ABSTRACT: Veterinary nurses are at the forefront of giving nutritional advice to new puppy owners and novice breeders. They need to understand the key role diet plays in ensuring optimum health and development of puppies and breeding bitches. This is an area where there has been considerable research in recent years and so nurses need to stay up to date with the latest developments. Dietary innovations include large-breed puppy foods, essential fatty-acid supplementation for enhanced neurological development leading to improved trainability, and the addition of live probiotics to reduce gastrointestinal upsets caused by environmental stress.

Veterinary nurses play an increasingly important role in day-to-day practice in communicating with clients when animals are well. Preventive health and wellness programmes are commonplace. You will often be asked to give advice to clients who have decided to have “just one litter” from their bitch before she is spayed.

So what key advice should you be giving about nutrition for the pregnant bitch, the lactating bitch and their puppies after weaning?

Physiological background

Gestation in dogs averages 63 days and is typically divided into three 21-day trimesters. During the first 35 days of pregnancy, only two per cent of foetal mass is developed and, therefore, both energy and dietary requirements are the same as those of the adult maintenance phase. This means there is no reason to change the bitch’s diet quite yet, provided she is already being fed a complete balanced food.

The last trimester and throughout lactation are considered as a growth phase and, as such, pregnant bitches should be fed complete balanced food formulated for growth. A good quality fixed-formula puppy food is most suitable.

Nutritional considerations

Fixed-formula foods are made to the same exacting recipe with each and every batch. This means you can be assured of consistency in nutritional formulation. Start introducing this from the middle of the fifth week of pregnancy, so the bitch is eating this exclusively from the middle of the sixth week. Large breed puppy foods are not suitable because of their controlled fat and calcium levels, even if the pregnant bitch is a large breed herself.

It is helpful to see bitches every week during pregnancy, as novice owners will have lots of questions and you can also ensure the bitch is gaining weight at an appropriate rate. As a rule of thumb, you should expect a weight gain of 20 to 25 per cent by the end of week eight. Energy requirements will depend upon litter size but vary between 30 to 60 per cent higher than adult maintenance.

Pregnant and lactating bitches need a higher intake of calories (from dietary fat), protein and calcium. Many breeders seem obsessed with calcium supplementation. This is unnecessary and may be harmful.

During lactation, the bitch must carefully control both the deposition and mobilisation of calcium for milk production. If a bitch receives calcium supplementation during pregnancy, then her calcium mobilisation pathways are not properly primed. This means when the need for calcium is suddenly hugely elevated at the start of lactation, she will be unable to keep up with this metabolic demand.

This can cause the serious condition called canine eclampsia, which is characterised by muscle tremors, panting, fever and even seizures. Eclampsia may occur at peak lactation (weeks 3 and 4) and is more common in small terrier breeds having their first litter. This makes it especially important to warn the ‘hobby’ breeder about optimum nutrition during pregnancy and lactation.

You may also be asked about folic acid supplementation, because women know they must take this vitamin to prevent neural tube defects in their babies. However, commercial dog food contains around twice the minimum level needed for growth and so a deficiency in dogs is very unlikely. Unless the bitch is being fed a very unusual home-made diet, your patients do not need folic acid supplementation during pregnancy.

Recent research has proved that nutritional supplementation of growth diets with the essential fatty acids docosahexanoic acid (DHA) and eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) from fish oils confers health and behavioural benefits. These essential fatty acids have been shown to enhance neurological and brain development, leading to improved ‘trainability’ and learning skills in young puppies.

Weaning procedures

Weaning should begin when puppies are between three and four weeks old, when the deciduous teeth begin to erupt. This is especially important if the bitch has a large litter. Since milk production is encouraged by the puppies suckling and by a high plane of nutrition for the bitch, steps must be taken to reduce both.

To begin weaning, you should advise the owner to slowly start to reduce the food intake for the bitch at the same time as allowing the puppies to have access to a complete balanced growth food (often a canned version for very small breed puppies). When all the puppies are eating well, then they should be removed from the mother for increasing intervals each day until they are all eating independently. A gradual transition is preferable.

It can also be helpful for the breeder to allow the puppies to go to their new homes over a week or more to add to the gradual weaning process. Very abrupt weaning can be detrimental to the bitch and may increase the risk of mastitis.

The post-weaning period – from two to 12 months – is a critical time for behavioural, skeletal and neurological development. This is the time that most puppies will move from the breeder to their new homes, complete their vaccination programme, receive novel foods and encounter a vast range of new stimuli. It is also during this time that these new puppies will first visit your clinic.

The first few days in a new home can be stressful (for both the puppy and the owner!) This is a very common time for gastrointestinal upsets caused by the combination of a diet change and a new environment.

Role for probiotics

New research shows that ‘seeding’ a puppy’s gastrointestinal system with a plentiful supply of ‘good bacteria, such as Enterococcus faecium, will confer proven health benefits to the dog.

You will certainly already be aware of the role of daily probiotics to maintain healthy gut function and boost the immune system in your own diet. The concept of disease preventing good’ bacteria goes back many hundreds of years in history. Milk-based products, such a ‘Yakult’ and ‘Activia’, now lead the human market and command a huge presence on our TV screens, as well as in our supermarkets.

Your veterinary practice may already recommend an oral probiotic paste for cases of diarrhoea and colitis. But the daily use of live probiotics – akin to the current trend in human preventive health – is only very recently available for dogs. This type of product is very suitable for new puppies.

When puppies are first born, their guts are relatively sterile and so it is important that the first bacteria to colonise the gut are beneficial ones, such as Enterococcus faecium. By feeding lactating bitches probiotics, her milk will contain the right balance of the very best bacteria for the guts of her puppies.

When a puppy leaves the kennels and arrives in its new home, it will be subjected to many ‘insults’ that can be challenging for its immature immune system – the first trip to the vet, vaccination, a new environment and maybe other pets. It is very likely that these ‘insults’ will affect the puppy’s digestive tract and may cause gut upsets, such as diarrhoea.

Feeding daily oral probiotics has been proven to enhance the
immune response of the young puppy and increases the puppy’s production of vital immunoglobulins at just the time when it most needs them.

Large breeds

Table 1 shows the key nutritional factors for puppies, including the main differences between optimum nutrition for large breed puppies. These are puppies that will weigh more than 25kg when adult. Research has shown a clear link between feeding and developmental orthopaedic conditions, such as hip dysplasia and osteochondrosis.

Owners of such large breed puppies should be encouraged to feed calcium- controlled, energy-controlled foods (commercially available as ‘large breed puppy’ foods) and visit the clinic at least monthly for their puppy’s weight to be recorded and plotted on a growth curve.

Most pet food companies will supply practices with puppy growth charts for nurses to use in clinic. Daily feeding amounts can then be altered to achieve optimum growth and avoid juvenile obesity.


Meeting and getting to know new clients and new puppies is one of the most rewarding parts of the veterinary nursing job. Clients see the nurses within a practice as more approachable and will come to you with their problems and concerns, often when they do not mention them to the veterinary surgeon.

Having well-researched, up-to-date advice for both novice breeders and new puppy owners creates an excellent impression of you and your practice, so take time to create a pack of information that you understand and can explain. 


Alison Jones BVetMed MRCVS

Alison qualified from the Royal Veterinary College, London, in 1987. She spent several years in mixed practice in Gloucestershire before joining Hill's Pet Nutrition in 1994. Whilst there. Alison became veterinary affairs manager for the UK and was responsible for both veterinary and veterinary nurse nutritional training at a practice level and through the universities and colleges. Alison left Hill's in 2001 and opened her own practice, Vets on the Park, in Cheltenham. In her spare time, she breeds Border terriers and is a keen supporter of Gloucester Rugby Club.

To cite this article use either

DOI: 10.1111/j.2045-0648.2012.00165.x or Veterinary Nursing Journal Vol 27 pp 143-145

Further reading

ACKERMAN, L (1999) Canine nutrition: what every owner, breeder, and trainer should know. Alpine Publications. Loveland.

WORTINGER, A (2007) Nutrition (or veterinary technicians. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford.

RASTALL, R. A. (2004) Bacteria in the gut: Friends and Foes and How to Alter the Balance, Journal of Nutrition.

BENYACOUB, J„ CZARNECKI-MAULDEN, J. G„ CAVADINI. C., SAUTHIER, T.. ANDERSON. R. E.. SCHIFFRIN, E. J. and VON DER WEID. T. [2003] Supplementation of food with Enterococcus faecium [SF68] Stimulates Immune Function in Young Dogs, Journal of Nutrition pp 1158-1162.

Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 27 • April 2012 •