Ensuring a healthy litter of puppies does not start with feeding the pups a quality food, but feeding the dam a quality food for life, especially during the pre-breeding and pregnancy periods. Many commercial dog foods are less than adequate for companion dogs, let alone pregnant or nursing dams. Poor nutrition in dams can lead to several developmental problems such as eclampsia, cleft palate, still-births, reabosrbtion of the litter, low litter counts, low birth-weights, susceptibility to diseases and parasites, poor development of important brain, muscle, nerve, bone and organ structures and even behavioral issues.
Provided here are some quick nutrition tips to help keep your dam and litter in tip-top shape, even before they are whelped.
Tip # 1: Do your homework!
If there is one thing that can be said about most of the information provided on the internet about nutrition and food it is that people fib. Facts are skewed, truths distorted, and the “bad stuff” omitted. Especially when it comes to a topic that is as debatable as nutrition. Much of the information on the internet is published by someone or some company with a personal bias. The worst place to look for information regarding nutrition would be pet food companies. They have much to lose if they do not sell their product as superior to their competitors. The best place to look for information regarding nutrition and the pregnant dam is veterinary sites, breeding sites, and articles posted by veterinarians / nutritionists which have no personal stake in a dog food or dog food company. Remember, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we don’t all have to buy into it.
Another thing that you can do to help you make educated decisions when determining a diet for your pregnant dam would be to learn about interpreting pet food labels. If you are going to go the commercial route, which is fine if you are looking at quality feeds, animal feed control officials and organizations have set in place standards and guidelines that dog food manufacturers must abided by in order to sell their product.
Know that there are pros and cons to every type of diet. Commercial pet foods are good because they provide adequate nutrition for most life stages. Some are better than others, while some should be avoided all together. Again, it’s your call to make. While most commercial dog foods are complete and balanced (contains the minimum amount of necessary nutrients needed to survive as determined by the Association of Animal Feed Control Officials) easy to feed, and cheaper, easy and cheap come with a price. The cooking process depletes most of the natural nutritional value needed to sustain optimal health and many have harmful, even toxic chemicals such as artificial preservatives. Another option is raw or holistic diets. These are beneficial in that they are prepared so that they do not lose nutritional value, they do not contain any harmful or toxic substances, and they can be tailor-made for each individual canine’s needs. However, with this diet too there are drawbacks. Natural and holistic diets are not complete and balanced, and unless the person preparing them has knowledge in canine nutrition, dogs can develop nutrient deficiencies. It’s also time consuming and can be expensive. One suggestion is to use a combination; a high quality commercial dog food with complimented with additional meats, vitamins, minerals, and other supplements.
Tip #2: Get a head start!
As mentioned earlier, good nutrition doesn’t start with putting puppies on a good dog food, but it starts with the dam’s nutrition prior to breeding. While nutritional demands do not increase until later in the pregnancy, it’s still a good idea to switch the dam from a regular maintenance formula to a quality growth and development formula that has quality meat protein sources as the first ingredients and also includes fatty acids Omega-6 and Omega-3. Growth and development formulas usually have a higher amount of protein and fats, so be sure that the dam is receiving normal exercise at least twice a day. Avoid obesity at all cost because this can cause complications during whelping. One way to determine if your dam is overweight is to feel for the ribs. As a rule of thumb, the ribs of the dog should be felt but not seen.
Tip #3: Know your nutrients!
Different nutrients serve different purposes for our dogs. Water is the most important nutrient. An adult dog’s body consists of approximately 65%-70% water, whereas a newborn puppy’s body weight is almost 85%-90% water! Make sure that fresh, clean water is provided all throughout the day. A rule of thumb when determining if water sources are okay for your dog to drink from is “If you wouldn’t drink from it, your dog shouldn’t drink from it”. Also some water sources (even tap water) are high in harmful chemicals and toxic elements such as mercury, a known factor that contributes to many birth defects.
Proteins are one of the most misunderstood nutrients when it comes to dog nutrition. A lot of people will base the quality of a dog food off the protein quality alone, which is a mistake. While the amount of protein is important, the protein source is even more important. It’s not the actual protein itself that a dog needs, but the amino acids that make the protein up. Plants have different amino-acids than meat sources do, and different meat sources have different arrangements of these amino-acids. Unlike cats, dogs are not true carnivores by nature, but omnivores. This means that they can eat both plant and animal materials. However, their digestive tracts are more geared towards digesting animal proteins with their natural diets containing less than 3% plant material (obtained from eating stomach contents of other animals). Animal proteins provide all of the essential amino acids and they are easier on the digestive system. Many dog foods that contain high amounts of corn and other plant protein (such as soybeans, wheat, rice, etc.) and carbohydrate sources causes the dog to suffer maldigestion and gas which can lead to bloat and even death. Some dog’s stomachs do not produce enough of the right enzymes to break down plant proteins and carbohydrates, so the proteins and carbs sit in the stomach and bacteria grows around it. The bacteria produces gas which in turn leads to chronic gas and bloat (a serious and fatal disorder in some dogs.) A diet with a minimum of 28% protein is sufficient for most dogs.
Fats are another misunderstood element in dog nutrition. Just they need proteins for their amino-acids, dogs need fats for their fatty acids, rather than the fat itself. Omega-3 and Omega-6 fatty acids are necessary for the development of necessary structures such as the brain systems, nervous system, and vital organ structures. Ensure that any food you feed your dog contains a minimum of 17% fat. For large breed dams you will want to feed a food that is slightly less fat and protein, such as a normal maintenance formula which is around 26% protein and 15% fat.
Remember, your dog will most likely display the symptoms of inadequate nutrition during pregnancy due to the stress alone that the pregnancy places on the dam’s body. You can help to meet calcium, probiotics, and mineral needs by supplementing with foods such as eggs, yogurt, cottage cheese, broth, and goats milk. Before adding any supplementation to your dog’s meal, you should first check with your veterinarian, as some dogs may be intolerant of some supplementations.
Tip #4: Be prepared to meet ever-increasing nutritional demands
There is a difference between dietary sufficiency (which most maintenance / adult diets are formulated for) and optimum nutrition (what we should strive for, especially with our dams). Dietary sufficiency may be adequate for low-energy level pet dogs, but it is not desirable for the ever increasing nutrition demands of pregnant / lactating dams and puppies. The dam’s feeding needs will change as she continues through her pregnancy.
During the first four weeks of pregnancy, the dam’s nutritional demands should remain the same; preferably two meals a day with constant access to water. After week 4, the growing puppies will begin to put a strain on the dam’s body. The rations should be increased 25% the normal ration each week of the remainder of the pregnancy until the pups are 4 weeks old. Once the pups are 4 weeks old, begin cutting the dam back to her normal ration by 25% a week at a time. By the time the pups are eight weeks old and being weaned, the dam should be back to her normal feed rations.
Along with the increase in food comes an increase in feeding intervals. After four weeks, the dam will not be able to eat all that she needs in just one or even two feeding intervals. With the size and position of the puppies and the enlarged uterus, the dam will eat less in a feeding interval even though her body demands more. For this reason, the dam will have to be feed in four to six intervals throughout the day. If you find that the dam is refusing to eat, try to make the food more appealing by adding extra special treats, such as boiled meat products, broths, yogurt, etc.
At five weeks pregnant, the food should be increased to approximately 1 ¼ times the normal ration, at 6 weeks 1 ½ , at 7 weeks 1 ¾ , and at 8 weeks she should be receiving approximately twice what she would normally get. One suggestion is to feed the dam as much as she will eat in a feeding interval, monitoring her body weight closely and allowing her light exercise to prevent obesity.
Tip #5: Be flexible
The last tip is a simple one: remember that no two dogs are alike in their nutritional needs. If you have three dogs, you’re lucky to get away with feeding two different dog food types. What works for one dam may not work for another. One dam may thrive on a commercial dog food, or a friend of yours may rave about a holistic diet they have used for their dam, but don’t be surprised if you do not reap the same benefits. By getting educated on canine nutrition, pregnancy nutritional needs, how to read and interpret pet food labels, how the dogs metabolize different nutrients, and recognizing marketing propaganda, you can decide for yourself and create the best diet for your pregnant/nursing dam.
Because nutrition plays such a vital role in your dam and the development of her unborn puppies, it makes sense to get educated on the subject of nutrition. Happy, healthy dams that produce happy healthy puppies with stronger immune systems will save you and your potential puppy owners time and money in the future because of the nutritional foundation you laid prior to the pups being conceived.