When I was pregnant with my daughter, I received a lot of unsolicited advice about what I should eat. Granted, proper nutrition is never more important than when you are eating for two (or more!), but the rigid, conflicting, and constant recommendations eventually began to get on my nerves.
Thankfully, feeding pregnant and lactating dogs (I’m going to avoid the more accurate b-word to keep the "profanity filters" happy) is a relatively less controversial subject, but that doesn’t lessen the importance of good nutrition during this critical time.
In comparison to other adult dogs, pregnant and lactating females need more energy (i.e., calories), protein, calcium, and phosphorus to meet both their puppies’ and their own needs, and feeding more of a "regular" adult dog food won’t suffice. The demands of pregnancy and lactation are simply too great and occur at a time when a dog may not be focused on food or, in the case of advanced pregnancy, doesn’t have much space left in her abdomen for big meals.
A food that is appropriate for a pregnant dog will contain greater amounts of fat and protein, and will be made from highly digestible ingredients so that she can extract the maximum amount of nutrition possible out of every bite. Which diets meet these criteria? High quality puppy foods. In fact, if you look at the AAFCO (Association of American Feed Control Officials) statements that are printed on most puppy foods, you’ll notice that they say (or should say) something along the lines of, "Animal feeding tests using AAFCO procedures substantiate that [insert brand name here] provides complete and balanced nutrition for growth and reproduction."
"Reproduction" covers both pregnancy and lactation. It’s important to note that puppy foods designed for large breeds are generally not recommended for pregnant and lactating dogs because of their lower calcium, phosphorus, and energy levels.
How you feed a pregnant or lactating dog is almost as important as what you feed. Follow the instructions on the label to get an idea of how much food you should be offering throughout your dog’s pregnancy. The amount she eats usually decreases as her due date approaches because the puppies’ growth is slowing and her stomach has less room to expand. Of course, the label’s recommendations are only a guideline and you may need to increase or decrease the amounts to maintain a healthy weight. Talk to your veterinarian if you are unsure of how much to feed.
Once a dog has given birth and lactation begins, her energy needs skyrocket, particularly if she has had a large litter. At this point, puppy food and ample amounts of water should be available at all times to prevent both the mom and her pups from becoming malnourished and/or dehydrated. Once the puppies begin the weaning process, usually around 3-4 weeks, they will start to nibble on the puppy food and drink the water as well. I generally recommend that free choice feeding continues until weaning is complete, usually at 6-8 weeks, depending on mom’s tolerance, unless some of the dogs begin to gain too much weight.
So, enjoy this all-too-brief stage of life with your dogs, both old and new, but feed a high quality puppy food to make sure everyone is getting the nutrition they need.
Dr. Jennifer Coates