How to Care for Newborn Puppies: The Complete Guide


Those of us who have been presented with the task of caring for newborn puppies are extremely fortunate but with this privilege also comes great responsibility. It’s exciting but can be daunting at the same time.

There are plenty of things to think about in order to raise a healthy, well-adjusted dog. This guide should cover everything you need to know to start your puppies out on the right path.

How to Care for Newborn Puppies

The time from the moment a puppy is born until they are a week old is known as the neonatal stage. At this point, newborn puppies are completely and utterly vulnerable.

They are unable to regulate their body temperature efficiently. They cannot see or even hear properly as both their eyes and ears are sealed shut. In fact, the only senses newborn puppies have to rely on are smell and touch.

It takes about fifteen days for them to be able to support their own weight using their legs. Until that time, they crawl around to develop muscle strength and coordination.

Healthy puppies will nurse ten percent of the time and sleep the rest. All of their energy is focused on growing bigger and stronger. So what steps do we need to take to get them through this short but crucial time in their lives?

Overview of caring for newborn puppies (birth – 12 weeks):

Action RequiredTimescale
Provide a Whelping BoxPrior to birth
Ensure the dam has good nutrition and plenty of waterParticularly during the final trimester but most importantly after birth until approx week 3-4
Examine the newbornsAs soon as possible
Keep the newborns warmBirth – 4 weeks approx
Ensure the newborns are well-fedThroughout the whelping period but especially the first 3-4 weeks
Monitor the newborns’ weightAs soon as the dam allows it and once every 24 hrs throughout the whelping period
Trim the newborns’ nailsAs soon as is convenient, and once per week thereafter
Don’t handle newborns excessively0 – 2 weeks
Commence deworming program2 – 3 weeks
Open up the whelping box3 weeks
Paper training3 weeks
Introduce chew toys3 weeks
Weaning3 – 4 weeks
Initial vaccinations6 – 8 weeks
Puppies can leave the dam8 weeks minimum, 10 – 12 weeks recommended

Please read on for a more in-depth guide to each step, along with some additional things to be aware of.

Provide a Whelping Box

Prior to the birth of the puppies, you will need to provide a small enclosed space in which the mother can take care of her pups; this is known as a whelping box.

This box needs to have plenty of space for both the mother and her puppies to lie down, with some space to spare so that mom can stretch out easily without squashing her little ones.

The whelping box should be sufficiently enclosed to keep the pups from escaping whilst still allowing the mother to come and go as necessary.

It is also best to have a solid sealed floor inside the box and to line it with some absorbent material that is safe for the puppies.

Suitable whelping box lining materials include:

  • Shredded newspaper—This is easy to change out and keep clean. It’s used most often by breeders. The paper allows easy mobility for the puppy. It’s also inexpensive and readily available.
  • Blankets or towels—These provide warmth and comfort, but a newborn puppy can become entangled or trapped in the folds which can lead to injury and/or suffocation. Cloth bedding is also more work since it will need to be washed frequently.
  • Wood shavings—These help with odor control because they absorb fluids. Portions can be scooped out and changed easily as necessary.
  • Puppy pads—This is an effective but more expensive option. You can purchase these from a pet store. I’ve also heard of owners using people pads as they can work out cheaper.

All these options will work for newborn pups so just choose one that works best for you.

Nutrition for the Dam

Particularly during the first few weeks of the puppies’ life, the mother/dam should take the lead in caring for them. This includes feeding them, keeping them warm, and even stimulating them to pass urine and defecate.

For these reasons, in the first few weeks, much of the owner’s focus needs to be on the health of the mother and it’s imperative that her nutritional requirements are met properly.

Bear in mind, while a dam’s calorie requirement is elevated by around 15-25% during the last trimester of pregnancy, overfeeding can easily cause a pregnant bitch to become overweight, which can cause complications during the birth itself.

Following the birth, it is recommended to “free feed” the dam using nutrient-rich dry food such as puppy food. Having unlimited access to food will allow her to eat little and often as she pleases.

Just be aware that puppy food for larger breeds often has less fat, and protein content than puppy food for regular and smaller sized breeds. Try to get a puppy food that is suitable for your specific breed of dog.

When nursing her pups, the dam will also need a lot of water to keep the milk flowing.

Examine the Newborn Puppies

Once the dam has eaten the placenta and chewed off the umbilical cord after birth you should make sure that the umbilical cord is not chewed off too close to the stomach. If so, you need to take the newborn to the veterinarian immediately.

Examine the newborns at birth to make sure there are not any obvious health problems or deformities. Check for the following:

  • Two eyes and two ears
  • Facial features formed correctly
  • Four normal limbs
  • A straight spine

If they have a cleft palate, you need a prompt trip to the veterinarian. Puppies can’t nurse properly with this deformity as they are unable to get any suction. They will lose weight and may starve to death without medical attention.

Sadly, some cases of a cleft palate can be so severe that the dog may have to be put down.

Keep the Newborn Puppies Warm

Since newborn puppies can’t regulate their own body temperature very well they can develop hypothermia surprisingly quickly.

One common problem is the mother leaving the puppies unattended for long periods. This often happens when the dam is closely attached to her owner.

In this case, moving the whelping box closer to you may help keep the dam by their side. Just remember that she will still need to leave them periodically to deal with her own needs.

The good thing is that newborn puppies will usually make squeaking noises when something is not right, such as if they are cold or hungry, so pay attention to what they may be trying to tell you.

If you think that the puppies are not being kept warm enough, there are different items you can use to keep the whelping box warm. Just bear in mind that puppies tend to head towards warmth (usually the dam) to find milk, so try to ensure that the dam is still the warmest thing inside the whelping box to avoid confusing them.

Items you can use to help keep the whelping box warm include:

  • Blankets
  • Warm (not hot) water bottle
  • Heating pad (set to low)
  • Heat lamp

These forms of temperature regulation are most important in cases where the dam is not attentive. However, if you are using any additional heat sources, use a thermometer to monitor the temperature inside the whelping box.

Maintain a temperature of around 85°F (29°C) for the first 2 or 3 days after birth. You can then drop it to 75-80°F (24-27°C) and gradually bring it furtherdown to room temperature as the puppies grow.

Make sure that one end of the box remains cooler so the puppies can escape the heat if necessary.

Ensure the Newborn Puppies Are Well Fed

The dam should feed the puppies for the first three to four weeks. When they are first born, they should look around eagerly for a teat.

This first milk is known as colostrum and it is rich in antibodies. It is very important that each puppy feeds several times within the first few hours after birth to get their share.

The process of puppies searching for a teat is known as “rooting”. A puppy will often make grunting sounds or squeaks when rooting.

In their first week, puppies will usually nurse around every two hours; this will become less frequent as they get older.

You should try to ensure all of the newborns are feeding often enough. If you notice one of them isn’t receiving enough food, you’ll need to respond promptly.

A newborn that doesn’t receive enough nutrition can descend into hypoglycemia very quickly due to their high glucose requirements coupled with their inability to process blood glucose levels efficiently.

Hypoglycemic newborns may exhibit:

  • Weight loss
  • Fainting
  • Confusion
  • Weakness

There are several reasons a newborn may not be receiving enough nutrition.

Their littermates are crowding them out – Simply remove their siblings for a few minutes and let that puppy nurse. Just don’t remove the other pups for too long. You can also try to place a hungry puppy at the teats near the rear of the mother. This is where the richest milk is located.

They may be too weak or not have a strong suckling reflex – These puppies might need to be nursed manually by hand. However, you shouldn’t do so until you’ve discussed the process with your veterinarian and you know exactly what you’re doing. It’s best to discuss this before the puppies are born if possible.

Poor milk production – Low milk production or poor quality milk can contribute to a newborn puppy not receiving enough nutrition. In most cases, ensuring the dam is drinking enough and eating plenty of nutrient-dense foods should combat this.

Mastitis – If you notice the mother is snapping at the puppies or not wanting to nurse them, check her teats for redness and swelling which could be a sign of mastitis. This is an infection in the mammary glands and will limit milk production. You will need to take her to the veterinarian.

Monitor the Newborns’ Weight

Newborn puppies seem pretty lean at birth and will lose a little weight on the first day. However, once they hydrate, they should quickly gain it back. Depending on the breed they may almost double their weight within the first week.

As soon as the dam will allow it, pick them up one at a time and start weighing them. Now is also a good time to sex the puppies too.

If you have several puppies it may be difficult to distinguish them apart. Collars or ribbons are a strangle hazard at this stage so you can dot them with non-toxic markers to help with identification. Place a dot on either the tip of their ear, tail, or belly.

In order to keep track of puppies’ weight, you should:

  • Create a chart in order to make daily records for each puppy
  • Weigh each newborn (digital scales are best as accuracy is important)
  • Make a note of each puppy’s weight (grams is best for accuracy)
  • Re-weigh each puppy every 24 hours

The puppies’ weight should steadily increase over the next forty-eight to seventy-two hours. Depending upon the breed, there should be around a 5%-10% increase in weight every day.

If you have a puppy who is not increasing in weight quickly enough, or is possibly even losing weight, you will need to take action such as hand nursing. Again, ensure you know what you are doing by discussing it with a veterinarian beforehand.

Trim the Newborns’ Nails

Nursing a litter of hungry newborns is not easy on their dam! Make it a little more comfortable for her by keeping her puppies’ nails trimmed. That way, they won’t scratch their mother so much with their sharp claws.

While newborns claws are so small, you can simply use human nail clippers. You just want to take the very tips off to reduce the sharpness.

Remember not to cut too much off as you can easily cut into the blood supply (also known as the quick of the nail) which will cause the pups to be in pain and bleed.

Don’t Handle the Newborns Excessively

For the first two weeks, keep your handling down to a minimum. This is the time when the newborns should be bonding with their mother and littermates. They need their own space and time. Socialization with the mother and other puppies is extremely important.

You’ll have your chance to socialize with the puppies after the first two to three weeks. For the moment leave them with the mother and other newborns as much as possible.

Deworm Your Puppies

Almost all puppies will contract worms very early on or even from birth, as they are usually transmitted either through the placenta or from the mother’s milk. This is particularly true if it is the mother’s first litter.

There are many types of worms that are common in puppies and treatment can vary depending upon which type they may have.

Worms that are common in puppies include but are not limited to:

  • Heartworms – Usually transmitted via mosquitoes
  • Tapeworms – Usually transmitted via fleas
  • Whipworms – Transmitted via the stool of other dogs
  • Hookworms – Transmitted from the mother or via the stool of other
  • Roundworms – Transmitted from the mother or via the stool of other

Veterinarians will be able to test which type of worms your puppies have from fresh stool samples.

Puppies that have worms may present some of the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Soft stool
  • Diarrhea
  • Worms in stool or vomit
  • Poor coat
  • Pot-belly
  • Lethargy

Some puppies may not show any signs of worms at all.

Worms can particularly dangerous for puppies as they leach them of the nutrients that they need to grow and to be healthy.

It’s also important to know that some worms are zoonotic, meaning they can also be transmitted to humans.

There are different solutions for different types of worms, and some treatments will target a variety of different worms at the same time.

Treatments will usually only target adult worms and so you will have to repeat the treatments at a later date in order to kill off the unhatched young.

Consult your veterinarian regarding a deworming program. Usually, vets will suggest deworming commences around 2-3 weeks of age.

Opening the Whelping Box and Puppy-Proofing the house

By the time puppies are three weeks old, their eyes should have opened. They become more aware of their surroundings and so it’s time to open up the whelping box.

They will be ready to start exploring. However, a puppy at this age is much too young to take outdoors so just keep the play indoors for now.

You’ll need to puppy-proof the house and look for small objects that could be swallowed. Be aware of power cables and anything else they may harm themselves with. Try to ensure all hazards are out of reach.

Supervise their exploration as best as you can. They are still babies after all, and babies can get into trouble pretty quickly! Some breeders may use a puppy playpen to help keep them under control.

Paper Training

Once the whelping box is opened, the puppies can relieve themselves outside of the box. Set up a layer of newspaper around two times bigger than the whelping box.

Try to keep the whelping box as clean as possible but change the paper outside of the box only occasionally. They’ll learn to go on the paper pretty quickly if they are directed by smell.

These are the beginning steps to housebreaking. Some people use pee pads instead of the newspaper. It all depends on your preference.

Playtime & Teething

When the puppies are three weeks old, you can also start to give them a chew toy that is safe for puppies.

Their milk teeth will be coming in, and they will want to start gnawing on something so it might as well be a designated chew toy, rather than your slippers.

They’ll be out of the whelping box at this point and looking for fun. They’ll begin wrestling, nipping, and playing with their brothers and sisters.

If things get too rough, mom will step in and break it up. She’ll also play with her brood since she’s no longer nursing as much. The puppies will be investigating everything.

Socialization With Humans

At three weeks, you should also be touching and holding your new puppies. This should be a daily occurrence. “Touch desensitization” and socialization are extremely important. This will help ensure a well-adjusted pet.

Your puppies need to become accustomed to:

  • Human handling
  • Human noises
  • Having their paws touched
  • Having their teeth and gums touched

Being familiar with all these sensations will help them settle in as part of your family – or any potential human family in the future.

In addition, it will make things such as washing, dental care, and nail trimming far less difficult as they grow up. It’s much easier for puppies to become used to these sensations rather than meeting them for the first time when they are adults.

Weaning

The process of moving the puppies from their mother’s milk onto solid foods is known as weaning.

The mother will feed the newborns for approximately the first three to four weeks. At around this time, you should start transitioning the puppies onto solid food.

It’s best to use a puppy dry food and to wet it with warm water or a puppy milk formula to help soften it.

The puppies may let you know that they are ready to start weaning by sniffing around their mother’s food. One way to encourage the puppies to eat solid food is to let them watch their mother eat.

At around six weeks, the process of weaning your puppies should be almost complete.

The puppies may still try to root around the mother. If they seem to go back to the dam too often, discourage them.

One way to help decrease nursing is via the use of a canine bra or perhaps even a human T-shirt if fitted correctly. This can be placed on the mother to prevent the puppies from nursing.

How Often Should You Feed a Puppy?

Once the puppies have completed the weaning process, which they should have done by the age of 6 weeks, they will still need to be fed softened food little and often due to their small stomachs.

The American Kennel Club says between 6 and 12 weeks of age…

Four feedings a day are usually adequate to meet nutritional demands. Large breeds should be fed unmoistened dry food by 9 or 10 weeks; small dogs by 12 or 13 weeks.

You may need to enlist a friend or hire a dog sitter if your work schedule doesn’t permit this feeding routine.

As previously mentioned, puppies are prone to hypoglycemia at this tender age. By frequently feeding them, you can prevent a drop in blood sugar and the risk of a hypoglycemic episode.

Vaccinations

Vaccines will protect your puppy against disease. At eight weeks old, they’re ready for their first round.

A second dose will be usually given at ten to twelve weeks. Your puppy won’t have full protection from disease until about two weeks after the second dose.

Vaccines to be administered may include:

  • Distemper
  • Hepatitis
  • Leptospirosis
  • Parvo (given at six, eight, and twelve weeks. It can be contracted up until two weeks after the last vaccination)
  • Parainfluenza
  • Rabies (state law may require this)

Be sure to consult your veterinarian for a full vaccination plan and regarding when they can begin to go outside and meet other dogs.

The AKC has an in-depth guide of puppy vaccinations during the first year here.

It is not recommended that you take a puppy to a dog park before it is fully vaccinated.

Fleas and Ticks on Your Puppies

Young puppies are prone to catching fleas as they cannot use flea medication until they are at least six weeks old. If your puppy is less than six weeks old and has fleas and or ticks, you will have to use other methods to remove them for now.

For puppies less than 6 weeks old with fleas:

  1. Groom them using a flea comb
  2. Pick fleas off with tweezers
  3. Wash puppy bedding frequently
  4. Vacuum surrounding area
  5. Treat the puppies’ dam

Flea prevention is critical with a small puppy as they’ve been known to make small puppies anemic. If you see fleas, check your pup’s gums. A healthy puppy has pink gums. If they’re pale you should take your puppy to the vet immediately.

When a puppy reaches six weeks old, you can apply certain flea medications. Make sure you read the instructions and follow them carefully.

You also want to buy a medication that is appropriate for your dog’s size. Using flea medication that is not intended for puppies can cause harm.

Flea medications for puppies over 6 weeks old include:

Because fleas can also carry tapeworms, you will need to monitor your puppy closely. Rice-like segments of dried tapeworm may appear around their rectum. If you notice this you will need to get in touch with your veterinarian.

Keeping a Newborn Puppy Clean

Resist the urge to bathe your newborn pups. Generally speaking a newborn does not need to be bathed. The mother should take care of that, so leave the bathing to her as much as possible.

The best way to help keep your newborns clean is to keep the whelping box clean. The babies will be eliminating their waste in the box, to begin with, so it’s bound to get messy.

Whichever lining material you decide on, you’ll need to change it out extremely frequently.

Keep an eye on the cleanliness of the puppies. Sometimes a mother will abandon or neglect one puppy and you may have to step in. Once more, only clean a newborn if the mother is not doing the job.

Never submerge a newborn puppy in water.

Follow these steps to clean newborn puppies:

  • Only use warm water
  • Use a damp cloth to wipe down the puppy
  • Dry the puppy thoroughly and completely when finished
  • If possible, place the puppy back with its mother immediately
  • If the mother isn’t available, place the puppy in a dry, warm area

It is important to dry your newborn puppy and place them in a warm place immediately after the bathing procedure as they can get hypothermia very quickly.

When to Visit the Veterinarian

Whether or not to make a veterinarian visit depends on your puppies’ health. If they are gaining weight and looking good, you shouldn’t have to take them until they are due vaccinations at around six weeks old. However, if they are exhibiting sickness or weight loss, take them to the veterinarian as soon as possible.

Signs of sickness include:

  • Lack of appetite
  • Poor weight gain
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Constant crying
  • Pale gums

The Right Time for a Puppy to Leave Its Mother?

At 8 weeks of age, most puppies are capable of feeding themselves and the dam will also be ready to see her puppies go. However, I recommend that you do not separate them from their mother and the rest of the litter until they are at least 10, or preferably 12 weeks old.

Separating a puppy from its mother too soon can create a fear of other dogs.

While puppies need to be properly socialized with humans, this isn’t something that you need to be overly conscious of as it usually happens quite naturally.

It is equally important, if not more so, that puppies are socialized around other dogs. Some breeds in particular are naturally unsociable with other members of the canine family. Spending time with their mother and siblings in these early stages is crucial for combating this and can really affect their personality later in life.

Other consequences of premature separationinclude:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Weight loss
  • Clinginess
  • Stress
  • Higher susceptibility to disease
  • Severe anxiety
  • Aggression

Once your puppies leave their mother, let them take a familiar object to make them feel more comfortable to begin with.

Don’t worry too much though; puppies adapt pretty quickly and will be happy to spend time with their new owners and family!

Mark Ingram

Thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope that it was informative and useful in some way. I love all of my pets and their care is paramount to me. I hope that my writing will help others in caring for their pets also.

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