Weaning & Feeding
For the new puppy parent or new breeder......
Weaning - The process of transitioning a puppy from a milk based diet to a dry food for puppies
21 days - A shallow pan of water to test that the lapping instinct is intact.
In between - 1 dish of formula daily if needed
28 days(?) - Mush - ground puppy food with a formula
Weaning and Feeding For New Breeders
Part of being a Breeding is constantly researching (listening to other breeders/reading up on new scientific studies) to determine what is best for the long term health and growth of our puppies. As new Breeders, we follow the advise of our mentors or do it the way it has always been done. But, nothing stays the same forever, we no longer send puppies home at 6 weeks and need therefore to being weaning at 21 days. Since they are staying with us longer because of new scientific data, maybe we should take another look at when to begin weaning as well.
It seemed to me, with the litters I over-saw in 2017, to make sense that if the litter was ready to be litter box trained on day 21 they were ready to be weaned as well. But with each new litter, I began to realize that my Dams were not starting the weaning process on day 21. Watching them showed me two important things:
Shorter feeding times do not indicate the Dam is ready to wean
Supply and demand is well established
Pups are proficient at getting what they need
The Dam spending less time caring for the pups does not indicate she is ready to wean.
Pups are able to regulate their own body temp and go potty on their own
The Dam is ready to rejoin the pack knowing that pups are less needy
The Dam is ready to wean when she regurgitates her last meal for the pups to eat. I know, it sounds disgusting, but this is what happens in the wild and female dogs, for the most part, mother on pure instinct and instinct tells them when it is time to wean.
So, if the Dam isn't regurgitating for her litter on day 21, it seems to me that we are starting the weaning process too early and if we are, we should be asking ourselves whether we are contributing to the potential of individual puppies in our litters developing food allergies later in life?
When to introduce Mush to a litter
At 21 days, the pups are able to do their business on their own so don't need their Dam to stimulate which means the Dam will begin to rejoin her pack leaving the pups for longer and longer periods. She will return to the pups to allow nursing; when the pups begin to suckle, the milk is immediately let down and they are very proficient at drinking and filling up very quickly. The Dam rarely stays in the box for more than 10 minutes where before, she was in for much longer. It appears that she is "done" with them and ready to wean them, but if you watch more closely, many times, that isn't the case because in another three hours, she will be asking to go back in with the litter for another feed. Take careful note of how over the next week or so, she begin to spread out those feeding times to first four hours and then longer.
Watch her head at one of those feedings because it will be low to the ground - you might even think it is because she is sad and in pain - but you will see her quietly regurgitate her food and begin to eat it. The first time, one puppy might notice and leave the teat to eat alongside her, but often, it is the next day before that happens. Wait a few days and most of the litter will leave the teat and eat along side their Mom. THIS is the signal that she is ready to wean them and this is the signal I personally feel we need to be waiting to see before introducing mush. This could begin on day 21 or, as I see in most of my litters, it may happen on day 27 or 28.
Weaning isn't just about getting the litter to stop nursing off of their Dam; it is about transitioning them from a natural milk based diet to a dog food diet. It is also about their digestive tract learning to process a different diet and this may be the most important reason to delay weaning.
As a moderator on a Breeding Help board, I have seen that many breeders rush to feed the litter 4 meals a day sometimes all in one day and sometimes over the first four days. Since the puppies digestive tracts are still developing, this always seemed wrong to me.
We introduced a shallow dish of water at 21 days, a shallow dish of formula at 22 days and their first bowl of mush on the 23rd day (on or about - it depends upon the litter). A new meal was then introduced every 3 days afterwards until they were getting 4 meals. That question of whether I was rushing was always niggling at the back of my mind as I watched my girls delay that regurgitation of a meal until at least a week later. By the fourth year of breeding, I began to listen to my gut and delay introducing mush until I had seen the Dam regurgitate a meal for them and the puppies showing interest in eating with her.
Now, there are reasons why supplementing what a litter is getting naturally from their Dam on day 21 might be the best decision (a puppy falling behind or a huge litter that is wearing down the Dam); but even then, I have come to believe that supplementing with a shallow dish of formula/milk replacer might be better for the litter in the long run than introducing mush too early. Watching to see if the difference to that puppy or to the Dam's condition is enough before adding another meal is most likely the best course to follow.
Our new protocol beginning with the Bree x Cain 2021 litter:
Day 21 - IF needed, one meal per day of formula/milk replacer
Day 28 - One meal per day of mush IF the Dam has regurgitated
Day 34 - Two meals
Day 39 - Three meals plus free feeding (see below)
This protocol is of course not set in stone and has been adjusted according to the individual Dam's behavior. Kona typically was done nursing by 6 weeks while Dreama didn't finish until 7 weeks and still allowed what we learned was "comfort suckling" for a minute or two all the way until the puppies were carried out the gate to their new lives. Bree delays weaning until day 26 or 27 and Latte and Jette are regurgitating at about day 30.
Best practice is letting your Dam show you when they instinctively sense that the litter is ready to move to eating dry food.
Free-Feeding Our Aisling Litters
Why do we free-feed our litters when we DO NOT recommend free feeding once the puppies leave us? (Labs for the most part should never be free fed!)
Most Labrador puppies devour their dish of food and while in the litter, this is no different. There are been many dishes of mush that went to the ground due to the mad rush of a litter to be first to the bowl and far too many times I saw a puppy choke due to eating too fast. I soon realized that they were "fighting" over the food; fast eaters were getting most of the meal. This was "training" the puppies to eat even faster to ensure they got enough to be full. Separating them by slow and fast eaters or large and smaller puppies helped some but not enough. Giving each puppy their own bowl didn't slow them down either.
After watching this through several litters, I ordered some flat-backed buckets that hang on the panels of the ex-pen and once the puppies were eating dry food and drinking water, I filled those buckets with dry food. While they were eating from their dishes, I placed the buckets in the pen. This meant that they investigated the buckets but didn't gorge or fight to get to them because they were already filled up from their meal (which of course, they ate far too fast, pushing and shoving their way to the dishes).
As the rest of the day went by, I saw individual puppies stroll over to a bucket and eat slowly from it. Just a bite or two usually. And when I brought them their next meal in a dish? No rushing at all. Most took the time to get a cuddle and a pat from me, some continued to play for a bit or nap!
While that was encouraging, the best part was that over the next week, those lighter puppies began to put on weight more steadily and by the 8 week puppy weigh in, they were nearly uniform in weight. And when they all went to their new homes? I didn't get so many emails and texts and phone calls about how the puppies devoured in two seconds anything that was put in front of them asking me what they could do to slow them down!
From 7 - 8 weeks of age, we remove the food filled buckets at night to get them used to going through the night without being able to nibble on something and feed them four times each day rather than three.
Feeding for Owners
Our "Puppy Care" page has quite a bit of information regarding feeding your Labrador Puppy. And for those who are bringing home an Aisling puppy, we provide even more detail in our pdf's which are emailed to you before your puppy comes home.
Like weaning, our ever-growing knowledge and our experience in raising our own Labrador puppies evolves our protocols.
While in the past, we recommended feeding your puppy THREE times a day, there is a growing body of data that indicates feeding FOUR times a day through at least 20 weeks of age is far better.
The rapid growth and high energy level of puppies means they burn calories at a high rate. Spreading their nutrition over four meals for longer than 8 weeks appears to help regulate their growth patterns and protect the density of their bones. For more information, please visit the Puppy Care page