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The role of dog breeders in determining whether a puppy achieves his or her potential cannot be underestimated. Many factors that occur early in a puppy’s development impact quality of life and ultimately affect aging and longevity.

Newborn Puppy Care

“Proper care of puppies includes many things,” says Melanie A. Barnes, DVM, head veterinarian at the Purina Product Technology Center in St. Joseph, Missouri. “Importantly, the first 24 hours of a puppy’s life may be the most significant nutritional period of its life. Breeders should encourage puppies to nurse often.”

Extra attention may be especially helpful with inexperienced dams. Dr. Barnes suggests breeders place puppies near nipples at feeding time, reassure and calm the dam, and make sure poorly nursing puppies have a chance to nurse often.

Newborns spend most of their time sleeping or nursing. During the first few weeks, puppies should nurse at least four to six times a day, Infrequent or weak nursing often signifies illness, chilling or congenital problems, and should be attended to by a veterinarian.

Newborn puppies should feel plump yet firm, with good muscle tone, and should wiggle vigorously. A strong suckling reflex should be apparent within minutes of birth or within several hours. Puppies’ eyes do not open until between 10 and 16 days, and their ears do not function until between 15 and 17 days. New puppies should only cry when they are hungry or cold. Excessive or prolonged crying is a sign of a problem.

Vigilant Breeders Help Spot Problems

“Small or weak puppies may appear to nurse and develop abdominal fullness, yet fail to thrive and become weak and die,” Dr. Barnes says. “Postmortem examination often reveals air but no milk in the stomach. If puppies are weak but appear to be nursing do not improve within a few hours, supplemental tube feeding should be used.”

General signs of sick neonates include limpness when held, a weak or no suckling reflex, low weight gain or weight loss, and excessive crying. Weight gain is considered the most important measure of puppy health during the first few days and weeks of life.

“Breeders should weigh puppies daily for the first two weeks, then weekly until weaning to ensure they are nursing effectively,” says Dr. Barnes. “In seven to 10 days, puppies should double their birth weight.”

Early Puppy Growth

The most rapid growth in dogs occurs during the first six months. Toy dogs and small dog breeds reach maturity by 12 months, compared with 12 to 18 months for medium dog breeds and 18 to 24 months old for large and giant dog breeds. When they are mature adults, most dogs have increased their birth weight by 40 to 50 times.

Helping a puppy reach her or her potential requires a commitment. Breeders who understand how early influences are interrelated realize the importance of providing proper care to ensure a healthy beginning for puppies.

Preparing Puppies for Weaning

Puppies can be introduced to supplemental food when they are between 3 and 4 weeks old. When introducing puppies to solid food, the dam should be separated from the litter for a few hours to ensure the puppies are hungry.

The preferred food used to wean puppies is the food they will be fed throughout growth. Examples include a puppy food, such as Purina Pro Plan FOCUS Puppy Chicken & Rice Formula, or an all-life stages food, such as Purina Pro Plan SPORT Performance 30/20 Formula.

A soupy gruel, made of dry food and warm water, should be offered several times a day in a large shallow bowl. Moistening dry puppy food helps to improve palatability and is easier for young puppies to eat. The amount of water added to the dry food should be gradually decreased until puppies are fully weaned.

Likewise, the length of time puppies are separated from the mother should be gradually increased. By 6 weeks old, puppies should be exclusively fed puppy food and nursing very little, if at all. Normally, bitches will begin weaning puppies between 4 to 6 weeks of age.

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Selecting a Puppy

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