Care for Puppies, Kittens and Their Mothers
Puppies are born blind with their eyelids sealed shut. They spend their time nursing and sleeping, and their birth weight is doubled during the first week of life. By the time they are two weeks old, the puppies are more alert and attempt to stand up. At two weeks of age, the eyelids are open and vision starts to develop. Ear canals are sealed at birth and open by the time the puppy is about 17 days old. At 25 days, the puppy is starting to respond to sights and sounds.
Female dogs are called bitches. Bitches need a quiet, private place to look after their puppies. During the birthing process and immediately after, most bitches are not interested in eating. However, this should change within 24 hours after the birth of the last pup. Many veterinarians recommend feeding the new mother as much as she would like to eat, including puppy food or a specially made nursing, or lactation, diet. This will provide extra calories that she can use to produce more milk.
What does the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Kennels say about the care of puppies and bitches?
Birth – Whelping
“A whelping box is designed to protect puppies during birth and early life by keeping them safely contained, protected from cold, and safe from the danger of crushing or smothering by the mother. A whelping box is constructed with four sides and a floor. Within the box, dowelling rails may be used to help prevent the dam from pushing a puppy accidentally into the wall and suffocating it by lying on it. A whelping area consists of a whelping box and a separate area that allows the dam to have access to food, water, and the ability to rest and eliminate away from the puppies.
- Provide adequate human supervision and access to human assistance during the whelping period and following the birth of the puppies.
- The whelping box has a floor area two and a half times the size of the dam.
- Absorbent bedding to keep the dam and puppies clean and dry.
- Excrement is removed from whelping area at least twice daily, or more often as required to ensure good health and sanitation.
- The whelping area allows the dam to have access to food, water, and the ability to rest and eliminate away from the puppies.
- The water bowl is situated so that a puppy cannot fall into it.
- The whelping box prevents puppies from escaping or harming themselves.
- Until puppies are able to successfully thermoregulate, a supplemental source of safe heating is available.
- Dowelling rails are placed along all four sides, 10 cm (4 inches) from the floor, and 10 cm (4 inches) out from the walls – forming a ledge. For toy breeds, the dowelling should be lowered by 5 cm (2 inches).
- Separate the whelping area from the individual and/or group enclosure housing other dogs, thus providing the whelping dam with privacy.
- Provide soft bedding in one half of the whelping box for comfort, and newspaper in the other half to encourage the pups to eliminate on the paper and keep the bedding clean.
- Provide supplemental heat as required for puppy comfort, but avoid overheating the whelping box so that the dam does not leave.”
Excerpts obtained from the Code of Practice for Kennel Operations (3rd Edition, 2018), Canadian Veterinary Medical Association.
Early exposure to and positive associations with novel environmental stimuli are important in raising socially well-adjusted dogs. Research shows that the first 14 weeks of a puppy’s life are extremely important to ensure that they don’t grow up to be fearful of the world they live in. Puppies need to be exposed to as many people, other animals, sounds, sights, smells, and surfaces as possible during the 3rd-14th week window of development. During this time, puppies are less likely to be afraid and more likely to easily habituate. Habituation is the process of an animal becoming non-reactive to commonly encountered, non-harmful stimuli. The level of stimuli exposure is kept low enough so as not to provoke a fearful response in the puppy. Household noises, objects, and smells can all be incorporated into an early stimuli exposure program. Common noise stimuli include vehicles, sirens, television, doorbells, kitchen noises, thunder and lightning, vacuum cleaners, and knocking.
Common tactile stimuli include carpet, concrete, water, snow, ice, tile, and grass, and various indoor and outdoor environments.
Common visual stimuli include, for example, statues, umbrellas, balloons, and wheelchairs.
For more resources on the socialization of dogs, check out the following links:
Puppy Behaviour and Training – Socialization and Fear Prevention (VCA Canada Hospitals)
Importance of the Sensitive Period for Puppy Socialization (Pet Health Network)
Process of Puppy Socialization & Position Statement (American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior)
Kittens double their birth weight during the first week of life and grow about 10 grams a day during the second week. A kitten’s eyes start to open between 9 and 14 days. All kitten eyes are blue and their vision is blurred at first, as their pupils don’t dilate and contract easily. In the next few weeks, kittens develop their sense of smell, depth perception and curiosity.
Female breeding cats are called queens. Queens need a quiet, private place to look after their kittens. During the birthing process and immediately after, most queens are not interested in eating. However, within 24 hours after the birth of the last kitten she should begin eating. Many veterinarians recommend feeding the new mother kitten food or a specially made nursing, or lactation, diet. This will provide the extra calories the cat needs to produce more milk. After about a month, the queen will begin weaning her brood and the amount of food she is offered can be reduced slowly as you begin to switch her back to her normal adult diet. By about 8 weeks, the kittens should be pretty much weaned and the cat should be back her regular adult cat diet.
What does the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association’s Code of Practice for Catteries say about the care of cats and kittens?
“The queening area should be separate from other cats to permit privacy. A quiet, secure area should be provided that is of sufficient size to allow the queen ample opportunity to move around. Queens with kittens require additional space beyond the minimum requirement of 0.85m³. The queening area should be quarantined or be the area entered first before the “dirtier” areas to minimize exposure of newborns.
Human supervision and immediate assistance are important during the queening period and the days following the birth of the kittens. The queening area should be located in an area that will facilitate ongoing 24-hour supervision by the breeder.
The queening area might consist of a private pen containing an enclosed, easily accessed, covered queening box. This box should be lined with soft, easy-to-change bedding for the queen and the kittens. Bedding should be changed daily or more often if required.
Weaned kittens and adult cats should be fed at least twice a day, unless otherwise specified by a veterinarian. Food should be free from contamination and should be wholesome, palatable, and of sufficient quantity and nutritive value to meet the normal daily requirements for the condition and size of the cat. Food must be provided in sufficient amounts to ensure normal growth in kittens and maintenance of normal body weight in adults.
Records for all litters should include a daily record of each kitten’s progress, such as weight gain of neonates, weakness, supplemental feeding, etc., as well as numbers and sexes. Ideally, each kitten has its own record at the time of birth. Kittens should be weighed at birth and then daily for at least the next 4 weeks. Desirable and undesirable traits should be noted. The records should specify individual birth weights, condition, and vigour.
Care of Kittens
Kittens must be provided with proper housing, nutrition, health care, exercise, and socialization. They should be gradually nutritionally weaned from their mother and introduced to food starting around 4-5 weeks, and completely weaned by 6-7 weeks. It is very important that the kittens be exposed to a range of people and stimuli so that they will adjust to novel situations, environments, and people when they go to their new homes. The minimum age for kittens to be placed in their new homes is 8 weeks; however, 10-12 weeks is preferred as kittens are generally more robust and will be more socially developed by that time.
Most social bonds between cats occur between adults and juveniles with the strongest bonds occurring between family members and between females.
Socialization of the kittens and cats to human beings and other cats should be a goal of all those who care for the animals. Kittens should remain in sibling and colony contact for a minimum of 8 weeks (ideally 10-12 weeks) and be handled by humans, including children, from 3 weeks of age until sold. The social development needs of the kitten into early adulthood should be explained clearly to the new owners.”
Excerpts from the Code of Practice for Cattery Operations (1st Edition, 2009) by the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association have been used with permission.