Part of being a Breeder is constantly researching to see what is best for the long-term health and growth of our puppies and the best way to wean our litters is something for which I have long been searching.
When is the best time to introduce puppy food (in the form of mush) to litters? Most breeders today begin to feed mush (ground puppy food with formula/milk replacer) when the litter is 21 days old. This is also the time when we begin to train the puppies to do their business in a designated "potty spot" so for a long time this made sense to me. But, as I watched each of my Dams deal with their puppies, I noticed something....they don't really begin weaning until about 28 or 29 days.
Now, you may be wondering how we know the Dam is ready to wean her litter. It isn't, as most seem to think, when she begins to spend more time out of the whelping box, begs to return to pack life, or finishes feeding the puppies in less than ten minutes when before, it took up to 30 minutes to complete a nursing.
At 21 days, the pups are able to do their business on their own so don't need their Dam to stimulate so the Dam's desire to begin to regain a little of her past freedom is understandable. At 21 days, the Dam's milk supply meets the demand of the litter. When it is time to nurse, her teats are full of milk. When the pups begin to suckle, the milk is immediately let down and they are very proficient at drinking and filling up very quickly. This is obvious if you sit and watch the process and completely explains why she is finished so much faster than in the past three weeks. So, neither independent potty nor faster and less frequent nursing is a "signal" that it is time to begin to wean the pups to dry food.
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?
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; I have always 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. A new meal was then introduced every 3 days afterwards until they were getting 4 meals. But, that question of whether I was rushing it 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.
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 is as follows:
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
This protocol is of course not set in stone and will be adjusted according to the 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. We are still learning with Bree.
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