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Thoughts On Puppy Milk Replacers

Most breeders and many rescuers end up having to supplement puppies at some point. Ideally all puppies get at least a day or two of “fresh from their dam” colostrum, but after that, supplementing may be required. Ill health of the dam, a large litter, a pup who has trouble fighting littermates for a fair share, even death of the dam could all be reasons for supplementing puppies.

But are all puppy milk replacers created equal? And are they truly reasonable substitutes for the dam’s milk? A recent study written up in the June 15, 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association (JAVMA) brings those two concerns into question.

This study clearly suggests that milk replacers aren’t really total substitutes for your puppies. One area which has been in the news for many species is that of polyunsaturated fatty acids – think DHA (docosahexaenoic acid)and ARA arachidonic acid) in particular. These fatty acids have been associated with normal retinal and brain development in mammals. They are now added to human baby formulas. In puppies they are associated with learning ability, memory and visual acuity. Still, other ingredients are essential for normal, healthy growth as well – including calcium, phosphorus and calories.

Exact nutrient requirements for very young puppies aren’t clearly defined but presumably normal canine milk covers them. When comparing the five samples of milk from nursing dams with puppies two to three weeks old to milk replacers (15 in all were evaluated) some interesting deficiencies came to light.

While protein amounts in most replacers was adequate, the exact amino acid makeup was not. Arginine is an excellent example of this. Arginine is important for canine development, as a deficiency has been associated with cataract development in large breed puppies. Unfortunately cow and goat milk, which is what most puppy milk replacers are based on, tends to be very deficient in this amino acid.

Calcium levels tended to be lower in the milk replacers and often the calcium to phosphorus ratios were not ideal. Fatty acids amounts were generally not adequate either with DHA and ARA often totally absent in some of the replacers. Sugar levels, especially lactose (no surprise) tended to be higher in the milk replacers than in the normal milk.

Another concern of the authors is that feeding directions tended to be based on volume, not caloric density. In addition, information to guide owners as to how to adjust the amount fed as the puppy grew were not clear.

This brings us back to what a breeder who needs to supplement puppies should do. Homemade replacer recipes may not be any more balanced and complete than the commercial ones. At least with a commercial milk replacer you do know what you are feeding, even if it is not perfect.

The puppies we tend to supplement are generally the smaller ones or the weaker ones. Those are the puppies actually MOST in need of the better diet. So the stronger, bigger puppies may need to be pulled off periodically to let the puppies in most need nurse first. Give the occasional milk replacer feeding to the bigger pups, not the struggling ones.

The ideal solution of course is to find a dam with puppies about the same age who is willing to take on some additional puppies. A bitch with three puppies might easily take on three more and ease the burden of a bitch with 10 or 12 puppies. Make sure your nursing bitch is being fed optimally so she can produce top quality milk for her pups. If you end up supplementing puppies with milk replacer consider consulting a veterinary nutritionist to be sure your puppies are getting adequate nutrition. He/she can guide you as to any additional supplements you might want to give.

The reality is that breeders may have to use commercial milk replacers at times. Check the nutrients carefully, get expert advice on any additional supplements and make sure the pups who need it the most get their dam’s milk first.

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  • lauriesavoie June 18, 2014 at 6:35 PM

    I read this with a nodding head!!

    I lost a Pembroke bitch whelping, and hand raised 7 puppies…wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy. You really have no idea how much a good mumma dog does until…it’s all up to you.

    I was given ‘The Recipe’ from my mentor in the breed, which she had been given years and years before from a Pekingese breeder…the concept being as you pointed out, high caloric density in volume.

    All I had to do was promise to play it forward…and so I do. It truly is jet fuel.

    (Base amounts…can be endlessly multiplied)

    4 oz natural full fat yogurt
    4 oz full fat evaporated milk (NOT condensed)

    1 egg yolk
    1 Tablespoon Mayonnaise, (NOT salad dressing, and NO lite or diet)
    1 dropper, (about .6 mls) of a human baby liquid Vitamin…no floride. ABDEC or Poly-Vi-Sol for example

    Whizz in blender…I fed with human baby juice bottle.

    This is also useful to top up a bitch’s meals, and in weaning to soak kibble.

    ALL pups passed their eye checks..and the opthamologist took down the recipe.

    Be well,


    • janet March 29, 2015 at 4:58 AM

      This is a formula that I have used for 35 years. The only difference I have made is rather than Mayo (all the other stuff that goes into mayo) I use Canola oil. Have had great success with this formula over the years. Even used it thru to pups 1st year – when I had to work long hours, left the formula as a supplement along with food.

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E June 20, 2014 at 5:15 PM

    First, thank you SO much for sharing this Laurie! And yup – look at that caloric density & much/most of it from fat & protein NOT sugars. I am going to save this :)

  • Ingrid Mylemans June 27, 2014 at 10:02 AM

    President of the http://www.belgianpugdogclub.be and the http://www.belgianfrenchbulldogclub.be
    Reputable breeders can not understand this. They are devoted to their breed. We see every day in our vet. surgery the results of mass breeding…So many breeds ruined…so many owners in tears…
    Ingrid Mylemans

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E June 27, 2014 at 5:04 PM

    Certainly breeding is not for the faint of heart!

  • Anne January 5, 2015 at 10:39 AM

    If I have a great disparity in size of pups, I supplement the big guys and let the little ones have more of mama without competition. They usually level off at about 2 weeks. I like to supplement all puppies a little so that they get used my hands in a really satisfying way and I like to hold them up to my neck and burp them and cuddle them. Sometimes this is just not possible if the litter is small and the mother has lots of milk. I still hold them a lot, but I like to associate the feeding with holding in very tiny babies. And my babies never forget me, even if they don’t see me for 10 years.

  • Midge January 6, 2015 at 8:51 AM

    There is NO substitute for a good mom. I have a 4-week old wire dachshund litter and, though it’s her first litter, she’s the best mom ever. She comes from a long line of good moms. I usually use Esbilac to start the pups on solid food…didn’t this time…just puppy kibble and yoghurt and water. They’re doing fine. What brands are the best if I need a replacer next time?

  • erin campbell dvm January 6, 2015 at 4:48 PM

    Best powdered as supplement along with some colostrum and vortex multi vitamin supplement mix is Nature’s Farmacy puppy bac and milk replacer.. I add in some shavings of pepcid if they are too colicky . best i have found .. Ive seen cataracts with goats milk

    • fethrfrnd
      Pam L March 30, 2015 at 9:48 AM

      Hi Deb – I have used Puppy Bac and the recipe. But, as per your post I would like to add your suggested vortex vitamin supplement but cannot find it in any search. Is this a human or veterinary product? Where could I possibly find this?

      Thank you!

  • Elaine Saxen March 28, 2015 at 9:59 AM

    What about fresh goat’s milk?

  • Kathy G. March 29, 2015 at 8:12 AM

    After nursing, I’ve always started my introduction to “real food” with unpastuerized goats milk with a little ground up chicken to lace the milk. Out of curiosity, were the numbers in this report done on pasteurized or unpasteurized milk?
    Thank you to all who supplied these wonderful ideas!

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E March 30, 2015 at 2:40 AM

    Goat’s milk has been a traditional favorite & many puppies have obviously done fine with it but it is not as good as some of the other recipes. I assume ti was pasteurized milk – no info given. Giving the smaller pups more dam access & less supplement is definitely the way to go.
    As for the comment on good dams – absolutely! Mothering ability, ease of whelping, maternal behaviors shoudl all be taken into consideration when choosing a brood bitch!

  • Terri VanSchyndel April 2, 2015 at 9:24 AM

    I have used goats milk with Karo syrup for years with great success. I have tried all the formulas on the market and found this to cause less gas and upset stomachs/intestines in my puppies. I also use a preemie bottle/nipple with one hole, they cannot drowned themselves when sucking too hard.

  • daugust
    Deborah August April 2, 2015 at 12:31 PM

    Dr Eldredge–
    Isn’t the evaporated milk/yogurt recipe dangerously concentrated or hypertonic? Shouldn’t water be added to this mixture?

    • Leah Bertagnolli
      Leah Bertagnolli April 3, 2015 at 6:51 AM

      Hi Deborah, Canned evaporated milk and canned goats milk should always be given to puppies without dilution. Puppies have the need for more fat content. If you dilute you will severely malnourish the puppies.

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E April 2, 2015 at 4:28 PM

    It looks too concentrated but apparently many pups have done well on it. Some breeders might also be supplementing with some water and/or SQ fluids. I have not tried that one myself. Maybe Laurie can comment if she adds fluid at all.

  • nmoscoso
    Natacha Moscoso April 3, 2015 at 10:52 AM

    I very much doubt a home-made formula will be better than an industry formulated one. If we do not rely on home-made formulas for human babies, then why should it be different for puppies?

    • Leah Bertagnolli
      Leah Bertagnolli April 3, 2015 at 11:54 AM

      Actually having been a breeder for 30 + years I would use goats milk over prepared formula anytime. Our puppies who have needed supplementation have thrived on it. There was a time when one of the commercially made formulas was missing a very crucial component and it caused a lot of problems. Goats milk is not manipulated. To each their own I suppose.

  • Deb Eldredge, D.V.M.
    Deb E April 3, 2015 at 1:17 PM

    The point of the article was that not all formulas are created equal. Consulting with a veterinary nutritionist to evaluate any formula or home recipe would be worthwhile.

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