A Q&A On Dog Breeding & Pregnancy Nutrition

New born puppies

Food for Thought: A Q&A on Dog Breeding & Pregnancy Nutrition

No matter how experienced you become at dog breeding and whelping litters of puppies, you may sometimes face scenarios you have not seen before. Today’s Breeder invited five breeders to send us questions, and we turned to experts to provide answers. Purina Senior Research Nutritionist Arleigh Reynolds, DVM, PhD, DACVN, a board-certified veterinary nutritionist, and Andrea Hesser, DVM, DACT, a board-certified veterinary reproduction specialist who practices at Josey Ranch Pet Hospital in Carrollton, Texas, share their insights here.

Preparing to Breed

Q: We have trouble getting our bitches pregnant and then carrying their pregnancies to term. Pregnancies often result in a cesarean section of one or two puppies. We use progesterone testing to learn the optimal time to breed. What can we do to help with fertility in our bitches?  Shawny Cirincione, The Hounds of Hobara, Danbury, Connecticut

Dr. Hesser: Ovulating timing, breeding to quality semen from a proven stud dog, and monitoring the pregnancy properly are key to success. It sounds like you are on track and doing things correctly. Bitches can have a multitude of primary conditions, ranging from inflammatory to cystic- to cyclic-associated diseases. Consulting with a specialist may reveal a very clear primary abnormality.

High inbreeding coefficients have been shown to have great impact on litter size, so ensuring you have genetic variability may help you depending on the options available. I also find it amazing the positive impact that comes from practicing good basic pregnancy management, feeding a healthy diet and monitoring body condition, allowing moderate exercise throughout pregnancy, and adhering to deworming regimens. After all these things have been considered, we look at uterine testing to determine the cause of pregnancy problems. I suggest waiting for two well-bred cycles that “miss” before reaching out for an intensive workup, as this takes some effort and expense.

If a bitch misses repeatedly, we usually advise having a uterine biopsy at around the time she would have her puppies, as the cervix becomes open. I perform this procedure with sedation using an endoscope to take a tiny biopsy of the endometrium. If a bitch is having a C-section, I sometimes take a biopsy during the surgery. Biopsy samples are sent for laboratory analysis to assess her future fertility. The most common reports we receive back are normal and inflammatory or cystic conditions. Dogs rarely have fibrosis, or scar tissue. Occasionally a fungal or other rare pathogen is observed on biopsy.

For most bitches, we perform a uterine culture at the onset of estrus (heat), even if some problem is identified on biopsy. When a breeder is investing in a cycle, it is best to have the full picture and optimize everything possible. I collect cultures of the uterus using a transcervical scope with the patient awake as well as cytology (cellular fluid) samples, which are sent for laboratory testing. Ideally, the results are returned in time to treat any underlying bacterium species. Keep in mind that sometimes after great financial input, everything is normal and there is nothing to fix.

Q: If you are planning to breed a bitch when her annual vaccinations are due, should these vaccines be postponed? Is it safe to give her rabies, distemper, adenovirus (hepatitis), parvovirus, parainfluenza, and leptospirosis vaccinations?  Rita Jones, Seaside Retrievers, Vernon, Florida

Dr. Hesser: The importance of staying up to date on vaccines cannot be understated. In general, it’s best to update vaccines ahead of time if you know your bitch will be due for vaccination around her estrus cycle, pregnancy or even into lactation. Rabies is a non-negotiable vaccine and is a killed vaccine, meaning the virus has been inactivated. We don’t tend to see a negative impact using this category of vaccine even when administered at the last minute. We try to avoid giving the rabies vaccine during pregnancy, though a bitch is much more at risk to go unvaccinated.

As for the distemper, adenovirus and parvo­virus combination vaccines, being overdue for these vaccines may not result in any detriment. The veterinarian could check titers to ensure the bitch is protected for an upcoming pregnancy. Ideally, vaccines for leptospirosis, parainfluenza, Bordetella, and Lyme disease are up to date; however, exposure to these pathogens is less frequent when a female is isolated and her traveling is limited, as in the case of pregnancy and lactation.

Q: Is it safe to give heartworm and oral flea and tick preventives during breeding, pregnancy and lactation? Rita Jones, Seaside Retrievers

Dr. Hesser: It is absolutely paramount to keep your dog on preventive medications during this time. I regularly see heartworm positive pregnant dogs and breeders who make unfortunate mistakes in judgment not giving heartworm preventives. Heartworms don’t care that you are breeding your bitch, and it just takes a lapse to create irreversible disease.

I’ve seen a litter of puppies suspected to have “failure to thrive” all lost to flea anemia, despite the owner’s perception that “allergies” were the problem. Rather, it turned out to be fleas on a dark-coated bitch and her puppies. Tick diseases also are potentially life-threatening. The pathogens associated with tick diseases vary by region.

Pregnancy should not change your normal preventive care management. Several oral heartworm preventives and topical and oral flea and tick medications have been rigorously studied for safety in pregnant dogs and their fetuses/puppies. Note that not all oral or topical products for fleas and ticks, including collars, are risk-free. Products that are safe for pregnancy should state so on the product label or insert.

It is important to consider that a pregnant dog may exceed the weight range of her original preventive prescription. Should she fall outside this range, most veterinarians will provide single doses for the stages in which she will exceed her original weight range.

Q: Many of our athletic field trial Labrador Retriever females are on supplements such as omega-3 fatty acids, glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate when we are making plans to breed them. Are these supplements safe to give them during breeding and whelping? Rita Jones, Seaside Retrievers

Dr. Reynolds: The omega-3 fatty acids and gluco­­samine supplements are fine to give throughout breeding, pregnancy and lactation. However, chondroitin sulfate comes from green-lipped mussel. This type of shellfish feeds by straining food particles from the gravel or sandy bottom of rivers and streams and tends to concentrate certain metals and organic toxins in the environment in which they live. Given as a supplement to a healthy dog, those levels are not a problem, but because we are looking at developing fetuses that are very sensitive to even small changes in nutrient or toxin levels, I would err on the side of caution and not give chondroitin sulfate to pregnant females.

Q: Is it a good idea to give a pregnant female a prenatal supplement fortified with iron, folic acid and zinc? Rita Jones, Seaside Retrievers

Dr. Reynolds: You don’t need to supplement the diet of a breeding female if you are feeding a high-quality, all-life stages diet such as a Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula or Purina Pro Plan SPORT Active 27/17 Formula.. It’s absolutely true a dog needs a little more folic acid during pregnancy to prevent things like neural tube defects and cleft palate in puppies. Purina Pro Plan all life-stages diets meet the mineral and vitamin requirements to support normal pregnancy and puppy growth, thus there is no need to supplement.

Pregnancy & PostPregnancy

Q: What is an optimal food for a brood bitch during pregnancy? Is a performance or puppy food recommended? When is it best to switch from a maintenance food to a performance food? Bonnie Wagamon, Cinnabon Boxers, Fullbrook, California

Dr. Reynolds: I am biased because my background is working with performance dogs. I feed Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 year-round. The higher protein and nutrition in this food support a dog's muscle to better support work, though it takes possibly two to three months for those adaptations to occur. If you switch from a maintenance diet to a performance diet, you’ve got that lag time before you get the full benefit of the diet. During the time of year when a dog is less active, I feed less of this performance diet rather than switching to a lower protein and fat maintenance food. This has worked extremely well for both our moms and puppies.

If you are switching to a performance diet from a maintenance food, you want to do that slowly in the very early stages of pregnancy. When the mom reaches a point in the last tri­mester when she is eating a lot of food, she should already be well-adapted to that diet. When you switch foods — even if you are switching to a great diet — there is a risk of GI (gastrointestinal) upset because you are changing the nutrient content and that changes the microbiome and thus could change the microstructure of the gut. You want to make sure these adaptations are done before she has to work the gut hard with the large amount of food that she’ll intake during late pregnancy and early lactation.

There are many different kinds of puppy foods, and they can vary tremendously. The problem with puppy foods is the variation in energy and calcium levels. For example, large-breed puppy foods tend to be lower in energy, as these breeds should not grow too rapidly. If you choose to feed a puppy food, look for one that is highly digestible. It should have at least 24 to 26 percent protein — Pro Plan SPORT Performance has 30 percent protein — and at least 16 percent fat — Pro Plan SPORT Performance has 20 percent. It should be approved for all-life stages and have nutrients that support females through pregnancy and lactation and puppies through growth and development. Many people have success feeding a puppy food. I find it easier to feed Pro Plan SPORT Performance because it is an all-life stages food that can be fed to mothers and puppies.

Q: Should the amount of food fed during pregnancy or postwhelping increase? Is free feeding recommended during these times? When should you go back to feeding the female the before-pregnancy maintenance amount? Courtney Bastian, Claddagh German Wirehaired Pointers, Missoula, Montana

Dr. Reynolds: During pregnancy, puppies don’t grow that much until the last trimester, and then they grow exponentially. During the early stages of pregnancy, a female should be fed her regular amount of food to maintain a body condition score of 5 out of 9. You should gradually increase to 1 ¼ to 1 ½ times more food than she was eating before pregnancy during the last trimester until she whelps.

The amount of food fed during lactation is highly dependent on how many puppies she has. If she has only one puppy, the increase isn’t going to be that great. If she has four to eight puppies, a significant food increase is needed. By peak lactation around three weeks after whelping, a female should be fed 30 percent of her prepregnancy intake for each puppy. This caloric requirement is only needed for three or four weeks. The mother’s food demand starts to level off and decrease when puppies start eating solid food in a gruel mixture when they are around 3 to 4 weeks of age.

The only time I would free feed a dam is if she is paying a lot of attention to her puppies and thus not eating enough food at meals to keep her body condition score up or if she is not making enough milk, particularly if she has a large litter of six or more pups. In these cases, I will sometimes free feed for the first three weeks. Once I start introducing puppies to dry food, I go back to limited feedings for the mother.

Q: Is it OK to feed formulas with salmon to a brood bitch, or is the mercury in salmon a concern? Courtney Bastian, Claddagh German Wirehaired Pointers

Dr. Reynolds: I frequently feed Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Salmon & Rice Formula to pregnant females and when raising our puppies. I like salmon-based foods because they have a lot of omega-3 fatty acids that are good for the mom and the pups. We did some studies in 2001 in which we added omega-3 fatty acids to the diets of moms that were pregnant and lactating and their puppies and compared their results to those of moms and puppies that did not receive the supplement. We found that puppies that got the supplement learned a lot more quickly, made less mistakes navigating a maze, were better problem solvers, and were easier to train. When we looked at eye function, their electroretinograms were associated with better vision than the puppies that did not receive the omega-3 fatty acid supplement. I would not worry about the mercury levels of salmon in these diets because they are below those considered to be a health risk.

Q: Our females become picky eaters during the last 30 days of pregnancy. We typically supplement their diets with foods such as eggs, chicken and cottage cheese to get them to eat. Is this the best way to handle this? Rita, Jones, Seaside Retrievers

Dr. Reynolds: Females become picky eaters as their abdomen gets full of puppies giving them little room in their stomach to eat a big meal. You should try feeding smaller meals more frequently. Cottage cheese, eggs and chicken are single-food items that are tasty but not balanced. A pregnant dog’s nutrition should be balanced, as this is a very important time of life for her and the puppies. If you need to jump-start her appetite, I recommend adding a good quality canned wet food to the dry food. A lot of times just the smell and texture of the canned food will be enough to get her to eat. You should continue to feed small amounts frequently.

Q: Is giving calcium during whelping beneficial to the dam? Rita Jones, Seaside Retrievers

Dr. Reynolds: Certain females will be predisposed to hypocalcemia, a condition in which there is lower-than-average levels of calcium in the blood plasma. This occurs around the time of birth and during the first few days of lactation when their milk production is being upregulated. Older females of smaller breeds with large litters are particularly affected. It’s important to watch for signs of hypocalcemia, which is called eclampsia in female dogs. If a dog shows signs of this life-threatening condition, which include muscle tremors, nervousness and high body temperature, she should be seen by a veterinarian right away.

One of the adaptations that occurs at the time of whelping and when a female starts making milk is the upregulation of calcium absorption from the gut and calcium mobilization from the bone. This takes some time, and if they can’t make that transition quickly enough, they could become hypocalcemic. If a female gets low in calcium, it can make it hard for her to deliver her puppies, as calcium is needed for muscle contractions. This is why veterinarians may give the hormone oxytocin and calcium to help strengthen uterine contractions. It’s very important that breeders give these under the supervision of a veterinarian. 

Treatment for hypocalcemia may require intravenous calcium supplementation to get the condition under control followed with oral calcium supplementation. I don’t recommend giving calcium beforehand because it might slow the calcium transition as the body may think it has enough calcium and downregulate these calcium-mobilizing mechanisms. It is better to watch for these signs and be particularly cautious with older small-breed females with large litters. 

Q: Is there anything related to food that would help a dam in whelp retain her energy after coming off her feed for 24 hours prior to delivery? Derek Bonner, Bonner Pointers, Forest City, North Carolina

Dr. Reynolds: A lot of times the mom won’t eat right before she delivers puppies, and this may carry over to 24 hours postdelivery. These females do get a little depleted in terms of energy. It’s really important that they start eating soon after they are done whelping because they are going to have to generate a lot of milk, and that milk takes a lot of protein, fat, calcium, and water. If she is not eating or drinking, that’s a red flag to intervene and monitor her very closely. Over 90 percent of the bitches I’ve worked with will start eating well within six to 12 hours from the time they finish whelping. Sometimes just hand-feeding them can get them interested in eating.

Neonatal Care & Puppy Nutrition

Q: Do you have tips on how to be sure neonatal puppies are getting enough milk? What is your method for weaning puppies? Courtney Bastian, Claddagh German Wirehaired Pointers

Dr. Reynolds: Weighing puppies every day from birth until they are 2 to 3 weeks old is one of the most important things to do in caring for puppies. They may lose a little weight the first day, but they should gain weight every day after that. By seven to 10 days after birth, they should double their birth weight. If their weight stays the same, that’s an indication they aren’t getting enough milk. If there is an individual pup that is not gaining weight, you may want to give it some extra time nursing with the mom while separating the other pups. The pup may just be a little smaller and not as competitive at the nipple. You may have to supplement the pup with milk replacer using a nursing bottle or tube feeding, though you should never use an eye dropper due to risk of aspiration.

It is important to manage how you feed the mother as puppies are weaned because she is making a lot of milk. If you abruptly take the puppies away, she can get mastitis, a painful inflammation of the mammary glands caused by bacterial infection. I feed puppies food that has been soaked from a flat pie dish, so it’s easy for them to eat. A lot of times they will walk in the food, lick their feet, realize it is food, and start eating. Just a few introductions and puppies start eating pretty well. I like to separate the puppies from the mother while they are eating solid food meals through weaning. Otherwise, the mother may eat all their food. I feed the mother at the same time as the puppies to control how much she eats and to monitor how much they are eating. When the puppies are from 5 to 7 weeks old, I increase the amount of time they are separated from the mother, so they are not nursing very much.

Three things stimulate milk production: nursing, food and water. I would not decrease a mother’s water supply. However, if we decrease the nursing stimuli and start cutting her food back, we can get her mammary glands to dry up at about the same time as the puppies are weaned without the risk of mastitis.

Q: What is the best way to help save fading puppies? Shawny Cirincione, The Hounds of Hobara

Dr. Hesser: Fading puppy syndrome is a complicated, all-encompassing term that describes puppies that fail to thrive. Fading puppies can occur because of ineffective nursing, bacterial infection, herpesvirus, stress, suboptimal temperature, and husbandry conditions, as well as many other reasons.

The most powerful tool to understand loss of a puppy and management of the remaining puppies is a necropsy of the deceased puppy. Sometimes the knowledge gained from visual clues of the necropsy can be immediate, while others may not be understood without histo­pathology, a microscopic evaluation, or other testing. This information may provide insights on how to support the remaining puppies and possibly adjust your husbandry.

Close monitoring of weight gain is your best friend with neonates. If you are not seeing steady gains after the first 24 hours of life, this is sometimes your first clue something isn’t going well before the puppy is in a desperate state. Small birth-weight neonates are especially predisposed to “fading” or being lost. Attentive individualized care can sometimes reverse the trends.