In a perfect world, puppies would stay with their mothers and littermates until they are at least eight weeks of age. This gives them adequate time to learn valuable lessons about how to be a well-socialized member of a group, derive the benefits of suckling their mother’s milk, and transition to a well-balanced puppy food before heading off to new adventures.
Unfortunately, we don’t live in a perfect world. Puppies that are orphaned or otherwise separated from their mothers at very young ages have special needs, and chief among these is adequate nutrition.
Puppies will generally need to drink from a bottle until they are about four weeks old. They should eat every two to three hours from the time you wake until you go to sleep. Thankfully, overnight feedings are usually not necessary if you stick to this schedule, and the frequency of feedings can be decreased gradually as the pup gets closer to four weeks of age. Buy several sets of bottles and nipples made specifically for dogs and use a heated needle to make two or three pinholes in the nipples, if necessary. Having multiple bottles lets you have a clean one available when you need it.
Canine milk replacer is the best food for dogs when they are in the nursing stage. It comes in powdered and premixed forms. The powdered milk replacer is cheaper, but it should only be used immediately after mixing. The liquid milk replacer is very convenient to use, especially when you aren’t at home. Heat the bottle containing the milk in warm water until it is just above room temperature and let the pup nurse until his suckling begins to slow down.
Bottle raising puppies is not difficult, but it does take dedication and a lot of time. Once a puppy begins chewing on the nipple of the bottle (usually around 3-4 weeks of age), you can start offering a high-quality canned puppy food mixed with a little milk replacer. Once he is eating well and drinking water from a bowl, you can discontinue bottle feeding completely and gradually switch over to a dry puppy food made from quality, natural ingredients — if you prefer dry over canned foods.
Take a look at MyBowl on the Pet Nutrition Center to get an idea of the benefits that particular ingredients and nutrient categories bring to a dog’s diet. Once a puppy is ready to switch to an adult food (usually around 12 months of age), use the percentages in the MyBowl tool to evaluate adult formulations for nutritional balance.
If your orphaned puppy suckled colostrum from his mother during the first 24 hours of his life, the immunity he gained should hold him until he is seven to eight weeks of age. If this did not occur and your puppy starts to lose weight, or if you have other reasons to believe that your puppy is immunodeficient, talk to your veterinarian.
Dr. Jennifer Coates