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.
Proper Feeding of the Bitch
Inadequate intake of calories and nutrients prior to whelping and especially during lactation can have serious, even deadly, consequences.
As we discussed in Part One, proper nutrition of a breeding bitch is important during all stages of the reproductive cycle in order to ensure the good health and growth of her newborn puppies. Although a dam’s nutritional requirements increase tremendously during the last trimester of pregnancy, nutritional deficiencies are most likely to occur after birth, when her body must cope with the stress placed on it by the demands of lactation.
A quality feeding program for a reproducing bitch has two goals: first, to provide adequate nutrition so that her weight increases by 15 to 25 percent by the time of whelping; and second, to help her maintain optimal body weight after parturition, when she must produce sufficient quantities of milk and colostrum to support growth in the newborn pups until they are weaned.
To achieve these goals, you must feed adequate amounts of a good-quality, highly digestible, very palatable commercial growth-and-lactation diet. It should contain at least 29 percent protein, at least 17 percent dietary fat and less than 5 percent dietary fiber. This is measured based on dry-matter weight, not calories. These percentages should provide adequate calories and protein to support the tremendous demands of milk production and puppy growth.
The Consequences of Improper Feeding
If you do not feed the bitch properly, she is likely, by the time of whelping, to be thin and out of condition, with poor muscle tone or brittle fur, and these problems often worsen during lactation. In an attempt to meet her nutritional needs, she may increase her food intake, which can lead to uncontrollable diarrhea. As stated in Part One, pups born to a mother whose health is in this state are prone to a condition called “fading puppy syndrome,” appearing weak and lethargic, crying frequently, eating and growing poorly, and lacking coordination. Many of them ultimately die. Improper feeding of the bitch can also cause problems with lactation, ranging from reduced milk production to total failure to produce milk. Astute breeders monitor for these signs and immediately adjust the feeding regimen by improving the quality of the food, increasing the amount fed or both.
By the time of parturition, the pregnant bitch’s dietary intake should have increased by 15 to 25 percent. Feed her at least twice daily or free choice. Most breeders do the latter to ensure adequate food intake. Most bitches refuse food approximately 12 hours prior to whelping, coinciding with a 1- to 2-degree decline in body temperature. Make every effort at this time to encourage water or ice intake to prevent dehydration, weakness, labor difficulties and impaired milk letdown. (Milk letdown is the process by which milk is transferred from the upper part of the mammary milk-secretion glands to the lower part for release through the nipples.) After giving birth, she must resume intake of highly palatable, good-quality food as soon as possible. The inexperienced or overattentive mother may be reluctant to leave the pups. Bring food and water to her if necessary. Some females are anorexic for a few days after whelping. Many breeders encourage food intake by offering highly palatable products, such as ice cream, homemade mixtures (for example, mix one can of evaporated milk, one can of water, three egg yolks and one-quarter cup of Karo syrup; heat, then let cool), puppy-milk replacers or a growth-and-lactation commercial cat food.
Nutritional deficiencies are particularly likely to occur when the bitch is lactating. Her physiology will prioritize the utilization of nutrients. The top priority is lactation and puppy growth, and she will actually deplete her body reserves at the expense of her own health for that purpose. Your goal is to provide enough nutrition for her to maintain optimal body weight while the puppies nurse. All nutrients are needed in increased amounts. Simply ensuring sufficient intake of calories is extremely difficult, and therefore her diet should have a fat content of at least 17 percent.
Many factors affect the caloric requirements of the lactating bitch, including the number of pups, the size of the breed and the temperament of the dam. The larger the litter, the greater the nutrient requirements for milk production. On the other hand, smaller breeds tend to have a greater energy requirement per pound of body weight. Some breeders feed smaller dogs a good-quality, growth-and-lactation commercial cat food because of the greater caloric and nutrient content of these products. Likewise, a temperamental or nervous bitch will expend more energy and have a higher requirement. As a rule of thumb, at peak lactation you should increase a bitch’s food intake by 25 percent per puppy above what is usually required to maintain her body weight. For example, if a bitch normally requires two cups of dog food to maintain her body weight and has a litter of six pups, feed her a total of five cups a day (two cups divided by 25 percent equals one-half cup; multiplying that by six puppies equals three cups; adding the bitch’s normal two cups maintenance equals five cups).
Another guideline used by many is to increase the bitch’s food intake by one-and-a-half, two and three times above her maintenance requirements by weeks one, two and three of lactation, respectively. Again, most breeders will feed free choice. If meal-fed, feed at least three times daily.
Most commercial dog foods do not contain sufficient nutrient density, especially caloric content, to support lactation. The feeding of these products is the most common cause of malnutrition. If a bitch who is being fed free choice is thin by the time of weaning, then the quality of her food, as well as its caloric density, is inadequate. If this occurs, I recommend changing to a higher-quality, more calorie-dense product. A less desirable alternative is to supplement the current diet with a fat source (1 tablespoon of fat per cup of dry food). Grease, lard, tallow or vegetable oil is acceptable and will raise the number of calories by 30 percent.
The importance of proper nutrition of the breeding bitch cannot be overemphasized.
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.
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