Nursing plays a significant role in puppy health, and can help ensure adequate nutrition and protect against disease. Puppies tend to wean themselves naturally over time, and breeders should generally avoid early weaning.
When to Wean
Puppies generally begin naturally weaning between six and seven weeks. If the puppies are not weaned by seven weeks, you can begin separating the mother from the puppy for longer periods of time and incorporating solid and semi-solid foods into the puppies' diet. Puppies need to eat at least every three hours during the first six to seven weeks of life, so as puppies begin nursing less, supplement their diet with solid foods.
The Weaning Process
Weaning doesn't happen overnight. Instead, mothers gradually begin rejecting their puppies' attempts at nursing and allow their puppies to nurse for shorter periods of time. In most cases, mothers wean their puppies automatically, and it is safer and healthier to leave weaning to the mother. Puppies learn to chew solid foods as they are weaning, so they should get soft solid food -- such as watered-down dry food or wet food -- as they begin to nurse less.
Nursing Health Benefits
A mother's milk is the single healthiest food source for puppies in their first weeks of life. It is protein-rich and helps puppies gain weight at an even, healthy pace. Nursing also provides puppies with some immunity against illnesses and can boost overall health. Puppies who are weaned too early may have growth problems, be at an increased risk of infection or suffer from other health issues.
Nursing Behavioral Benefits
Puppies learn much of their adult behavior from their mothers and siblings, and nursing keeps the dog family close together. Nursing puppies learn bite inhibition from their mothers and littermates, who correct them or yelp if they bite too hard. They also learn the basics of body language and acceptable dog behavior. Puppies who are taken from their mothers too young may have more behavioral problems. They frequently continue to act immature well into adulthood and may play bite harder than puppies who were allowed to remain with their mothers.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.
- American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: Weaning
- Diamonds in the Ruff: Developmental Stages and Socialization
- The Puppy Primer; Patricia B. McConnell et al.
- Dr. Pitcairn's New Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats; Richard H. Pitcairn
Brenna Davis is a professional writer who covers parenting, pets, health and legal topics. Her articles have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines as well as on websites. She is a court-appointed special advocate and is certified in crisis counseling and child and infant nutrition. She holds degrees in developmental psychology and philosophy from Georgia State University.