How to feed when a puppy won't nurse

Healthy puppies have a strong suckling reflex and will nurse vigorously almost immediately after birth. If you are caring for a puppy that will not nurse, it probably is one of the weaker ones in the litter and will need intervention. With the right tools and some tender care, you may be able to help the struggling pup and give it a good start in life. However, consult your veterinarian if, despite your efforts, the puppy still refuses to nurse.

Separate the puppy from its mother and litter mates. A puppy that does not nurse requires special care, and separating it is a good way to monitor the pup and prevent it from being injured by the other dogs.

Place the puppy in a box lined up with soft towels. Newborn puppies are unable to regulate their body temperature, so they depend on their mothers and the surrounding environment for warmth. Hang a heat lamp from the ceiling by screwing in a ceiling hook and attaching one end of a chain to it while attaching the other end of the chain to the heat lamp. Keep the lamp at least five feet above the box and aim for a temperature of 23.8 to 26.6 degrees C.

Collect some milk from the mother to allow the puppy to receive colostrum. Gently squeeze the nipple in a downward motion and collect the drops in a test tube. Colostrum, also known as ''mother's gold'' for its colour, provides puppies with full immunity and is produced in the first 12 hours at most. Fill a dropper with the colostrum and feed the puppy drop by drop on the tongue to provide important antibodies. Repeat several times in the first few hours.

Ensure that your puppy is getting enough fluids. Try to dropper feed it a puppy milk replacement formula. If none is available, dissolve one tablespoon of sugar in one cup of water and attempt to feed. If the puppy still refuses to drink, give about 10 to 20 millilitres (depending on the breed) of lactated Ringers solution with the syringe subcutaneously as needed, ensuring that the needle stays under the skin almost horizontally. Ask your veterinarian to give you a demonstration the first time.

Place a drop of Karo syrup on the puppy's tongue. This will give the puppy an energy boost and may encourage suckling. Squeeze the mother's nipple to allow a drop of milk out, and place the puppy near the nipple in hopes that it will start nursing. Try this several times until the puppy nurses on its own. If the puppy still refuses to nurse, contact your veterinarian.


Use a thermometer to ensure that the heat lamp is supplying the right temperature. If no heat lamp is available, wrap a warm water bottle in towels. Be sure it is not too warm. Puppies require warmth, water and sugar to survive. You can try to bottle feed the puppy using a milk replacement formula for puppies. Stimulate the puppy to urinate and defecate by passing a warm wet tissue across its bottom. Consult with your vet to determine the right syringe size for administering subcutaneous fluids.


Do not attempt to feed a puppy that is cold. Pups must be warmed to normal temperature before feeding. Do not force feed using a feeding tube: If the puppy does not have a good sucking reflex, it will not have any peristalsis. Do not bottle feed with the puppy on its back: puppies nurse better when on their tummies. Do not try to feed if there is no swallowing reflex: this may cause the puppy to choke.

Things You'll Need

  • Box
  • Towels
  • Heat lamp
  • Ceiling hook
  • Chain
  • Dropper
  • Milk replacement formula
  • Sugar
  • Cup
  • Lactated Ringers solution
  • Syringe with 22-gauge needle
  • Karo syrup
  • Test tube
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About the Author

Adrienne Farricelli has been writing for magazines, books and online publications since 2005. She specializes in canine topics, previously working for the American Animal Hospital Association and receiving certification from the Certification Council for Professional Dog Trainers. Her articles have appeared in "USA Today," "The APDT Chronicle of the Dog" and "Every Dog Magazine." She also contributed a chapter in the book " Puppy Socialization - An Insider's Guide to Dog Behavioral Fitness" by Caryl Wolff.