Puppies can start eating food and drinking water at 3 to 4 weeks of age. If possible, it’s best to keep them on their mothers’ milk for the first few weeks of life. Mothers’ milk contains colostrum, which provides essential antibodies for puppies.
So you have a new litter of puppies. Congratulations!
Raising dogs can be one of the most rewarding experiences in life. You get to see them grow from a soft little ball of fur that can’t even open their eyes to a lifelong friend and companion.
You’re going to want to make sure that your puppies are receiving the care that they need. Part of this includes fulfilling their nutritional needs.
Puppy care may seem daunting at first, but there are plenty of resources out there to help you along the way!
Puppies may start life with their mother’s milk, but when should you transition to serving them food and water?
What You'll Learn
The Importance of Mother’s Milk
Puppies get all the nutrition they need from their mother’s milk for the first few weeks of their life.
When they are first born, they are too helpless to forage or hunt on their own, so their mother takes care of them.
Newborn puppies have a very delicate digestive system that is unable to handle food or even water properly.
From the period of birth to about 3-4 weeks, puppies should only drink their mothers milk or puppy formula.
When to Wean a Puppy
Once a puppy has reached 3-4 weeks, it is a good time to wean them off of their mother’s milk and on to food and water.
Before this time, puppies will still need to be getting their nutrition from their mother. This will be a big transition in their lives, but the mother will thank you for getting a litter of puppies off of their nipples 24/7.
During the 2-3 week period, you should have already bought the necessary food and water bowls and consulted your vet to see what kind of food would be best for the puppies.
Every breed is different and will have different dietary needs depending on size, ideal weight, and genetics.
Getting Puppies to Drink Water
After the 3-4 week period, puppies may have trouble drinking water from traditional bowls.
While most puppies will naturally understand how to drink water from a bowl, it’s possible that you get one that takes a little longer than their siblings to familiarize themselves with drinking. This does not necessarily mean that something is wrong with them. Each puppy learns at different rates!
If your puppy is refusing to drink water from a bowl, here are a few possible solutions.
Fear of Reflection
One bizarre quirk that may prevent your puppy from becoming comfortable at the water bowl is their reaction to their own reflection.
Many water bowls are made of shiny, reflective metal. When your pup looks into the bowl to get a drink, they might be alarmed from seeing themselves reflected back!
The easiest solution for this problem is to simply try a non-reflective plastic bowl for water.
Another issue that may prevent your puppy from drinking their water comes back to the power struggle amongst pups.
Within a litter, certain dogs will try to establish alpha status over the others. This can come out during mealtimes or when the puppies try to get water.
You may notice that one puppy will guard the bowl from the others, nipping at them if they approach.
This can be fixed by allowing each of the puppies to come to the water bowl alone, or take the aggressive puppy away until everyone else has finished drinking.
Add Flavor to the Water
The change from mother’s milk to plain water can be challenging for some puppies. Water does not taste the same as milk, and it does not have the same nutrients that your puppies will crave.
If this is preventing a puppy from drinking water, try adding a little flavor to the water. Letting small pieces of food soak in the water may make it more appealing to the puppies, or you can add a very small amount of low sodium broth to the water.
Remember, the goal is to get them comfortable drinking water by itself, so make sure you wean down the amount of broth you put in the bowl.
Transitioning from Milk to Food
So you have successfully gotten your puppy to switch off of milk. They can drink water on their own, but they are still missing the rest of the nutrition that the milk was giving them.
You need to start your puppies on food when they start drinking water to ensure they do not enter a nutritional deficit.
To get your puppies started on eating actual food, set up a special area for their bowls. The food bowls should be shallow enough that the puppies can reach the bottom and clean to ensure no bacteria is present.
When puppies are 3-4 weeks of age, they can start eating dry food. If you use dry food, you can soak it in water to make it easier on the puppy’s digestive system.
Note that your puppy may not know when to stop eating on their own, so keep an eye on them! Do not leave your puppies alone with their bowls.
Don’t Overfeed Your Puppy
How much food should you feed your puppy each day? Unfortunately, there is no universal answer, as each food, breed, and dog has different specifications.
Always double-check the label of the food that you are giving your puppies to see serving size recommendations.
Overfeeding can cause digestive issues with your pups. Puppies are hard enough to clean up after without them vomiting all over the place, so don’t overfeed!
Additionally, the dog food should explicitly say that it is for puppies on the label. If it does not, ask your vet if it is still safe and appropriate for puppies.
You’re on Your Way!
After the 3-4 weeks mark, you can introduce your puppies to water and food to replace their dependence on milk.
Always make sure the food and water bowls are clean and safe to use. When your puppy first starts eating, they will definitely make a mess, but be patient with them and give them enough food without overfeeding.
The mother may be wary of you taking her puppies away to teach them how to feed, so start by taking her puppies away for just a few minutes at a time.
You can use a damp cloth to clean off her puppies before returning them to her to make sure that your puppies are not spreading a mess all over their mother as well.
Monitor your litter for any issues. The transition from milk to food and water can go smoothly, or you may hit a few bumps in the road. Every puppy will respond differently, so what worked for one dog may not be the exact answer for their brother or sister.
Puppy raising can definitely be a struggle, but it’s also full of joy.
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