When should new born lab puppies start nursing from the mother?

Written by kelli weber
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When should new born lab puppies start nursing from the mother?
(Copyright Northwoods Labrador Retrievers)

Newborn Labrador Retriever puppies should nurse as soon as possible after they are delivered from their mother. There are many reasons why newborn puppies of any breed should to be nursed by their mother within hours of birth; otherwise they run risks up to and including death.

When a Puppy Should Nurse

Although veterinarians and veteran dog breeders used to believe that puppies needed to nurse for the first time between 24 and 48 hours after they are born, recent research has revealed that it is crucial for a litter's survival to nurse no later than 12 hours after birth. Ideally a puppy should be encouraged to nurse within the first two hours of its birth, but it is imperative that no more than 12 hours pass before the puppy nurses for the first time.

Puppies born healthy following a normal delivery may possibly die from one of the two most common causes, a low body temperature or fluid deficiency (dehydration). These two symptoms may lead to a newborn puppy's demise because when a lethargic puppy refuses to nurse or is not strong enough to suckle, it rapidly loses essential fluids. Therefore, its delicate body temperature plunges dangerously low. The low body temperature then causes the swiftly deteriorating puppy to become even more lethargic, thus it struggles to find the energy required to nurse. After a puppy is born and is breathing efficiently, the umbilical cord has been cut, and the puppy is nearly dry, give it directly to its mother to nurse. A new puppy typically requires some assistance in latching onto the mother's teat and nursing, at least for the first few feedings.

Fortunately, Labradors are naturally interested in food. Even as young puppies they seem to crave food more than most other breeds, so unless the puppy is born weak it should learn to nurse fairly quickly.

When should new born lab puppies start nursing from the mother?
"Three Yellow Lab Puppies Nursing" - Copyright Northwoods Labrador Retrievers

Helping the New Mother

Keep in mind, though, that mother dogs, also called dams, don't always cooperate by lying quietly on their sides so that humans can help the puppies learn to nurse. Especially first time mothers may need extra encouragement from their owners to get the idea. Most of the time gentle pats or ear massages will be enough to convince the mother dog to lie still while the puppies nurse, but guard her closely to be certain she does not roll onto the puppies. If she is still in labour, be extra cautious with the puppies while they nurse, because the mother dog is usually not focused on the puppies already born while she is in intense pain from contractions. If the dam permits the puppies to nurse and you have enough time between deliveries of new puppies, try to allow each puppy a chance to nurse after it is born. This will not only ensure that all of the puppies stay warm and healthy, but the act of nursing naturally stimulates continuation of contractions, which helps maintain a smooth delivery process.

When should new born lab puppies start nursing from the mother?
"Tired Chocolate Lab Mom Nursing Her Newborns" - Copyright Northwoods Labrador Retrievers


Colostrum, a combination of vitamins and essential antibodies transferred through the mother's milk, is produced only for the first 48 hours after the litter is delivered. It is imperative that all puppies receive this colostrum to advance their undeveloped immune systems and to protect them from illness. Colostrum stimulates cell growth and establishes a strong lifetime immune system by transferring antibodies and immunities from the mother dog. Without colostrum, puppies are vulnerable to germs and viruses that could easily kill them.

Although colostrum is present for 24 to 48 hours, a puppy is capable of absorbing the vital antibodies only within 12 hours of birth, thus the reason why a newborn puppy of any breed must nurse as early and often as possible in its first day of life. A large majority of puppies that do not receive their mother's colostrum in the first 12 hours will die during their first week of life. Puppies can acquire colostrum in one of three ways: directly from the dam, by a special colostrum-specific supplement through tube or bottle-feeding within the first 12 hours, or by an injection of clear serum that has been spun down from a blood specimen taken from the puppy's mother.

When should new born lab puppies start nursing from the mother?

When Puppies Are Unable to Nurse

There are situations when a mother dog is unable to feed her litter or a specific puppy is not strong enough to nurse. Circumstances that prevent the dam from effectively nursing her young litter include lack of milk production, an emergency caesarean section, illnesses and infections such as Mastitis, and the sad situation of death of the dam. Whenever a mother dog is completely unable to nurse her litter, her owner must take on the task. This means bottle or tube feeding each puppy every two to three hours, around the clock. Furthermore, it is essential that the puppies' body temperatures remain consistently warm. Labrador Retriever puppies' temperatures in the first week of life should typically range between 34.4 and 36.1 degrees Celsius. If temperatures fall even slightly below this, the puppies are at a higher risk of death than normal.

If the mother dog successfully nurses most of her puppies, but one particular puppy is deteriorating, the owner must act swiftly to save this puppy. It is always a difficult decision, even for the most experienced breeders, to make, whether to leave a fragile puppy with its mother and littermates in hopes that it will perk up naturally or to remove the puppy and intervene to nurse the puppy back to health. The general rule is that if the weakening puppy is either completely unable to nurse vigorously or it is unable to maintain its natural body heat, then the owner must remove this puppy from the litter and tend to its fundamental needs. If litter owners or breeders fail to intercede promptly, a fragile, declining puppy is likely to die.

Experienced veteran Lab breeders commonly refer to this as "Fading Puppy Syndrome." Although an official syndrome or illness is not the true cause of death, breeders have established this expression for the manner in which the puppies die and because a large number of puppies die this way.

What to Do with a Fading Puppy

When a litter owner identifies a fading puppy he or she should take swift action. If you are a first time breeder or inexperienced in caring for orphaned puppies, immediately phone a veterinarian. If you feel comfortable tending the puppy yourself, take the puppy's temperature first. If you do not have a thermometer or believe the puppy is in an urgent situation, you can use two quick methods to check body temperature. First: pick up another puppy and assess its overall body heat and then pick up the distressed puppy to compare how much cooler it is than its healthier littermate. If the fading puppy is cooler, you know its temperature is too low. If there is a big difference between the two, the ailing puppy is in serious danger of death. Second: put your finger in the puppy's mouth. Even a slightly cool mouth is a bad sign. When you have discerned that the failing puppy is suffering from a low body temperature, warm it up immediately.

There are many ways to warm a chilled puppy (including some detailed methods found in dog breeding books or on the Internet). A few simple ways are wrapping the puppy in warm blankets, holding the puppy directly on your skin to supply it with your own body heat and wrapping both of you in blankets, or the most preferred technique of placing a heating pad in a small box and covering it with a thin blanket for the puppy to lie on. If you use the heating pad, however, do not set the heat level too high, or you can severely burn the puppy .

Next feed the puppy: either bottle or tube feed it, depending on whether or not it has a strong sucking reflex. If a puppy is feeding by bottle, but doesn't appear to be thriving, switch to tube feeding, since the puppy is extremely weak and using all of its energy to nurse. Consult a veterinarian or knowledgeable breeder to assist you in either process. This professional can teach you how to properly bottle or tube feed a puppy and will know the accurate amount of milk the puppy requires at each feeding.

Obtaining Milk and Colostrum

If the puppy was unable to nurse within the vital first 12 hours, to receive the necessary colostrum, then you have the option to milk the mother dog manually with your hands, much like a cow, to use to tube-feed the puppy. If you are not capable of stripping the milk from the dam, you can order special colostrum filled products for just this purpose. If you order the colostrum imitation, make sure it is made with canine antibodies and that the company uses real dog colostrum, or else it will be useless to your puppy. One well-known colostrum-producing company, used by breeders all over the country, is Hemopet. This company sells a canine colostrum product called Fresh Frozen Plasma that works in the dire circumstances of an orphaned or fading puppy.

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