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French Bulldog puppies sitting around a woman indoors.

No matter how experienced you become at dog breeding and whelping litters of puppies, you may sometimes face scenarios you have not seen before. Purina Pro Plan turned to experts to answer questions related to dog breeding. Purina senior research Nutritionist Arleigh Reynolds, DVM, Ph.D., 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.

Q: What should you do if you have trouble getting bitches pregnant and then carrying their pregnancies to term.

Dr. Hesser: Ovulating timing, breeding to quality semen from a proven stud dog, and monitoring the pregnancy properly are key to success. 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.

I 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. 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. 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?

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.

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

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.

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.

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

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 or 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.

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?

Dr. Reynolds: I feed Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula year-round, as it is an all-life stages food that can be fed to mothers 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. 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 and at least 16 percent fat. 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; however, puppy foods vary in energy and calcium levels.

Q: Should the amount of food fed during pregnancy or post- whelping increase? When should you go back to feeding the female the before-pregnancy maintenance amount?

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 1⁄4 to 1 1⁄2 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.

Q: Do you have tips on how to be sure neonatal puppies are getting enough milk? What is your method for weaning puppies?

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 eyedropper.

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 their 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.

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