Canine Nutrition During Pregnancy

canine nutrition

Optimal Nutrition for Pregnancy & Puppies is Tied to Energy Demands 

Many aspects of dog breeding cannot be controlled. One of the most important facets — providing optimal nutrition to the dam and growing puppies — is controllable. 

Purina nutritionist Raj Naik, DVM, DACVIM (Nutrition), a Board-Certified Veterinary Nutritionist®, relates the energy and nutrient requirements of the stages of pregnancy and puppy development to optimal nutrition. Dr. Naik recently shared these nutritional insights during a Good Dog Good Breeder webinar.  

“For optimal reproduction performance, it is vital for the sire and dam to be in peak body condition,” Dr. Naik says. “An underweight body condition in dams may cause puppies to have reduced birth weight, hypoglycemia and even poor survival. Overweight dams may have a lower ovulation rate, reduced litter size and poor lactation.” 

Just as it is important for the breeding partners to have an ideal, hourglass body condition, it behooves breeders to gradually increase the food fed during pregnancy to meet the dam’s energy demands due to growing fetuses. “Starting at week six through week nine, a pregnant bitch should be fed 10 percent more food per week than her adult maintenance level, as her fetal puppies gain 75 percent of their birth weight during the last three weeks,” he says. “The dam’s total body weight should increase 15 to 25 percent during pregnancy.”   

The energy demands for a dam during the peak of lactation are three times greater than adult maintenance. “It is vital to feed enough food to prevent weight loss and to keep the milk production up during lactation,” says Dr. Naik. “Consider feeding several small meals throughout the day. This also helps during pregnancy when the growing fetuses reduce abdominal space for a large meal.”  

The dam’s milk produced during the first 72 hours after whelping is nutritionally critical for puppies. Colostrum contains antibodies that provide passive immunity, highly concentrated energy nutrients and growth factors. Puppies have a small window to benefit from the passive immunity in colostrum, yet it is so important.  

Until puppies are 3 to 4 weeks of age, they rely entirely on mother’s milk to survive. “Puppies grow at a high rate and need about 25 calories per 100 grams of body weight,” Dr. Naik says. “In the first 10 days, their birth weight typically doubles. They spend most of the time sleeping and eating.” 

Developmentally, puppies go from needing their dam to stimulate them to urinate and defecate in the first two weeks to doing so independently in weeks two to four. They go from having no sight or hearing in weeks one and two to having functioning hearing and vision in weeks two to four. Baby teeth start appearing, and puppies begin exploring their environment and reacting to littermates and the dam. Puppy barks, wagging tails and unsteady walking signal their awareness and social beginnings. Between weeks four and seven, puppies can fully regulate their own temperature.  

“In weeks three to four, breeders should start introducing a semi-soft gruel mixture that is one part kibble soaked in two parts warm water,” says Dr. Naik. “This begins their gradual change to eating on their own, as after four weeks, the mother’s milk alone does not provide enough nutrients for puppies and she begins to lose interest in nursing. Nutritional weaning should be completed around 6 weeks of age. In contrast, behavioral weaning in which puppies are separated from the dam and littermates should not happen until they are 8 weeks of age to ensure optimal social behavior.”  

Dr. Naik advises feeding pregnant bitches and puppies a complete and balanced all-life stages or puppy food, such as one of the Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance or Active Formulas or Purina Pro Plan Puppy foods, that has: 

  • High-quality protein of which 25 percent is metabolizable energy to help build new tissue and support muscle, skin and coat, and organ development 
  • Calcium to phosphorus ratio that is 1:1 to 1:6-1:8 for proper bone growth 
  • Essential fatty acids from omega-3 fish oil with DHA for optimal brain-retinal development 
  • Antioxidants to support a developing immune system 

Importantly, Dr. Naik says, when feeding a complete and balanced food, there is no need to supplement with vitamins and minerals. “Balanced diets provide the appropriate levels of nutrients that are critical to get puppies off to a good start in life. Optimal nutrition should be the goal throughout pregnancy and lactation and when feeding developing puppies.”   

Large & Giant Breed Puppy Nutrition Watchouts 

Although large and giant breed puppies have a higher growth rate than small and medium breeds, they should not be fed an excessive amount of calories to maximize this growth. Dr. Naik advises feeding these breeds to ideal body condition throughout puppyhood and adulthood. “If large and giant breed puppies grow too quickly, it could lead to skeletal health concerns and growth and developmental problems,” he says. “It is particularly important to avoid feeding excess calcium in these breeds, as it can do more harm than good by unbalancing the diet, increasing the dietary concentration of calcium and decreasing the absorption of phosphorus.” Dr. Naik advises feeding these puppies a diet such as one of the Purina Pro Plan Large Breed puppy foods that has targeted levels of calories and fat to support a moderate growth rate throughout growth and development. 

Nutritional Requirements* During Pregnancy & Lactation 

Week of Pregnancy Energy Demand Week of Lactation Energy Demand
Weeks 1 to 5 Adult maintenance Weeks 1 to 2 Adult maintenance x 2
Week 6 Adult maintenance + 10 percent Weeks 3 to 4 Adult maintenance x 3
Week 7 Week 6 + 10 percent Weeks 5 to 6 Adult maintenance x 2
Week 8 Week 7 + 10 percent    
Week 9 Week 8 + 10 percent    

* Pregnant and lactating bitches should be fed a complete and balanced all-life stages or puppy food to meet their increased nutrient and energy requirements. A high-quality, highly digestible food that is energy- and nutrient-dense is recommended.