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Keep Puppies from ‘Fading’ with Proper Management

Puppy fading. Virtually every breeder has heard the term. However, according to Michelle Kutzler, D.V.M., Ph.D., an associate professor in the department of animal sciences at Oregon State University, no puppy born healthy should die within the first two weeks of birth. If it does, it’s a matter of animal management, not “fading,” she says.

A reproduction specialist and diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists, Kutzler says “puppy fading” is a “horrible description of a combination of poor management techniques. There’s no excuse for it. So, when you have puppies die and you don’t want to figure out why they died or make the changes necessary to keep it from happening again, you give it a name like ‘fading puppy complex.’”

A good clue to a puppy in distress is crying. “Barring a birth defect, a trauma during birth or post-birth trauma, puppies shouldn’t cry,” Kutzler says

Regardless of the cause of a puppy’s distress, crying for more than a moment or two is a sign that there’s a problem. “Hungry or thirsty or cold puppies will cry initially,” Kutzler says. Puppies with herpesvirus also cry because it’s painful. Healthy puppies under 2 weeks of age, however, “give a peep here and there.” Neonates should either be suckling or sleeping. “If they’re full and warm, they’re asleep,” she says.

Nonresponsive Puppies Need Help

“Normally a puppy will adjust its skeletal muscles in response to being picked up,” Kutzler says. You should feel that difference. If you pick up a puppy, and it doesn’t adjust, “that’s a big clue that something’s wrong.” Vigorously rubbing the puppy to warm it up, including its chest, will stimulate circulation. If the puppy starts making noise, it’s working. “You want to make ‘em angry,” she says. “Those crying, angry puppies are breathing.”

Never try to feed a listless puppy.

Five minutes is all you should spend rubbing a listless puppy. After that, “you’re on the way to the vet,” Kutzler says.

If it warms up and becomes responsive though, Kutzler suggests rubbing a little Karo syrup on its gums. The sugar can “wake them up from that stupor.” If the puppy can then suckle, it’s improving. If not, it’s time to get it to the vet. And it’s extremely important to keep the puppy warm on the way there. One of the best ways to do this is to tuck the puppy into your bra, she says. “It’s like a little puppy hammock.” You can drive safely, and the puppy stays toasty on the way.

Common causes of death in otherwise healthy puppies during the first two weeks of life include starvation, hypothermia and herpesvirus.

Puppies Must Eat

The top cause of neonate mortality is “starvation and dehydration,” Kutzler says. “They’re using up all their carbohydrate reserves to nourish themselves. If they’re not getting milk, they’re dehydrating too.”

She recommends routinely putting lower birth weight puppies on the hind teats and bigger puppies to the front ones. The hind ones provide more milk than those to the front.

Breeders who weigh puppies at birth and consistently every 12 hours thereafter can easily tell if each puppy is getting enough to eat, she says. “Monitoring birth weight is one of the most important things a breeder can do.”

It’s OK if a puppy weighs the same amount on Day 1 as on Day 0. However, if a puppy weighs less on Day 1 or the same amount or less on Day 2, it is not feeding well. The first thing to do is move that puppy to a hind teat. If hind-teat suckling doesn’t put weight on a puppy, she recommends running a tube into the puppy’s stomach to supplement. Every breeder should know how to run a feeding tube, Kutzler says.

Puppies Must Stay Warm

Hypothermia is a leading cause of death of these very young puppies. Neonates should have a rectal temperature of 95 to 99 degrees from birth to week one, 97 to 100 from weeks one to three, and a normal temperature for that particular breed after that point.

Starvation and dehydration contribute to hypothermia, but so does a whelping box that’s not warm enough. Kutzler recommends keeping it between 86 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit – at puppy level – for the first week. For weeks two and three, maintain the temperature between 80 and 85 degrees. In week four, reduce the temperature to 70 to 75 degrees. These temperatures, described in Kutzler’s book, “Small Animal Pediatrics,” (Saunders Elsevier, 2010, $93.95), assume average humidity. If the litter is in a bathroom, for example, temperatures should be lowered to compensate for humidity.

To measure whelping box temperature accurately, use a round-shaped thermometer that doesn’t contain mercury and keep it right in the box at the puppies’ level. A heat lamp in a corner gives the puppies a gradient of heat options. “Even newborns can move both toward and away from heat,” Kutzler says. Often breeders use heating pads, but heat lamps work better, she says. If you must use a heating pad, ensure that some part of the box is away from the pad so puppies that get too warm can move away from it.

Herpesvirus Is a Real Threat

Unrelated to human herpes simplex virus, herpesvirus is passed from one dog to another via contact with bodily fluids or secretions. If puppies cry even though they are eating and warm, they may have the virus. Often, the puppies’ skin will have tiny bruises, Kutzler says, about the size of a pin heads. “Herpesvirus attacks the blood vessels, making them leaky.” The bruises are easy to see on puppies’ tummies, in the white part of the eye or in the mucus membrane in the mouth.

Most often puppies get the virus from the dam during or after birth via secretions containing mucus.

Opinions vary as to whether neonates can survive herpesvirus, but Kutzler says that if they’re kept warm enough right from birth, the virus can’t spread in a neonate’s body. Many dogs live with the virus, but never have symptoms.

Saving Your Puppies

A listless puppy is not something to take a wait-and-see attitude about. If its temperature is below 95 in the first week, it’s too cold. If it’s not suckling, something’s wrong. If it’s crying, it needs intervention from you, and possibly a veterinarian.

One of the most important things, Kutzler says, is to have a mentor if you’re not experienced with whelping. “Find a dog breeder who has been doing this for a while. They’re going to have made all the mistakes that you’re going to make. They’re going to be there for moral support.” You may not be able to count on help from your vet. “Most vets are educated only in weaning forward,” she says. “Most experienced dog breeders know more [about whelping and the early weeks] than most veterinarians.”

Even with a mentor, don’t let listless, non-suckling puppies continue in those states. “Don’t use the syndrome as an excuse,” Kutzler says. “Fading puppy syndrome is not like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. The causes of it are numerous, but most of them can be prevented with proper management. It’s really just animal care. Don’t accept the loss of even one puppy.”

Written by

Susan Chaney has been on the editorial side of publishing since 1990, starting her career as a newspaper features writer and editor. A lifelong lover of dogs, Susan has lived with German Shepherds, Labs, Yorkies, an Irish Setter, a Great Dane-Bloodhound mix, a Sheltie and currently a Chihuahua mix of unknown pedigree. She was the editor of Dog Fancy magazine, content editor of DogChannel.com and group editor of Dog World, Dogs USA, Puppies USA, Natural Dog, Cat Fancy, Cats USA and Kittens USA from March 2005 to December 2009 when she left her position to work at home, part-time. Susan lives in Long Beach, Calif., with her artist husband, Tim, that Chi mix and two big cats. As an editor and writer for Best In Show Daily, she is reveling in the amalgam of three loves: writing, editing and dogs.
  • sshephard
    Susan Shephard March 31, 2012 at 7:54 PM


  • Chantal ANDREW March 31, 2012 at 10:59 PM

    Would love to know how to get permission to reprint an article (Keep Puppies from Fading with Proper Management) in our local dog club magazine. Please advise.

    • Barbara Hawker (Rampage Boxers - NZ) April 1, 2012 at 2:22 PM

      Hi Kayla
      I would also love the opportunity to reprint this article in one of our upcoming Club Newsletters. Please send in PDF format (as mentioned in your reply to Chantal Andrew)
      Kind regards

    • Beverly Crosby - Calisun Standard Poodles April 2, 2012 at 4:54 AM

      I would also like to have a pdf file to reprint in our kennel club newsletter! Really a great
      article. Thanks so much! Bev

    • kayla
      kayla April 4, 2012 at 8:31 AM

      Hi Jean, of course! We’ll be glad to send one over.

  • Sue Lucatorto April 1, 2012 at 8:59 AM

    I have pomeranians, should toy pups be kept warmer for longer periods?
    Excellent informative article

    • silhouette April 2, 2012 at 11:25 AM

      I would add that in my pom puppies, losing weight is normal for the first day or 2. But I would not want it to exceed about .25 oz, especially in puppies born at less than 3 oz. If they don’t hold steady or gain by day 2-3 I start supplementing. Weighing them before and after every feeding and adjusting amount/frequency depending on whether they are holding weight/acting normal/etc. And then stop supplementing when they seem to not lose between feedings (as this means mom is keeping their weight up). What about those puppies who are just not “quite right” from the beginning? Born easily and seeming vigorous, but seem unable to find a nipple, or don’t even look for one, and refuse a bottle or won’t suck? (Not really meaning the obvious possibility of a cleft palate – but one who just won’t even try to suck). Have had that a time or 2. Very frustrating. A friend of mine tube fed such a puppy for weeks, and it wound up being unable to stand and ultimately did not survive which after all that work, was very disheartening. Not sure if it had other problems, or if the lack of desire to nurse was a hint.

  • Christine Farnell April 4, 2012 at 5:00 PM

    Could I please have permission to reprint this in our club newsletter?

    • kayla
      kayla April 5, 2012 at 12:16 PM

      Absolutely! Our creative team is working on delivering the pdf files, you amy also link to our page from your website.

  • Cindy Heiller, DVM April 5, 2012 at 9:56 AM

    Would like to have a pdf file for our newsletter and for our breeder clients. Great article and very informative. Also like your book.

  • Dorothy Christiansen April 26, 2012 at 10:50 AM

    We had our very first case of MRSA in a nursing mother this year (after 40+ years breeding). Those puppies died without making a sound. They lay on the heating pad and slowly grew colder and colder as body systems shut down. Her milk tested positive and we saved the other 5 with Clindamycin for mom and litter. All are off the drug and milk has been re-cultured. Just don’t think that a puppy is okay because it is quiet. I have had my share of the crying, mewling babies. This was new, unexpected and extremely upsetting. We never discovered the source of the bacterium and the dam never showed any signs of being ill. Nor could we find a cut, scrape or cyst. Nothing.

  • Susan Chaney
    Susan Chaney April 26, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    My heart goes out to you, Dorothy, especially when you’ve had so much experience breeding. Many conditions can cause puppies not to thrive, and you’re so right: if a puppy looks like it’s in trouble, it probably is. Everyone here at Best In Show Daily wishes you a perfectly healthy next litter.

  • Joan Beck January 17, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    This article is pretty good except it pretty much ignores the problem of congenital heart defects. In cases where there is a malformation of the heart, such as pulmonary atresia for example (where the pulmonary valve is fused), when the ductus arteriosus and the foramen ovale close the puppy is gradually deprived of oxygen and will usually fade and die between days four and fourteen. Even if you rush these puppies to the vet and spend a fortune on care, these are truly fading puppies and there isn’t much a breeder can do about these poor babies.

  • Pam January 17, 2014 at 10:22 AM

    Excellent article! I would also like a copy of the pdf…for my vet. Thanks!

  • Mary Beth McManus January 17, 2014 at 10:25 AM

    This is excellent article/info. Kayla, I too would like permission to print in my all breed kennel club and to forward the PDF files to health committee of a parent club. Thank you Susan!

    • kayla
      kayla January 17, 2014 at 10:46 AM

      Hi everyone,
      thank you for writing and thank you for being part of our community. We’ll be happy to provide pdf’s of the article and of course, you can link your Club sites to any of our content.

  • Informative January 17, 2014 at 3:52 PM

    Please send pdf file. Would love to submit to our clubs’s newsletter

  • KEVEN HARRIS January 17, 2014 at 6:19 PM

    Excellent Article, Known as Fading Puppy Syndrome in Australia and the piece on the importance of warmth is priceless information. Most other factors generally take care of themselves but as stated, a feeding but cold puppy is a no no. I personally always had a (small square footage) room with temperature of 85 degrees for two weeks, never the bathroom (except for extreme heat days), always the laundry or similar whelping room, even the bedroom. Would also like to reprint .

  • Rusty Kingery January 19, 2014 at 8:11 AM

    May I have a pdf as well, please?

    • kayla
      kayla January 19, 2014 at 9:56 AM

      Absolutely! Thank you for writing and for being part of the Best In Show Daily community.

  • Mary Merlo January 20, 2014 at 7:18 AM

    Thank you for the great article…no matter how long one has been in this, it is always great to read it again and again.
    Please send me a pdf so that I can forward this to my parent club’s newsletter. (ISCA) and thanks again.

  • Cheryl Johnson January 21, 2014 at 9:29 AM

    Excellent article. May I have a pdf file of this article. Thank you.

  • Diane Turba January 21, 2014 at 2:35 PM

    Another insightful article from BIS Daily. Thank you. Have read so many different opinions regarding whelping box temperature, this article puts it in perspective and is exacting which is great help to me. Please send the pdf. Diane

  • Carolyn Kool February 5, 2014 at 11:03 AM

    Excellent article. I recommended it for our newsletter. If you would be so good as to send the .pdf file to bethyim@shaw.ca – our newsletter editor. If you prefer send it to me above and I will forward it to her. Thank you

  • Lydia Sernecki March 23, 2014 at 2:48 PM

    This is a great article that I think would interest our breeder member (Golden Retriever Club of SA). Would you please give permission for me to include it in our upcoming edition of the Golden Era.
    Many thanks,
    Lydia Sernecki (Editor)

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