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Watching a dam give birth to a litter of puppies can be fascinating, if not a little nerve-racking. Thankfully, healthy mother dogs usually know exactly what they're doing.
When the Mother Starts Giving Milk
Mother dogs generally begin feeding their tiny newborn puppies milk as soon as they all emerge from her body. The nursing process typically begins immediately and then repeats frequently -- think every several hours or so. Mother dogs start nursing right after birth, and continue to give milk until their litters are fully weaned, which usually occurs when they are approximately 7 to 8 weeks old.
Nursing While Still Birthing
Although some mother dogs wait until labor is all done to initiate nursing activities, others are big multi-taskers. Mother dogs sometimes start feeding their youngsters when they're in the midst of still birthing the rest of the littermates.
The special milk that mother dogs give off right after giving birth is called "colostrum." Colostrum only comes out for several days post-parturition. The smooth, off-white and protein-rich substance is chock-full of vital maternal antibodies that help protect the little puppies from all sorts of diseases, giving them what is known as "maternal" or "passive immunity." Although puppies who consume colostrum immediately indeed do get some illness immunity, it isn't at all permanent. The effects of passive immunity don't last longer than several weeks.
It is crucial for newborn puppies to receive milk courtesy of their mothers within 12 hours after birth. If they fail to take in her milk within this brief time span, they can't get her colostrum, and therefore can't get passive immunity. Once pups are more than 12 hours in age, their digestive systems simply cannot soak up the sizable antibodies anymore. If they do start drinking her colostrum past this point, it just doesn't provide the same beneficial effects.
Mother Dog's Health
If you are eagerly waiting for nursing to commence and it just doesn't, consider the health and current state of the mother dog. If she's not feeding her little ones, it could be a sign that nursing simply is too uncomfortable for her at the moment. The condition mastitis, for example, is a potential cause for this. Mastitis, simply put, is a bacterial infection that occurs within a mother dog's mammary ducts. Contact your vet immediately if your mother dog is not nursing.