Breeding, My First Litter, Puppy and Kitten Care

My First Litter: Weaning Puppies

Puppies are weaned when they are independent of mom and are not nursing at all. We want to transition this gradually until they don’t need mom. You don’t want to pull mom away suddenly, that causes issues. Weaning can be stressful if not managed for an effective smooth transition to solid food.

Puppy Weaning Process

The following information will discuss the weaning process for puppies and answer questions like how to wean puppies from mom, the best way to wean puppies and when to wean puppies from mother.

When to Start Weaning Puppies

Weaning starts when a puppy starts eating solid food or gruel. The cells of the puppy’s gut need to be turned on and modify their enzymes to allow them to be able to digest more complex proteins, fats and carbohydrate than in milk. During weaning, digestive upset can happen and the stress of weaning can lower immune function. This makes puppies prone to URI or diarrhea.

Except for tiny breeds, puppies begin to need more nutrients than mom can provide at three to four weeks of age. When giant breeds reach three weeks of age, they begin to crave more calories. At this point they will eat gruel and start changing their digestive process to solid food.

When it comes time to feed the gruel, put it in a flat pan and lock mom out. The puppies will get messy the first few times so when they are done, turn mom back in and she will clean them up by licking them. Puppies think they are getting cleaned up because “mom likes me best” and mom likes the gruel so it’s a win-win.

The goal is to slowly increase the puppy gruel to four times a day. This will back them off their dependence on mom’s milk. Usually mom is removed during the day and placed back with puppies at night. Everyone is different but limiting access to mom makes puppies move to gruel and away from milk.

How Long is the Weaning Process for Puppies?

Weaning puppies can take a few days to a few weeks. Some breeds like Golden Retrievers and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels love their puppies so much they will tolerate ongoing nursing. Others, like Corgis and Labrador Retrievers will want to wean their pups younger. So unless mom is sick or sore, let her set the pace for weaning.

What to Feed Weaning Puppies

Puppy food soaked with water and Breeder’s Edge Foster Care milk replacer for flavor is the recipe for a tasty puppy gruel. In addition, keep dry puppy food available and some will nibble on it throughout the day. As puppies increase their solid food consumption, they change the gut cells to digest puppy food. Put more and more gruel and kibble in front of them and have mom leave for longer periods of time during the day until one day mom nurses in the morning and does not return. Mom’s milk production will decrease with less being asked of her and her glands will dry up and shrink to her body.

Mixing Doc Roy’s GI Synbiotics Granules into the puppy gruel will also help prevent digestive upset and diarrhea during this changing of function for the GI tract.

Offering gruel early is the most helpful way I have found to eliminate the puppies’ stress of being separated from mom. Always offer an alternative source of easy-to-digest, appetizing calories such as gruel.

At 3 ½ weeks or slightly later, introduce a shallow heavy dish with water- so the pups learn to lap fluids. As soon as that is mastered, start a puppy gruel or Royal Canin Starter Mousse. Once the puppies are eating effectively, you can transition to more solid food. Be very careful when changing to hard kibble. It is easy for the biggest, most aggressive pup to accidentally inhale a piece of kibble with an immediately fatal outcome. For this reason, many breeders continue to add warm water to soften the food until six months of age when all the adult teeth have erupted.

After the pups are skilled at drinking, a chicken waterer is an effective way to offer water without having the pups turn it into a wading pool. Another alternative is to hang a Lixit water bottle on the side of the pen or crate, coat the tip with chicken baby food and teach the pups to drink from this bottle.

Can a Puppy Be Weaned Too Early?

Weaning too early can lead to pups who are fussy, stressed and unhappy. They may not eat and gain weight well. They may struggle with diarrhea. In most cases, the mom will gradually slow her milk production, time and willingness to nurse her pups. At the same time, most pups will pick up their food intake so they grow appropriately. Unless you have a sick mom, such as one with mastitis, weaning can take place at the dam’s pace.

How to Tell if a Puppy Was Weaned Too Early

Puppies weaned too early may be fussy and smaller than you would expect. Puppies should not leave their birth home until they are seven weeks old or older. If you believe you have a puppy that is under seven weeks of age, try to find an adult dog who is gentle with puppies so he or she can help teach the pup the ways of the world.

What Happens if a Puppy is Not Weaned Properly?

Puppies need to be with their mothers until they can thrive independently. They need her for nutrition, moral support, and to learn the ways of the world. It’s not just about the food.

Different moms and different breeds have different patterns of development. Larger breed pups such as retrievers tend to have pups that transition to solid food faster than smaller breeds. Some moms would let their pups nurse till they are three months old while others are ready to be done nursing pups when they are three weeks old. Some moms will go as far as vomiting up their own partially digested meal for their pups to eat.

Puppies weaned too early or too quickly may suffer from stresses of not having their mom there to comfort them when they are tired, frightened, or sick. They also need their moms to teach them how to live with humans and other dogs. They can learn where the food and water bowls are and how to eat and drink. They can learn to follow mom outside to learn housebreaking skills. They need mom to show a little discipline if they start to play too rough or wander too far away. She can show them how to appropriately interact with adults and children.

However, mom can’t teach them that chewing on electrical cords or crossing into traffic is dangerous – that is up to their humans.

Monitoring the interactions of the mom with her pups will allow you to determine how early and how fast to wean pups. Take care to avoid mom being too protective of her food or when she has had enough of them that she needs a break. At that point, she needs her own space, at least for a little while. By watching mom and pups, you can make sure the pups are getting enough to eat and drink so they have a steady growth and weight gain.

Different states and breed clubs also have requirements for how early puppies can be sold and moved out of your home or kennel. Be sure to keep pups according to these guidelines for the health and safety of the pups and so you are in compliance with these rules.

Problems Weaning Puppies

When weaning, watch for the puppy that does not do well off mom. One option is to wean most of the litter but leave mom with two puppies for one extra week if needed. That is okay and desirable if one of the puppies is slow to transition to solid food.

Puppies should continue to gain weight during weaning. If you notice a puppy not gaining or losing weight during weaning, give us a call and we can help.

How to Care for Mom While Weaning Puppies

During weaning, mom should be monitored. She should have no discharge from her vulva during weaning. At this point, we want her to shrink her mammary gland up to her body, except for her prominent nipples. We want no sign that she raised and weaned a litter.

If, a few days before removing the puppies, you notice mom has several mammary glands that are still hanging down, that indicates mom did not dry up well. To help correct this, give her a lower calorie maintenance food for a few days before removing the puppies. This helps back off milk production. For a heavy milking mom, we may have to remove food for 24 hours when the puppies are removed to back off milking. The back pressure from not nursing will stop milk production totally and her glands will shrink. You want to be sure she is trying to dry up before you remove puppies. A full breast is painful and prone to mastitis.

Is the Puppy Ready for a New Home?

Puppies are generally easy to please and adapt well if they are provided with nutrition, comfortable sleep and security. However, there are some things to look for that would indicate a puppy isn’t quite ready for a new home. Number one is if the puppy is not gaining weight and eating well. Don’t send a puppy to a new home if he isn’t eating and gaining weight.

Socialization is also important, along with ensuring the puppy is ready to fight any diseases or parasites it may become exposed to. This is easily done through management with vaccines and dewormers.

Putting Together a Puppy Starter Pack

You want to set your puppies and their new families up for success. Putting together a puppy starter pack can help achieve this.

The Your Pandemic Puppy book or My Puppy Guide booklet gives training tips for new puppy owners and tips on how to deal with puppy behavior appropriately. Many breeders include these books as part of their puppy starter pack.

It’s also a good idea to give new owners a guarantee on the puppy’s health, a sample of the diet you use, a health record and a list explaining what you do for the puppy. It’s also important to tell new puppy owners that they need to stay away from dog parks until the 12-week booster vaccine is in and effective. Exposure to disease increases as puppies go out into the world and we don’t want to take any chances.

And, don’t forget to give them our number as well. Just like we’ve helped you along the way, we are always happy to help new puppy owners as well. If you have more questions on when to wean puppies from mother, the best way to wean puppies, or you would just like more puppy weaning tips, give our knowledgeable Pet Care Pros a call at 800.786.4751.

How to Wean Puppies

This is the sixth and final article in our My First Litter Series. Other articles in the series talk about pregnancy stages, breeding and heat cycles, what to know before raising a litter of puppies and newborn puppy care. Be sure to check out all the articles in the My First Litter Series.

Written by: Marty Greer, DVM

Director of Veterinary Services

Marty Greer, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has 40+ years’ experience in veterinary medicine, with special interests in canine reproduction and pediatrics. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1981. She’s served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2019. In 2023, Dr. Greer was named the Westminster Kennel Club Veterinarian of the Year.

If you need help, call us at 800.786.4751.