother’s milk. Nevertheless, the dam will continue in her role of teacher, deciding when and where to intervene and stop play.
Puppies should ideally be fully weaned (i.e. eating solid food rather than their mother’s milk) by the age of 7 weeks. From this point, suckling becomes very rare. The palatability of the ROYAL CANIN® Birth Programme products helps support this transitional phase and contributes to the digestive security of the puppies.
- England, Gary C.W. Dog Breeding, whelping and Puppy Care Published 2013 by Wiley-Blackell. ISBN: 978-0-470-67313-3
- Chastant, S et al. Timing of the Interstinal Barrier Closure in Puppies. Reprod Domest Anim. 2012 Dec; 47 Suppl 6:190-3.
- Nutrient Requirements of Dogs and Cats NRC Guidelines 2006.
- Blunden, Tony. Fading Puppies – Reality or Myth? In Practice, June 2012, Volume 34, 314-321.
- Azevedo de Abreu R and Vannucchi C. Intensive care of new born puppies. Veterinary Focus, volume 26(1), 45-8.