Raising an orphaned litter of puppies can be a time consuming exercise but one that is associated with many rewards. Puppies may be orphaned for many reasons such as rejection by their mother, failure of milk production and, rarely, the death of their mother. While there are a number of problems that can arise in the early stages of a puppy’s life we are happy to advise and assist you every step of the way to help ensure a positive outcome.


Newborn puppies are very fragile and problems can develop quickly due to their high reliance on their mother for warmth and nutrition.  There are several critical problems that must be urgently addressed if they occur including:

  • Hypothermia (low body temperature)
  • Dehydration (lack of fluid) and
  • Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar).

These problems often exist at the same time as they are closely linked to one another.  Frequent observation and prompt intervention if any of the puppies seem inactive or disinterested in feeding will help reduce the likelihood of mortality.


If a newborn puppy becomes very cold this can quite rapidly lead to an emergency situation. Puppies will lose far more body heat per kilogram of body weight than an adult dog. Puppies rely on their mother for radiant heat to help maintain their body temperature.

Orphaned puppies will require alternative methods of warmth such as incubators, heat lamps, heating pads or hot water bottles. Any heating needs to be done very carefully as if the puppy is warmed too rapidly this may result in a heat stressed puppy.

During the first 4 days of its life, the orphaned puppy should be maintained in an environmental temperature of 29.4 – 32.2°C. The temperature may gradually be reduced to 26.7°C by the 7th to 10th day and to 22.2°C by the end of the 4th week. If the litter is large, the temperature need not be as high as the puppies huddle together and their combined body heat provides additional warmth.


The lack of regular fluid intake or the exposure of the puppy to a low humidity environment can easily result in dehydration. The inefficiency of the digestion and metabolism of a hypothermic puppy may also lead to dehydration and other changes. An environmental relative humidity of 55 to 65% is adequate to prevent drying of the skin in a normal newborn puppy. However, a relative humidity of 85 to 90% is more effective in maintaining puppies if they are small and weak. One method of maintaining the humidity is to put a damp towel near to the puppy in its basket. The bitch is continuously licking the puppy and herself and normally creates a fairly humid immediate environment. Her breast area is also naturally moist while she is suckling her puppies.

Two key indicators of dehydration are the loss of elasticity in the skin and dry and sticky mucous membranes (gums) in the mouth. If you are concerned that the puppies are showing either of these signs please contact your veterinary health care team.

Hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar)

Signs of hypoglycaemia can include:

  • Severe depression (“floppy” puppy)
  • Muscle twitching and
  • Convulsions (seizures)

If a puppy shows signs of hypoglycaemia, a few drops of sugar solution/ honey on the tongue can be life saving. Contact your veterinarian immediately if this occurs.


Commercially puppy formula is the ideal option to feed as it is specifically formulated to meet all of a puppy’s nutritional requirements until they are about 3 to 4 weeks of age. After this puppies are ready to start eating moistened solid food. Cow’s milk is not suitable as it can result in diarrhoea and subsequently dehydration of the puppy.

Bottle feeding is generally the easiest and most successful form of feeding, but if you are having difficulty with this please speak to your veterinarian or veterinary nurse about alternative techniques.

Bottle handling

The bottles need to be clearly marked with gradations to ensure the puppies are getting the correct amount of milk at each feed. They also need to be sterilised between feeds by placing them in boiling water for 5-10 minutes and allowing them to air dry. This ensures bacteria are removed which is especially important for any puppies that missed out on colostrum (first milk feed from the mother – rich in antibodies).

Make sure the hole in the nipple is the right size. When you hold the bottle upside down the liquid should drip out slowly. If it runs out, the hole is too big and this could lead to the puppy inhaling the milk. If the hole isn’t big enough the puppy will lose interest in feeding, in this case a sterilised pin can be used to enlarge the hole in the nipple.


Puppy formula should come with instructions on how it needs to be prepared. The instructions should also include a scale of how much formula to give the puppy per gram of body weight. You’ll need a good set of scales to measure the puppies’ progress and calculate the amount to increase the feed by as they grow.

The general rule is to feed the puppies every 2 to 3 hours. Hand feeding can start to be phased out from the 3rd and 4th week as moistened solid food is introduced.


A newborn puppy has trouble generating enough heat to maintain its body temperature, therefore it is important the milk formula is warmed to around 35-37.8°C to aid in digestion. This equates to about the same temperature as the skin on your forearm or slightly warmer. As the puppies grow older, the milk can be fed at room temperature.


For the first 2 to 3 weeks of their lives, puppies will need help to urinate and defaecate. Normally the mother does this by licking their genital region. To simulate this action, after every feed rub a cotton wool ball or tissue moistened with warm water over the genitals and anus of the puppies. If this procedure is not followed, the puppy may become constipated.


As soon as the puppy’s eyes have opened at 14-16 days, it is worthwhile encouraging the weaning process. First place the milk formulae in a flat dish, then either dip the puppy’s nose into it or smear some around its mouth with your finger. By 3 weeks the puppy can start to eat food from the dish along with the milk. As the consumption of food increases, the amount of milk can be gradually decreased.

By 4 to 5 weeks, the orphaned puppy should be able to consume enough moistened solid food to meet its needs.


We routinely treat puppies for worms from 2-3 weeks of age. Weekly or fortnightly worming should be carried out until the first vaccinations at 6-8 weeks. It is then worth consulting your veterinarian regarding future worming.

Our policy: We recommend fortnightly worming until the puppies are 12 weeks of age and then monthly until 6 months.


We routinely recommend the first puppy vaccination at 8 weeks of age.

If the puppy did not nurse in the first 2-3 days they will have missed out on any protective immunity from mum via the colostrum and in this situation your veterinarian may recommend a more frequent vaccination program than normal.

While there is a lot to consider and organise when hand rearing orphaned puppies, the satisfaction of having a litter of healthy puppies is a very rewarding one.  Your veterinary health care team is always happy to discuss any questions or problems that may arise during this demanding time.

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