CVMA | Documents | First Weeks of a Puppy’s Life Are Critical

First Weeks of a Puppy’s Life Are Critical

October 23, 2012

The first few weeks of a newborn puppy's life are crucial to its future development. What happens to a puppy during those all-important first weeks can often determine whether a dog will lead a normal, healthy life or a life that is wrought with illness or behavioural problems.

When a puppy is born, it is basically helpless and unable to fend for itself. Almost 75 per cent of puppy deaths occur in the first 18 days after birth, usually as the result of ignorance or inexperience on the part of the mother (e.g. neglect or ineffective nursing) or, in some cases, on the part of the owner (e.g. excessive handling of pups, excessive inbreeding). For these reasons, it is a good idea to have both puppies and the mother checked out by a veterinarian soon after birth. The visit also provides an opportunity to get some answers to any questions you may have.

Among the primary causes of neonatal mortality are undernourishment and chilling. Undernourishment can be due to ineffective nursing or not enough milk from the mother, but it can also be because the puppy itself doesn't suckle properly.

Chilling can be a major cause of neonatal mortality as well. Puppies are unable to regulate or adjust their body temperature in those first few days. If chilled, they are unable to suckle, stop nursing and are ignored by their mother. Warming the puppies restores the suckling reflex and can reverse this.

For owners, being able to recognize a healthy puppy from a sick one can prove to be invaluable and could spell the difference between life and death in some situations. A healthy puppy tends to be warm and plump, has good muscle and skin tones, a quiet disposition and sleeps well. Conversely, a sick puppy is cold and limp, has a pot-bellied appearance, has poor skin and muscle tone, and tends to squirm and cry excessively. If this is the case, your veterinarian should be consulted immediately.

Besides health problems, the social and psychological development of a puppy also occurs during those all-important first weeks of life. Socialization in a puppy occurs during the period between 4-12 weeks of age. It is during this time period that a dog is most susceptible to training and establishes all the necessary responses to its social environment. For example, if it is not exposed to humans during this time period, it will have extreme difficulty adjusting to humans and interacting with them later in life. Likewise, if a puppy does not have a chance to interact with other animals (e.g. its littermates) during this time period, it will have difficulty getting along with other animals throughout its lifetime.