The Care and Feeding of the Breeding Bitch - Part One

By Kathleen Hefner, DVM

Avoiding malnourishment of a bitch from the pre-breeding phase to parturition is vital to the health of both the bitch and her pups.

We are all aware that good nutrition and proper prenatal care play important roles in ensuring the birth of healthy human children. The same is true in ensuring that our canine friends are born healthy.

Proper care and feeding of a breeding bitch should begin long before she is actually bred and even before her estrous cycle begins. If you and your veterinarian decide a bitch is a good breeding candidate, based upon a thorough physical exam in which she is found to be in good health and free of any physical abnormalities that may jeopardize pregnancy or whelping, as well as any potentially dangerous inheritable conditions, then the real work begins. She should be evaluated and treated for internal as well as external parasites that could impair her health or be transmitted to her offspring. She should also be given all appropriate vaccinations, as determined in consultation with your veterinarian.

The prospective breeding bitch should be weighed to help evaluate her overall nutritional status. Dietary adjustments in amount or type of food should be made at this time to achieve optimal body weight. A bitch who is either overweight or underweight will have less reproductive success.

What Are the Dangers?
Veterinary nutritionists strongly believe that malnourishment of bitches before breeding and during pregnancy is a major factor in neonatal puppy mortality, which is estimated to be between 20 and 30 percent. Just like growth and performance, reproduction is a physiologic state with nutritional requirements that exceed those of a maintenance phase. A bitch who is pregnant or has just given birth draws upon the nutritional reserves deposited in her body before and during pregnancy. A malnourished female will not have sufficient protein, vitamins, minerals and energy to support pregnancy.

Malnourishment of a breeding bitch can occur as the result of feeding poor-quality diets, imbalanced diets or insufficient amounts of good-quality diets. It can happen at any stage of her reproductive cycle, though perhaps the danger is greatest during late pregnancy, when nutritional needs greatly increase. Improper feeding of a breeding bitch can result in impaired health of both the bitch and her offspring, can cause low conception rates and birth defects, problems carrying the entire litter to term, dystocia (labor difficulties), as well as improper mammary development, which reduces the quality and amount of the milk and colostrum produced. Overweight bitches, as well as those who are underweight, may also have many of these problems.

Nutritional deprivation during pregnancy has been shown to affect the immune systems of both the bitch and her pups. The immune system is very sensitive to nutritional inadequacies during its formation and development. It can also affect the immune system's ability to function during future pregnancies as well, even if proper nutrition is restored.

Many times the malnourishment of the bitch is not evident until it is too late. She may appear thin and out of condition once whelped, with inadequate muscle and body-fat reserves to support lactation. The pups may suffer from "fading puppy syndrome," appearing weak, crying frequently, eating poorly and lacking coordination. Many of these pups face early death.

To ensure adequate nutritional status of the bitch prior to breeding, many veterinarians will do some simple blood work to determine whether the bitch is anemic or has low blood protein. If either problem is detected, this would indicate malnourishment and should be corrected prior to breeding.

When She Is Pregnant
Once a bitch is pregnant, she should be fed a high-quality, well-balanced performance diet throughout gestation, even though the pregnant bitch's nutritional requirements increase only minimally during the first half of gestation. As a guideline, choose a highly digestible, very palatable commercial diet. It should contain at least 29 percent protein and 17 percent fat. High amounts of soluble carbohydrates and a low fiber content are important to ensure adequate energy intake and to avoid hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in late pregnancy. Adequate intake of calcium (between 1 and 1.8 percent) and phosphorous (between .8 and 1.6 percent) intake is important for adequate milk production by the bitch so that the pups' bones form properly.

Dietary supplements, such as meats, milk, vitamins and minerals are generally not recommended if a high-quality growth/lactation diet is fed. Feeding excessive amounts of calcium or vitamin D can cause calcification of the soft tissues of the fetus, as well as other birth defects. Although lactation requires large amounts of calcium, supplementation during pregnancy does not prevent calcium depletion during lactation (eclampsia) and may actually compound the problem. Supplementation with meat products can reduce the carbohydrate content of the diet and can be associated with hypoglycemia and stillbirths.

If a high-quality, well-balanced growth/lactation ration is being fed, the actual amount of food required by the bitch during the first five to six weeks of pregnancy need not be increased significantly (10 percent maximum). This is because less than 30 percent of fetal growth occurs during these first few weeks. However, fetal growth rapidly increases in the last three to four weeks of gestation.

The bitch's food intake should be gradually increased by a total of 15 to 25 percent by the time of whelping to ensure adequate gain of body weight and increase of nutritional reserves. Because many females suffer from decreased appetite late in pregnancy due to abdominal distention, more frequent meals help maintain nutrient intake during this critical time. She should be fed at least twice daily. Indeed, many breeders will be feeding free choice by the time whelping approaches.

Maintaining adequate nutrition during the last trimester by feeding greater amounts of high-quality, well-balanced and palatable growth/lactation diet in frequent meals is critical to support the bitch and her pups for the next few weeks and to assure future good health.

In my next column, I will discuss proper feeding of the bitch during whelping and lactation to support adequate puppy growth and health.

Kathleen Hefner is an award-winning New Jersey-based veterinarian.

AKC GAZETTE articles are selected for their general interest and entertainment values. Authors' views do not necessarily represent the policies of the American Kennel Club, nor does their publication constitute an endorsement by the AKC.