Caring for Newborn Puppies, With & Without Mom

Newborn puppies are very fragile, and caring for them looks very different, depending on whether mom is around or not.

Updated November 10, 2018
Newborn chihuahua puppy in hand

Newborn puppies are some of the most adorable creatures in the world, but they're also really fragile. If you're volunteering with a rescue and fostering a lone puppy or a mom and litter, the job will look pretty different. Definitely consider what you're up for before saying yes.

What Counts as a "Newborn" Puppy?

Although there isn't one firm definition of a newborn pup, most puppies are considered newborns until their eyes and ears have opened up, which doesn't happen until between ten and fourteen days old. After 21 days, the puppies begin to be more aware of the world around them. At this time, they are no longer considered newborn pups.

When Mom is With Newborn Puppies

Dalmatian Mother And Her Puppies

If you're fostering a pregnant dog, you may not know exactly when her pups will be born. To be fully prepared, it's important to understand her role when the pups get here and how to care for her once she becomes a mother. 

RELATED: 11 Signs a Dog Will Be Giving Birth Soon

Mom's Job After Puppy Birth

After your foster dog has given birth, she should naturally take on most of the responsibilities for the first few weeks. She will most likely feed her puppies by nursing them and ensure their cleanliness by licking them, which also helps them potty. You'll notice her snuggling them close to maintain their warmth, and she will instinctively protect them as needed.

Need to Know

It's important to know that not all dogs are ready to be mothers when they give birth, and some can even reject their puppies. If you notice that mom seems fearful around her puppies, or that the puppies are crying a lot, skinny or dirty, it's time for an immediate call to the veterinarian. 

Caring for the New Mother

Assuming the mom is able to care for the puppies, your main job will be to care for the new mom by providing her with plenty of nutritious food, care, and water so she can feed her puppies. Check on her every now and then to make sure she is comfortable and doing well. She will need several trips outside each day to exercise and relieve herself, but keep her in your own yard and away from other dogs.

Need to Know

These trips should be just long enough to do her business so she can get back to her pups as quickly as possible.

Maintaining a Whelping Box

Your next order of business is to help keep the whelping box clean. You'll want to take the opportunity to change out the bedding in the box while mom is outside. If you have someone else helping care for mom and the pups, ask them to either go out with mom or clean the whelping box. Replace the newspaper lining and put in a fresh blanket or mat while you wash the soiled one.

When to Handle Newborn Puppies

Newborn Shiba Inu puppy

When mom isn't around, likely while she is going potty, take the opportunity to give the pups a quick exam. Make sure to wash your hands with soap and water thoroughly prior to handling the puppies.

Perform a quick daily exam:

Check Puppy Tummies

Make sure all the pups are eating well. A puppy that has just been fed will have a rounded tummy rather than a flat one. Bellies should not feel like a taught balloon. Inflamed bellies can be a sign of medical issues and should signal a call to the veterinarian.

Weigh the Newborns

Weigh each pup and record the weight so you can make sure everyone is gaining weight. A newborn puppy should gain approximately 12 to 15 percent of their birth weight each day during that first week. If they don't, make sure the pup is getting a turn to nurse. Put the strongest pup on a nipple to get the milk flowing, and then switch to the smaller pup so they get a good meal. Also, make sure to keep the rescue group and veterinarian notified of any slow growth.

Check Their Butts

Check the puppies' behinds to make sure they are clean and unblocked. 

Watch the Pups

You'll want to monitor the pups regularly, not only to ensure they're generally doing well but also to make sure mom isn't on top of any. 

Caring for Orphaned Newborn Puppies

Bottle feeding tiny black and tan newborn puppy

Sometimes, pups are found without their mom, dropped off somewhere by someone who surrendered them, or the mom just isn't ready to care for pups. In this case, you'll be responsible for a much longer list of things.  

Work With the Veterinarian

Newborn puppies will need a medical exam to make sure they're all healthy and not in need of special care. Sometimes, rejection from the mother can signal a deeper medical issue is at play, so this should be done urgently.

Bottle-Feeding Newborn Puppies

Newborn pups need to eat every 2–3 hours, even through the entire night. Take turns if you have someone to help. You should expect to feed them 6–8 meals during each 24-hour period. Small or weak pups may need more nutrition than others. 

Need to Know

Never feed puppies cow's milk. Feed only commercially-available puppy formula.

Fortunately, a commercial puppy milk replacer is available at most pet stores, or you can ask your vet to grab some from them. Follow the instructions on the label and feed at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Once pups are 3–4 weeks old, you can begin feeding them room-temperature formula. 

Setting Up Their Area

If they were with mom, they would be in a whelping box, and she would be keeping them warm. You'll have to do your best to simulate the same environment. A round kids pool often works perfectly to lay down newspaper and keep them contained. Even though it sounds more comfy, never use cloth during their first couple weeks of life — their little heads can get stuck, and they could suffocate.

Temperature Control

To stay warm, puppies usually cuddle up to mom. In this case, they will need a different kind of temperature control that remains relatively constant. Heat lamps are recommended to keep the pups warm and cozy, or you can use a heating pad on low setting. Newborn puppies, up to 5 days old, should be in temperatures between 85 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The temperature can be gradually lowered to 80 degrees by day ten. When the pups are four weeks old, reduce the temp to 70.

Need to Know

Keep the puppies away from sunlight and drafty areas. Puppies can get burned easily if the pad or lamp are too hot, so regulate the temperature carefully.

No Visitors

The puppies are oh-so-cute, and even though you'll want to show them off, it's important to keep visitors away. They're super vulnerable to disease in their first few weeks of life. Even you should make sure you're as clean as possible, washing your hands anytime you want to check on them. 

Helping Pups Go Potty

You'll have to help the puppies with urination and defecation, just like mom does, during the first two weeks of life. Massage each puppy's genital area with a moist, lukewarm washcloth to stimulate their bowels and bladders to release. After two weeks of this, they should be able to do this on their own, but monitor them to make sure they do. According to Paws Chicago, this should be done prior to feeding the pups.

Weigh the Pups

To make sure they're healthy and getting enough nutrition, weigh the puppies every day. If they aren't gaining weight or they're losing weight, contact your veterinarian. The pup that isn't growing may need to stay with them for a couple weeks.

Why is the Newborn Puppy Crying?

It's very normal to hear newborn puppies crying. While you shouldn't panic if you hear them crying, you should also be aware of any potential issues that might be indicated by excessive crying. If you see crying accompanied by behaviors such as scratching or biting at themselves, contact your veterinarian, as they may have skin irritation or parasites, like fleas.

If you notice one puppy crying excessively while the others appear content, that particular pup may be experiencing some type of medical issue. Or, all the puppies may be frequently crying while mom seems stressed. Either way, you should contact your vet for specific advice.

Supplemental Feeding

The pups may be crying because they're hungry. The mother may not be able to meet the feeding needs of her puppies. If the litter is large or mom simply can't provide enough milk, you may need to supplement one or more pups. In that case, you need to know what to feed newborn puppies without (or in addition to) mother's milk.

This is typically done by purchasing a puppy milk replacement formula and a nursing kit that contains a bottle, a nipple, and a nipple-cleaning brush. The formula comes with complete mixing and feeding directions.

Tube Feeding

Tube feeding is another option when the time you can spend feeding the pups is limited. Your vet is the best person to set you up with the equipment, teach you how to insert the tube down the throat, and feed the pups. This method seems a bit daunting at first, but it's quite easy once you get the hang of it.

Quick Tip

Never attempt to tube-feed a puppy without guidance from a veterinarian, as this can lead to aspiration of the formula and respiratory problems. 

Watch Out For Fading Puppy Syndrome

The sad fact is that it's not uncommon to have newborn puppies die in your litter. The normal pre-weaning loss can be as high as 30%. Usually, this happens soon after birth and within the first week. Fading puppy syndrome refers to puppies who simply cannot thrive after birth and eventually die. The signs a puppy is suffering from fading puppy syndrome are:

  • Low birth weight
  • Inability to gain weight after birth
  • Low activity in comparison to the other puppies
  • Inability to nurse from the mother
  • High-pitched crying (called "seagulling" because it sounds similar to a seagull's cry)

Newborn Puppy Development Week by Week

Understanding how your newborn pups will grow and learning the milestones of puppyhood can help you learn how to take care of them properly. 

Week One

Newborn puppies mainly eat, sleep, and go potty with mom's help. They can wiggle around, but they can't walk. Their eyes and ears are sealed, so they won't be able to hear or see you.

Week Two

Their eyes and ears open, and they start using their little legs to move around the box more than they did during the first week. Their vision is blurry at first, so don't be offended or panic if they don't seem to be looking at you. 

Week Three 

A three-week-old Welsh Pembroke Corgi Puppy is asleep curled up

During week 3, puppies become more aware of their surroundings, and you'll notice they'll try to move around more. At this point, they're no longer known as newborn pups. You'll start getting little peeks at their personalities, and their first teeth will start growing in. 

Need to Know

You'll see the wobble walk as they learn how to use their legs this week.

Week Four

It's time for the puppies to learn how to lap up water. You'll notice them slowly weaning off of their mother during this time. But don't separate them yet. The pups still have a lot to learn and will start soaking in information that will be useful for socialization later. 

Weeks Five to Six

Move the puppies to begin eating soft, mushy food such as moistened kibble or soft dog food (but still keep them with mom). You'll notice the pups playing with their littermates. Not only is this adorable, but it helps them learn how to interact with other dogs.

Weeks Seven to Eight

Puppies should be able to eat soft, moist kibble and eventually dry kibble by the end of week eight. Behaviorally, this is known as the fear period, which will last until around 12 weeks old. You'll notice they are afraid of a lot of sounds and objects as they learn what is safe and what isn't. 

Quick Tip

Slowly introducing various sights, sounds, and smells during the earlier weeks can help reduce the fear period. 

When to Begin Weaning

The puppies are able to begin lapping water around three weeks old. Teach them to do so by offering a shallow dish of water and coaxing each pup to lick a little water from your fingertip as you hold it close to the water. Eventually, the pups get the idea and begin lapping directly from the dish.

Once they can lap easily, you can begin to grind high-quality puppy kibble in a blender and mix in puppy formula to make a loose, wet mixture the pups can lap. Once they are accustomed to this mixture, you can gradually add less formula so the mix is thicker.

RELATED: Tips for Weaning Puppies

Switching to Kibble

Once the milk teeth have fully cut through, somewhere around four weeks old, you can switch to soaking whole puppy kibble until it's soft and offer that to the pups. By the time the pups receive their first vaccinations between six and eight weeks old, you'll be able to offer dry puppy kibble always accompanied by a bowl of fresh water.

Rehoming Newborn Puppies

Under no circumstances should you rehome a puppy before 8 weeks old, as this leads to a potential lifetime of behavioral problems as well as some potential medical ones. In general, a puppy should be eight weeks old before they can leave for their new home. 

Working With the Rescue and Vet During the Fostering Process

There is a ton of information here to absorb. Doing it all on your own can feel like a lot of weight to bear. But know you don't have to. When you're fostering a mom and her pups, the rescue or shelter should always be available to help you if you have questions or concerns. And many have an on-call or resident veterinarian to guide you when needed. Don't be afraid to reach out to them — they are your support system. 

Texas Humane Heroes also addresses some hard truths that you may need to remind yourself of. According to staff member Jeff Struchtemeyer, "We don’t always know what happened to our mama dogs before they came to us. Sometimes they are in rough shape, and sometimes, even when mama has had the best of care, their puppies are stillborn or fail to thrive. This is no one’s fault."

He continued to explain, "Families who foster mama dogs and litters of puppies eventually have to experience these sad moments, but our consolation is that, without us, none of those puppies would have made it." So, if you have lost a puppy, know you did the best you could and you saved the others.

Focus on the Good

Caring for newborn puppies can be a delicate balance — they're fragile and yet often surprisingly resilient. It's important to dedicate yourself to their care as well as to their mother's well-being. Embrace this experience with positivity and affection; it's truly rewarding to watch the miracle of birth and the pup's growth. By doing your best, you can take comfort in knowing you've done your utmost, not only helping the pups but also their mother. The impact you've made in their lives will stay with them the rest of their lives.

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Caring for Newborn Puppies, With & Without Mom