Guide to Bottle-feeding Puppies Successfully

Know these important steps to take when feeding your puppy by bottle.

Published January 16, 2023
Bottle feeding a puppy

Most puppies get their fill of milk from their mother, but in some cases, you might need to jump in and take care of an orphaned puppy or a pup with medical issues. Bottle-feeding a puppy is a huge responsibility, but it can also be an incredibly rewarding experience. It can definitely be a little confusing at first. You'll need to keep your pup healthy and happy while they learn how to eat and drink on their own. Fortunately, there are some things you can do to make the process easier and more enjoyable for both of you. Bottle-fed puppies are also at higher risk for developing illnesses, so you'll need to watch for that, too.

Find a High-quality Puppy Formula

First, you'll need a high-quality milk replacer that's made specifically for puppies. The ingredients should be listed on the bottle. You want a formula with:

  • Whey protein concentrate
  • Wholegrain wheat flour
  • Mineral salts
  • Vegetable oil
  • Vitamin A acetate
  • D3 (cholecalciferol)
  • Vitamin B1 (thiamine hydrochloride)
  • Vitamin B2 (riboflavin)
  • Vitamin E (tocopherol acetate or succinate)
  • Essential fatty acids

Look for a milk replacer that has been developed specifically for puppies. Some are designed for adult dogs, which can lead to health issues if fed to puppies regularly over time. The amount of milk replacer you should use depends on the weight of your puppy (see the chart below for details about puppy weight and the amount of formula to feed).

Pick a Suitable Feeding Method

If your puppy is less than 2 weeks old, you need to feed them with an eye dropper or syringe. If they're older than 2 weeks, a wide-nipple bottle is best. Make sure the nipple does not produce too much flow -- a 0 or preemie nipple is best, though it depends on your puppy's breed and mouth size.

You want a nipple that fits your puppy's mouth, but that restricts milk to about one drop per squeeze. If the nipple allows for more milk than a drop at a time to leave the bottle, your puppy might accidentally suck some liquid into their lungs as they feed. This can lead to several health problems for your puppy, including some that can be life-threatening, such as aspiration pneumonia.

Prepare Your Pup for Their Bottle

Now that you have all the supplies, it's time to get your puppy ready for feeding. First, make sure they're clean and dry. Make sure they're relaxed before feeding time so you don't end up with a messy accident on your hands.

Before feeding, help your puppy to urinate so they can take in more formula (information on helping your puppy urinate and defecate is included below). Pick a relaxed area with few noises and distractions to help your puppy get ready to feed.

Getting the Milk Ready

Before you put formula into a bottle, make sure everything -- including the bottle and nipple, or any feeding supplies you are using -- are very clean and dry. Sterilize puppy bottles and nipples between feeding, and keep any formula refrigerated until ready for use.

Now, you're ready to heat your pup's milk and pour it into a bottle. Make sure it's at body temperature, which is around 97 degrees Fahrenheit. You can use a thermometer to check its temperature if you're unsure. Don't overheat the milk; overheating can cause scalding and burning of your puppy's mouth or throat. It should feel lukewarm to the touch, and always check on your wrist before feeding, even if you measured the temp with a thermometer.

Microwaving the milk will heat it up, but it's very difficult to control the temperature this way. A better option is to heat water in a bowl and check the temperature directly with a thermometer, then place the bottle in the warm water to let it come up to temperature. This takes a little more time, but it's much safer for your pup. If you have an electric heating pad or bowl for warming bottles, use this to help keep the bottle at the correct temperature throughout feeding time.

Hold the Puppy Correctly

Holding your puppy correctly while bottle feeding is crucial to a successful experience. The most important thing to remember is not to squeeze too hard or press the bottle against their mouth. This can hurt them and may make them feel like they're not getting enough food.

Position the puppy on their stomach for feeding. Think about how puppies lay when they suckle from their mother, and try to match this position with their head forward. Don't try to feed a puppy like you might with a baby, in a reclining position or on their back. Also, don't hold them vertically or at too steep an angle.

Small puppies are easy to hold at a slight angle in your off-hand, with their bellies down and their head slightly raised, resting on your upturned palm. This helps reduce discomfort during feeding time. This is also a great way to help socialize your puppy, as they get used to handling and associate human contact with positive experiences.

Position the Bottle

Now that you have the formula ready and your puppy set, it's time to feed them. When you're ready to feed your puppy, introduce them slowly by first letting them smell the formula on your finger before offering it to them. If you're using a bottle with a nipple, tip it up at a slight angle. This is important because if the nipple is too close to their nose, they won't be able to drink properly and may get frustrated or give up altogether.

Try to keep your puppy steady during feeding, and don't shift around too much or reposition them unless necessary. Constant movement could make them feel sick. Support their head with your hand and fingers, as well.

Establish a Routine

One of the most important things you can do to ensure your puppy's health is to establish a feeding pattern. It's important that you stick to the same schedule every day so that you know how much milk your puppy needs, and when they will need it next. Puppies younger than 2 weeks typically need to feed every two to four hours, but as they grow, they will feed less frequently (but they'll eat more in a sitting).

You want to make sure that you are giving enough milk, but not too much, as puppies have a small stomach capacity and can get sick from overeating too quickly. You should always be careful with bottle-feeding, as it is easy to overfeed or underfeed your dog, which is why feeding at the same time can be helpful. Don't worry if they don't finish all of the formula. Puppies are often accustomed to eating until they feel full.

Feed every two to four hours (typically, six times per day, but adjust as necessary), depending on the puppy's behavior. Most puppies will feed until they are full. After feeding, their belly should appear to be slightly distended, so it bulges out a little bit.

Puppy feeding schedule infographic

This chart represents a general guideline for feeding a newborn puppy each day, based on their body weight. Your routine is based on the amount of calories puppies need in a day, measured in kilocalories (kcal). The daily caloric requirements listed in the chart are based on providing 20 kcal per 100 grams of body weight. The amount per feeding is based on feeding 4 ml per 100 grams of body weight.

You need to weigh your puppy daily for this chart to be effective. Also, understand that this is a guideline, and your puppy's breed, weight, the type of formula you use, and how much energy they are using can alter the amount they eat in a single feeding, or in a given day. Sometimes, puppies eat more in a sitting, and take less in the following sitting.

Watch your puppy's behavior closely and continue to weigh them each day to make sure they are getting enough to eat and gaining weight. If your puppy refuses to bottle feed for more than a single feeding, you need to talk to your veterinarian. There are alternative ways to feed a puppy who is struggling to bottle feed, such as by sponge feeding or tube feeding, but these methods are more complicated and you should try them only after speaking with your veterinarian.

Help Your Puppy Eliminate

Puppies aren't able to urinate or defecate on their own until they're about 3 weeks old. They depend on their mother to aid them in this process. Orphaned puppies need their caretaker to induce the process of elimination so they're able to relieve themselves effectively. If you don't perform this process, the orphaned puppy will become ill and could die as a result.

How do you help your puppy eliminate? After feeding, gently stroke the area between their anus and vulva or penis with a moist, warm cotton ball or piece of soft fabric. These areas are very sensitive and tender, so go slowly and be very gentle. This action mimics the mother dog's tongue massaging the pup's genitals to stimulate elimination. Before long, your pup will urinate or defecate. Make sure you try to get them to pee before each feeding, to help them take in more formula.

Your puppy needs help to eliminate every two to three hours until they are roughly 3 weeks old. If your puppy is having trouble eliminating, try giving them a warm bath or rubbing their belly gently in a clockwise motion until they go. You should also make sure your puppy has access to plenty of fresh water at all times. This helps loosen up the stool so it comes out more easily when you massage or bathe your pup. This helps keep the puppy hydrated, which prevents constipation.

Watch for Fading Puppy Syndrome

Bottle-fed puppies are at high risk of developing symptoms of fading puppy syndrome. Fading puppy syndrome is a condition that affects puppies between the ages of 3 and 8 weeks old. The condition is characterized by an inability to keep the eyes open, followed by rapid weight loss and ultimately death. It's a rare condition, but it can be fatal if left untreated.

The cause of fading puppy syndrome is unknown, but it's thought to be due to an immune system deficiency. This deficiency allows bacteria, viruses, or parasites to spread throughout the body unchecked by antibodies or other immune cells. This means that while your puppy is showing signs of fading puppy syndrome, they could also be infected with another disease, such as distemper, which will make it harder for them to fight off the illness.

The first sign of this disease is usually a problem with one or both eyes opening properly. Your puppy may struggle with keeping them open, or be unable to do so at all. If this happens, you should take your puppy to see a vet immediately, as it could mean there are serious problems going on inside their body that need immediate attention.

Be Gentle and Loving

If your pup is gaining weight steadily, pooping regularly, and not showing signs of dehydration, then you're doing great! If not, it might be time to talk with your vet about some dietary changes or different feeding strategies. The most important thing is to always be as gentle and loving as you can. Keep your puppy comfortable every step of the way, and don't be afraid to visit the vet if anything seems abnormal.

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Guide to Bottle-feeding Puppies Successfully