The final article in this series covers the nutritional needs of the dam during peak lactation and weaning.
In this series of articles, we have been exploring the unique nutritional needs of the reproducing bitch. It is important to realize that even after the bitch has whelped a beautiful litter of healthy, growing pups that are approaching 3 to 6 weeks of age, you and she are not yet out of the woods. This is the time of peak lactation, when the bitch is at the greatest risk for developing nutritional deficiencies.
The nutritional demands of lactation are heavy. To encourage a lactating dam to eat sufficient amounts to meet her nutritional needs, which are approximately three times her maintenance requirement by the time of peak lactation, it is essential to feed a high-quality growth-and-lactation ration that is very palatable and highly digestible. She may be fed either free choice or at least three times daily if meal-fed.
If the bitch is fed a diet of marginal sufficiency or if her intake of even an excellent growth-and-lactation diet is inadequate at this time, nutritional deficiencies may show in many ways. She may appear out of condition, her coat may look poor, and she may suffer from weight loss. In most lactation diets that are inadequate, the caloric content is usually particularly insufficient.
If food that is difficult to digest or of marginal nutritional adequacy is fed, the bitch may become anemic or develop uncontrollable diarrhea. If she consumes large amounts of these diets in an attempt to satisfy her nutritional needs, the excessive food intake is likely to overwhelm her intestinal tract, further reducing digestibility, resulting in an diarrhea. This drains the lactating female of energy, protein, vitamins and minerals. She may also become dehydrated, causing depletion of the essential fluids that are necessary to produce milk in adequate amounts as well as for the maintenance of her own metabolism. In severe cases, milk production may come to a complete stop, a condition called agalactia. Mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands that produces spoiled milk, can also occur if the bitch suffers from poor nutrition at this time.
Almost every breeder has seen even the most even-tempered, stoic bitch become easily annoyed and sometimes aggressive during lactation. Given the physical and emotional stress she is experiencing at this time, it is certainly understandable. This behavioral change most commonly begins two to three weeks after parturition. Supplementation with 250 to 500 milligrams of vitamin C daily has reportedly helped alleviate the problem and improve the bitch’s attitude in many cases. Although the physiologic basis for this effect is not known, short-term supplementation with vitamin C at this dosage is not harmful to the bitch or the pups and may be worthwhile under these circumstances.
Most nutritional purists do not recommend a multivitamin-and-mineral supplement for lactating bitches that are fed a growth-and-lactation diet that is palatable, of high-quality, highly digestible and nutrient-dense, as described above. However, many breeders will still use such supplements. In either case, however, the bitch’s intake of calcium should be monitored. Heavy lactation places such a dramatic drain on the bitch’s reserves of this mineral that sometimes her body’s calcium metabolism is unable to compensate for the loss. This unique syndrome is called eclampsia (or puerperal tetany). As the blood-calcium level drops, the bitch becomes restless and nervous, with incoordination, trembling and muscle spasms (which together consitute a condition called tetany) following soon thereafter. If not treated, the body temperature rises, and seizures and death can occur.
Treatment for eclampsia consists of slow intravenous administration of a calcium solution. The bitch’s heart rate must be carefully monitored because calcium, if given too quickly or in excessive amounts, can cause cardiac arrest. Eclampsia occurs most frequently in small breeds or in bitches that have large litters, usually two to three weeks after parturition as the bitch approaches peak lactation. To prevent eclampsia, the calcium level in the bitch’s diet should be at least 1.4 percent. The diet should be closely evaluated if significant amounts of human food, meats or organ products are fed. The pups should be encouraged to wean as early as practicable, especially in bitches that are at high risk for the reasons mentioned above or that have a prior medical history of eclampsia.
Although calcium supplementation is not recommended during pregnancy because, ironically, it may increase susceptibility to eclampsia, many nutritionists still recommend dietary calcium supplementation during lactation. To prevent eclampsia, a veterinarian might recommend oral calcium supplementation for the bitch immediately after whelping and continuing throughout lactation.
It can be tremendously stressful physiologically for the bitch to shift her metabolism from peak lactation to the sudden weaning of the pups, when her milk is no longer needed. Many breeders find it beneficial to restrict the bitch’s food intake immediately prior to and during weaning to minimize distension in the mammary glands and the discomfort associated with weaning. This may also reduce the risk of mastitis. This practice is especially helpful for bitches that have been producing large amounts of milk to feed a large litter. These breeders will separate the bitch from the pups during the day, withholding food from the dam and allowing the pups free choice access to solid food. That night the pups and bitch will be reunited and all food withdrawn. The pups are weaned the next day. Over the next several days, the bitch’s food intake is gradually increased until maintenance intake is restored.
The breeding bitch has unique physiologic and nutritional needs throughout her reproductive cycle. With special care and attention to her physical condition and nutritional status, both mother and pups can flourish and continue along the road of long and healthy lives.
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.