By Lady Fi
Weaning mum and pups from each other is an art possibly more than it is a science.
Every mum is different. For some mums it is a straightforward and natural transition; for others it’s not so easy.
In this regard, every mum receives the individual attention needed for a smooth transition.
I must say it’s close to my heart as a mother myself, having only recently emerged from the loss that comes with the ’empty nest’. In my case the children leaving was abrupt: there’s only 17 months between our children and we live 3.5 hours from Melbourne. So it was that by 18 and 19 years of age they had both left home. In the space of a few short months, the nest emptied.
First few weeks
For the first week of life, mum and babies are kept in the whelping room, which is private with no other dogs visible, under constant camera observation (see article ‘Technology in the doggery’) and temperature controlled. During this first week mum is reluctant to leave the nest even for toilet breaks, running back as soon as she can. It’s an intensive time for carers too, monitoring the growth of each pup twice daily (they can dehydrate and slip backwards quickly) and ensuring mum has numerous small nutritious meals a day. Some mothers are not interested in eating and over the years we have developed creative ways to entice mum.
By one week of age mum is happy to explore around the house or around the office of the doggery for pats or a cuddle, but is wary not to be too far away from the nest and is alert to any perceived danger. At this stage mother and litter are moved into the maternity section of the doggery where separate quarters are located for the weaned pups, nursing mums and the mums a few weeks off whelping. We find the mums like this transition as they are ready to be more involved in the goings on of day to day life in the maternity/nursery area.
For the first three weeks of life it’s mum’s milk only, unless we need to supplementary feed. We use a special formula (not bought powders) which we have perfected over the years. This is a mix of goat milk, egg yolk and nutrient drops. We supplementary feed any pups struggling to keep up, or an entire litter if a mum has lots of pups. In the case of a big litter, there is a real chance of milk fever (also called eclampsia in dogs, but no relation to eclampsia in humans) as the pups approach the three-week mark. This is a condition of low calcium in the mother because the volume of milk the puppies draw down is huge at this time. Mum’s nutrition and monitoring for signs of milk fever are critical at this time. Signs include the mother getting shaky or stiff-limbed. We have a short time to intervene with calcium, lest the mum goes into a comma. We can’t routinely provide calcium externally, which would seem logical, as this can actually induce a shortage by suppressing the natural mobilisation of calcium in the mother’s body. A catch 22 that means there is no substitute for constant care and observation.
Pups start on solids from 3 weeks of age, which coincides with when they begin to hear, see and start toddling.
Pups’ first meal is a ‘slurry’: a shallow dish of milk mashed with Pedigree or Advance tinned puppy food. We place the pups around the dish and with our little finger introduce some food into their mouths. Sometimes we pop their front feet in to get them close enough to taste. Most mums will stand and watch on, even taking a few laps to show them what is expected. Others still are keen to scoff the lot (!) so they have some outside time while puppies play about. Like human babies starting solids, it’s more about food-on-body than food-in-mouth.
By four weeks the pups have mastered their solids and the pressure is off mum to provide all their sustenance.
It is at this stage that we start giving mum social breaks of 2 hours a day away from the pups. Here she will be buddied with another nursing mum on a break and they can lounge around in the sun or explore about without the constant demands of the growing brood.
Here we see variations in how mum is handling separation. We reduce the period away if mum is anxious.
By five weeks even the most dedicated mum is enjoying her social breaks.
Five weeks is an important time to start weaning as for many mums they have mentally had enough of the brood by now. In fact some can be seen to start the weaning themselves and we assist this natural transition by providing a separate sleeping quarters for mum should she so choose to use it. Even those who aren’t mentally ready for weaning, they are physically ready. Their bodies have worked hard.
If we find a mum is struggling with the separation, we take them to a new environment away from the doggery. Usually this is around our house where they have five acres of space around the house and well out of earshot of pups. The new surrounds capture their interest and they soon enjoy their break.
During the weaning period between five and six weeks of age, the mums are reunited with their pups each night to sleep together. Often mum will be in her own little bed, but to little avail as the tribe will have hopped in with her.
By six weeks of age and over it is short visits only for ‘comfort sucks’ for mother and babies. Here we see some mums enjoy playing with their pups and leave them to play (well, not true; it’s too precious not to watch!). For others it’s ‘get me out of here!’ Half a dozen six week old puppies making a rush for the milk bar can be quite daunting! They rush to mum, flinging themselves on their backs under her and attaching so she cannot walk for the mob underneath. How quickly they have grown!
If I had to sum up the weaning process I’d describe it as one of sensitivity; being sensitive as the human carers. Sensitive to the fact that every mum is different and every litter is different too. It’s about empathising with each mum and being tuned in to their behaviour, which means taking care of both their emotional and physical needs. It’s actually a lovely time to spend with dogs, as together we set about raising the next generation.