If you’re responsible caring for puppies in the first few months of their lives, you’ll need to be prepared to move them from a diet of mom’s milk to regular puppy food. This process of gradually reducing a puppy’s dependency on his mother’s milk, known as weaning, should generally begin between three and four weeks of age and is ideally completely by the time the puppy is seven to eight weeks.
When to Wean a Litter of Puppies
Puppies receive complete nutrition from their mother’s milk for the first four weeks of life, so there is no need to feed them anything during that time. However, in the event that the mother dog is ill or doesn’t produce enough milk during these four weeks—or if the pups are found as orphans—it may be necessary to feed them commercial milk replacer. If you find yourself in this situation, contact your veterinarian for product and feeding recommendations.
After that time, it’s best to let weaning be a gradual process that occurs over several weeks. This allows the mother dog to slowly dry up her milk supply and puppies need time to learn important behaviors from their mother and littermates, including how to interpret signs of dominance, inhibit their own biting habits and submit to more dominant dogs. Puppies generally begin eating puppy food around three to four weeks of age.
How to Wean a Litter of Puppies
Start by separating the mother from her litter for a few hours at a time. This time apart will reduce the pups’ dependency on their mother’s milk and overall presence. While separated, introduce the puppies to eating from a pan. The amount of food, the frequency and length of separation can gradually be increased. As the puppies become independent and self-confident, they can spend more and more time away from their mother until they are completely weaned.
Take your time. It can be frustrating if puppies don’t immediately take to the transition, but be patient—periodic setbacks are normal!
Caring for the Mother During the Weaning Process
To prevent the mother from overproducing milk—which can lead to painful, engorged mammary glands—it is important to follow a feeding and separation schedule both for her and the puppies. This should be discussed with your veterinarian to ensure that the puppies are receiving adequate nutrition, and that the mother’s food intake is being adjusted properly when she is no longer nursing her litter.
Feeding Your Puppy During the Weaning Process
While weaning, it’s a good idea to feed puppies the same high-quality puppy food they’ll eat throughout their entire growth period. Be sure to moisten the food with warm water (or puppy milk replacer) to create a soupy mix that’s appealing to their sensitive palates.
Puppies often play with their food when it is first introduced, but they will quickly learn what to do with it! Start with small quantities, and gradually increase the amount of puppy food. By the time the pups are completely weaned at seven to eight weeks old, they should be eating their dry food consistently.
How Much Dry Food to Feed Your Puppy
Puppies require up to twice the energy intake of adult dogs and, depending on the breed, will need to be fed a food that contains 25 to 30% protein. Remember, the adult size of a dog is determined genetically—not by how fast the animal grows. Do not overfeed in an attempt to accelerate a puppy’s growth rate.
If they are allowed to overeat, puppies can consume too many calories, grow too rapidly and develop health problems. Small breeds often reach their adult body weight in nine to twelve months. As puppies, its okay to leave dry food out for small them to peck as they wish. But most medium-breed puppies and all large- or giant-breed pups can suffer from bone or joint problems if they eat too much during this stage and benefit most from controlled feeding.