If you're fostering a dog that's expecting a litter, it's important to understand the weaning process for your soon-to-be-born puppies. Weaning involves gradually transitioning the puppies from relying on their mother's milk to eating solid food. Learn when to wean and the best methods to begin weaning when they're ready so you're prepared for this transition.
When to Start Weaning Puppies
Newborn puppies survive solely on their mother's milk for the first three weeks of their lives. The first milk, known as colostrum, contains important antibodies (proteins produced by the immune system) that will protect the puppies from a number of common diseases while their own immune systems begin to develop. As the puppies continue to nurse and grow, the milk gradually changes in consistency, and mom's production grows to meet the demand.
This happens up until the pups start to wean — you'll notice she isn't producing as much. The best time to begin weaning puppies is generally around four weeks, when the pups can walk and their teeth have started growing in. But it's important to know that the puppies aren't weaned all at once. Don't panic thinking they all need to be on the same exact step. There's a process that should be followed to make weaning easier for both the pups and their mother.
Before week three, your puppy should not be eating or drinking anything other than the mother's milk, including water.
Working With The Vet
Before you get started weaning the puppies, know that you can contact a vet with any questions or concerns that arise during the process. Although it may not look like it as she's lying there, producing milk takes a lot of work, and the transition for mom while the pups are weaning can be tough. Reach out to your vet to make sure you're giving mom enough of what she needs.
As far as the puppies go, you'll want to make sure they're getting enough, too. Puppies are all different, and what works for one litter may not work for another, especially if they're different breeds or differ in size. The vet can work with you through the weaning process and create a customized plan for both mom and pups. Plus, most shelters and rescues have a vet on their staff — don't be afraid to ask questions. That's what they're there for.
A quick note each day describing how the puppies are doing can be super helpful to your vet.
The First Steps: How Are Puppies Weaned?
Before the pups can be fully weaned, they need to learn how to lap. It's usually best to work with one puppy at a time to make sure each one learns how to drink water from a bowl on their own.
Add Water to a Shallow Bowl
Add about one inch of bottled water to a low-sided bowl. The bowl doesn't need to be anything special. Just make sure your puppies are able to reach the shallow water inside of it easily.
Spark Their Curiosity
Start by dipping a clean finger into the water and pressing it gently against the puppy's lips. Naturally curious, the pup should automatically lick your finger and taste the water. Now, you've sparked their interest.
Getting to the Water Bowl
Once the puppy willingly licks your finger, you can coax them to lick from your finger placed just on the water's surface.
Eventually, you can stop using your finger when puppies lap willingly from the bowl by themselves.
Lapping Session Schedule
Hold lapping sessions two to three times a day for two days to make sure the pups can drink well. Once they do and are able to follow your water schedule, you're ready for the next step of weaning. You can now leave fresh water out for them in a small, shallow bowl, but don't overfill it. Keep it shallow like you were before, and monitor it to keep water inside at all times. The pups will continue to depend on mom for all of their regular meals, but you can also use puppy weaning formula for these lapping sessions as well.
Never use human baby formula to feed puppies—it's not the same.
Puppy Weaning Schedule
While puppies will go at their own pace, here's a quick at-a-glance schedule that you can refer to as a general guide:
Week 4: Thicken the Water
The next step in weaning puppies is to slightly thicken the water so they learn to lap slightly more solid food than they had before. High-protein baby cereal mix, sold in any grocery store, makes an ideal first-weaning food. The amount of baby cereal mix you make depends on how large a litter you have, and you may have to experiment a bit to find the right amount to make sure each pup gets enough.
Start by mixing about one cup of dry baby cereal with enough warm water to create a slurry, which basically has the consistency of loose oatmeal. The pups usually like this mix because it has more flavor than the water. Let them lap the mix until they finish it or become full and stop eating on their own. Once they're done, you can let mom clean up the bowl.
Frequency of Feeding
For the first three days of feeding the baby cereal mix, just feed the puppies once a day in the morning and let them nurse from mom the rest of the day. On day four, add a second feeding later in the afternoon. You'll continue feeding the pups this way for approximately another week.
Over the course of about a week, you can slowly add a little more baby cereal to the mix to thicken it. If you thicken it too quickly, the pups could become constipated, so make sure it's just a little thicker each day until it has the consistency of pudding.
Week 5: From Baby Cereal to Kibble Paste
Once the puppies are regularly eating the baby cereal at pudding consistency, it's time to begin adding a little ground-up puppy kibble to the mix to make a puppy-weaning porridge. To grind the kibble, simply add one cup of whole puppy kibble to your food processor or blender and grind it down to a rough powder.
There are other puppy weaning food recipes online that explain how to make a similar soft kibble mixture that you can try out.
Add Ground Kibble to the Mix
Add about one tablespoon of ground kibble to the baby cereal mix for the first two meals, and then add two tablespoons of kibble for each of the next two meals. This will thicken the mix even more and accustom the pups to an even more solid meal.
Replace Cereal with Kibble
At this point, begin gradually replacing a little of the dry cereal in the mix with a little more of the ground kibble. Eventually, the mix will be all ground kibble with just enough warm water added to make a thick paste.
You can also start feeding puppies wet food in tiny amounts at this time.
Transition Mom Slowly
During this period, you'll likely notice that the pups are nursing from mom far less, but they will still nurse a couple of times a day. As you go through the weaning process, you can begin giving mom longer breaks away from her litter. This allows her milk production to slow down gradually, which is healthier for her.
Weeks 6-7: Moving to Solid Kibble
So far, the weaning plan has taken the pups through approximately weeks three through five of their lives. Now it's time to wean puppies to solid food. At this point, the pups are eating the pasty kibble mix, and you should also keep fresh water available for them.
Soak the Kibble
Once the pups' first teeth are fully cut through their gums, it's time to begin soaking the whole puppy kibble in warm water to soften it. Serve it to the pups in place of the paste mix, and watch to make certain each puppy gives it a try.
Giving Mom Day Breaks
As the puppies become accustomed to eating the soaked kibble, you can begin letting them only stay with mom overnight.
The Next Few Weeks
Over the next couple of weeks, gradually soak the kibble for shorter periods of time until you get to the point where the pups are crunching dry kibble and drinking water on their own. Once they are, you can completely wean them from nursing their mother.
Week 7-8: Moving to Dry Kibble
Week 7 should be the final weaning week. At this time, your puppies should be done drinking their mother's milk, though they may do so for up to eight weeks. At eight weeks, the puppies should be able to eat their dry puppy kibble without water added in to make it softer.
Time to Let Go
The litter should continue to live together until the pups are at least eight weeks old (preferably 12 weeks) to ensure proper socialization. If you've done a thorough job of weaning puppies, each pup can then go to their new home to be loved on by their forever family, as long as they're eating well and gaining weight.