Smart Breeding Starts With Healthy Nutrition

Puppies in a basket

Preparing a female dog nutritionally to whelp a litter of puppies begins even before she is bred. Veterinary nutritionists and reproduction specialists agree that body condition – a body fitness report card – has an impact on reproductive success.

Andrea Hesser, DVM, DACT, a board-certified theriogenologist who practices at Josey Ranch Pet Hospital in Carrollton, Texas, says, “An ideal body condition of 5 or 6 out of 9 is optimal for conception, healthy pregnancy, delivery, and lactation.”

Alternatively, a female having thin body condition may not cycle normally, and one in an overly thin state may have limited ability to conceive. “Reproduction is a ‘low-priority’ body function in thin animals,” Dr. Hesser explains. “If a dog’s nutritional needs are not met, the uterus and ovaries are less active. When a thin female dog cycles, the nutrients such as fat that are required to form healthy eggs and later embryos may be of low quality and less likely to result in puppies.”

Obesity presents other complications related to conceiving and carrying a pregnancy to term. “Females in obese body condition have more pelvic fat, which prevents puppies from easily passing out of the pelvis during delivery,” says Dr. Hesser. “Adipose tissue, or fat, is a source of inflammation for the body, and this inflammatory state is not optimal for a female dog and likely is part of the reason we see decreased conception rates in overweight female dogs.”

Maintenance of ideal body condition is important throughout the nine weeks of pregnancy. “Regardless of the phase of pregnancy, diets should be adjusted based on maintaining ideal body condition for the pregnant dam,” says Purina Senior Research Nutritionist Deborah Greco, DVM, PhD, DACVIM. “Ideal body condition during pregnancy is defined as having an appropriate muscle and fat balance. You should be able to easily feel her ribs, shoulder blades and hips; however, her growing abdomen means that you cannot see a waist behind the ribs when viewing from the top or an abdominal tuck from the side as when she is not pregnant.”

During the first trimester, from 0 to 21 days, a dam should be fed a normal amount of her regular complete and balanced adult or all life stages dog food. During the second trimester, from 22 to 42 days, the amount of food fed, preferably of an all life stages or puppy food, should gradually increase based on the nutritional needs of an individual dog. During the third trimester, from 43 to 64 days, a female should be fed to meet her nutritional needs; female dogs carrying average litter sizes generally are fed one and half times more food than before pregnancy in small feedings throughout the day.

As fetal development continues, the dam has progressively less abdominal space for comfortable digestive tract expansion and function. Frequent feedings of smaller meals may be helpful. Growing fetuses, fluid and developing placental tissues and mammary glands all contribute to a dam’s increasing body weight. During the final two weeks of gestation, food consumption may increase.  

“The importance of feeding a balanced commercial all life stages dog food or puppy food as the mainstay for optimal reproductive capacity in females and optimal growth in puppies is key,” Dr. Greco says. “Certain micronutrients and macronutrients, when balanced with other nutrients in the formulation, can affect the long-term health and well-being of puppies. Optimal nutrition is so important during pregnancy and lactation for the dam and her puppies.”


  • Female dogs should be fed a caloric-dense dog food during pregnancy and lactation. Veterinary nutritionists recommend feeding an all life stages dog food or a puppy food providing 400 to 500 kilocalories. It is ideal to feed a highly palatable food that provides complete and balanced nutrition, including a proper balance of carbohydrates, which are so important for a healthy pregnancy. 
  • A high protein-to-fat ratio around 30 percent protein and 20 percent fat is recommended. A protein deficiency during pregnancy can reduce the birth weight of puppies and increase neonatal mortality. Protein requirements are even higher during lactation, especially in large litters. Fat contains twice as much energy, or kilocalories, per unit of food than carbohydrates or protein, making it an essential part of nutrition for gestation and lactation.
  • The quantity of food fed should not be increased during the first trimester, or three weeks, of pregnancy. During the second trimester, the amount of food fed should be gradually increased. A pregnant female’s intake requirements generally increase one and a half times more than maintenance during the last trimester, though this varies based on the nutritional needs of an individual female dog. Several small meals a day are recommended due to less abdominal space related to pregnancy. 
  • Females with average size litters should gain no more than 15 to 25 percent of their prepregnancy body weight and weigh 5 to 10 percent more than their prepregnancy weight immediately after whelping.
  • Energy requirements may increase by double to triple during lactation, particularly with large litters. Female dogs carrying singleton or small litters may not need an increase in calories despite increased appetite.