Starting puppies on solid food is an important part of their physical development and emotional growth toward independence. Help them to grow into healthy young dogs by doing it right.
Puppies are typically ready to begin the weaning process once they are approximately four weeks old. At this point, their first teeth should be breaking through the gums, and you may notice their mother is becoming thin from feeding the pups so often. This is the ideal time to begin weaning.
Weaning puppies is a drawn-out process where pups are first taught to lap water in preparation for converting them onto a homemade puppy formula. The puppies are still allowed to nurse their mother, but they will gradually do so less as they eat more of their formula.
Teaching Puppies to Lap
The first step in weaning is teaching the puppies to lap. Until now, they have only sucked, so lapping is a new skill.
- Leave water down for the puppies to discover and experiment with. The Nest advises having a shallow water pan as this is more inviting for the pup to drink from.
- In hot weather, try adding ice cubes to a shallow water dish as this encourages the pups to play and investigate the water.
- Try attracting a pup's attention with a finger dipped in tasty dog food. Now rest the finger on the surface of the water. As the pup attempts to suck your finger, he will encounter the water and begin to experiment with licking.
- Now hold your fingertip just below the surface of the water, which encourages the pup to lap rather than suck.
- Some pups learn to lap more quickly, when something tasty is involved, such as submerging your finger in a watery cereal mix.
Tempt the Pups With Watery Food
After the puppies are taught to lap water, they can be offered liquid feeds. PetMD suggests from three to four weeks onward you can offer sloppy foods that are easy to lap. These include:
- Puppy milk replacer such as Lactol, Welpi or Royal Canin Babydog milk. These are the equivalent of infant formula but the same makeup of a female dog's milk. Placing some in a shallow bowl will encourage the puppies to lap and drink.
- Mash up a high protein baby cereal with either water or puppy milk replacer.
- Mash up canned puppy food to a soup or gruel-like consistency, with the addition of water or milk replacer.
Start with a sloppy wet mix so the puppy's gut gets a chance to adapt to the new source of nourishment. Take several days to thicken the 'soup,' since puppies that readily take to solids may overload their guts and develop constipation or diarrhea as a consequence.
Once the pups are eating cereal mix that is roughly the consistency of pudding, it's time to begin mixing in puppy kibble. This will take them through the final conversion to truly solid food. Please note, many breeders skip the cereal step and like Marchstone Labradors, go start straight to a porridge made of kibble. Either option is fine so go with what feels right to you.
Choose the Best Kibble
Puppy kibble comes in many brands and varieties, so making the right choice is crucial for meeting the litter's nutritional needs. Puppies need more protein than adult dogs because they grow so rapidly. Dogtime explains the best puppy kibble has a named, "real meat or meat meal" protein source. Avoid kibbles that depend on corn and by-products for protein because these sources are less digestible. Also, look for a kibble that doesn't contain chemical preservatives.
Preparing the Kibble
Choose the kibble you believe has the best nutritional value for your puppies. Although puppy kibble comes in a smaller size than adult kibble, it may still be too large for some pups. So, the next step is to grind down the kibble.
- Using a food processor, grind the kibble to a grainy powder.
- Begin adding it to baby cereal mix by gradually substituting more of it for the dry cereal, essentially replacing the cereal in an effort to get the puppies solely on kibble and water.
- Once the puppies are eating the kibble mix, you can offer them whole kibble that has been soaked in warm water for a couple of hours. It's important to make sure all the pups have cut their first teeth before you proceed with this step.
- If the puppies do well eating the soaked kibble, you can eventually begin adding less water and soaking it for shorter periods until the puppies are finally eating dry kibble and drinking fresh water. Weigh the pups each day to make sure they continue to gain weight and grow.
- Marchstone Labradors suggests a 'formula' of around 100g of good quality puppy kibble, soaked overnight in warm water, then blitzed to a porridge consistency in a blender. This is sufficient for one meal for an average sized litter of Labrador Retriever puppies. You should adjust the 'formula' based on the size and number in your litter.
- If all goes well, offer the pups a porridge meal four times a day.
Follow these tried and true do's and don'ts for a successful start.
- Don't be tempted to give the puppies cow's milk. Dog Food Advisor explains many puppies are unable to digest lactose and will develop debilitating diarrhea as a result.
- Do make the gruel more watery if the puppies are slow to catch on to lapping.
- Don't leave food down for hours at a time on hot days. It's better to offer a lesser amount and replace with fresh every few hours than let food spoil in the heat.
- Do keep an eye on the puppies' poop. Diarrhea can be a sign you're taking things too quickly. If the pups seem otherwise well and are still suckling from the mother, then take things back to the step before diarrhea developed. If their tummies don't settle within 12 to 24 hours, see a vet. Also, see a vet if any puppy has diarrhea and seems quiet and withdrawn.
- Do keep an eye out for signs of constipation in any of the pups. If the puppy seems otherwise well, try gently syringing water into their mouth, this helps soften the gut contents and may help the hard fecal matter to pass. Be careful not to flood the pup's mouth but to give him a chance to swallow so he doesn't inhale fluid down into the lungs. However, if the pup stops eating, see a vet immediately.
- Do watch to make sure all the pups are thriving and getting a chance to eat. As the pups grow stronger, some may push others out of the way. Preventing this is as simple as providing several feeding stations.
Now you know the steps to starting puppies on solid food. Just take things slowly and make sure the entire litter is doing well on the diet as you go. Some puppies catch on before others, but all of them will eventually accept their new diet and begin to thrive on solid kibble.