Why does a mother dog stop feeding her puppies at 3 weeks old?

If you’ve ever brought a puppy home or raised your own litter, you know that they are a lot of work. The mother dog, or dam, carrying, birthing and caring for her puppies is a very involved process.

Although most mother dogs do well with their puppies, some aren’t cut out for motherhood, and others are simply hindered by the issues listed below. So what do you do if everything has been going fine and then all of a sudden, it’s not. Why would a mother dog stop feeding her puppies? What will happen now?

No matter how many litters of puppies you have helped raise,  it is scary to realize your mother dog is no longer interested in feeding her puppies. First, we should acknowledge that it is normal for a mother dog to begin weaning her pups when they are three to five weeks old (Paretts, 2020). Naturally, the process will occur over the course of several weeks, typically ending by the time the pups are eight weeks old (Breeding Business, 2021).

If the mother refuses to feed her pups suddenly, however, it is more likely that something is wrong rather than the normal process of weaning. There are a number of reasons this can happen which we will address below.

Let’s start with a very brief outline of reasons a mother dog may stop feeding her 3 week old puppies:

  1. Health concerns or issues
  2. Problems with milk production
  3. Pain or irritation caused by puppies
  4. Rejection of one or more pups

Health Concerns

A key reason a mother may suddenly stop feeding her puppies is some type of medical issue. In most of the medical conditions we will address, it will likely be very painful to nurse, and sometimes the dam’s body simply won’t continue producing milk (Besteiros, 2019). The diagnosis and treatment of these conditions is highly important because the infections can spread quickly, which can make both mother and puppies very sick or even cause them to die. 

One of the most common reasons a mother dog will not feed her pups is mastitis. This is a bacterial infection which occurs in the mammary tissue, causing severe swelling and a lot of pain. The infection can also affect the milk; its appearance, composition, and even scent may be changed. Thankfully, many puppies will refuse to drink milk affected by mastitis, as the infection makes it toxic to them (Besteiros, 2019). Some symptoms of mastitis are swelling of the breast or teat, blood or pus in the milk or oozing from the teats, and mammary glands that are hot to the touch (Kruzer, 2020).

Another common infection in nursing dogs is metritis, a bacterial uterine infection which typically begins during labor or shortly after. The infection, although initially localized to the uterus, can easily spread into the blood, infecting the rest of the body. This can lead to sterilization of the dog, and even septic shock if not treated. Symptoms include fever, foul vaginal discharge, blood or pus oozing from the vagina, lack of appetite, and a swollen abdomen (Pet MD Editorial, 2016).

Lastly, but equally common and serious, is eclampsia or milk fever. This a condition in which the dam’s calcium levels are severely depleted by the calcium loss during nursing. It typically presents two to four week after birth and can be identified by heavy panting, fever, tremors, lack of coordination, and restlessness (Besteiros, 2019). Time is of the essence in this matter and prompt veterinary care is vital (Llera & Ward, 2019). 

  1. When Can Puppies Go All Night Without Nursing?

If you suspect your dog to be suffering from any of these conditions, or any other illnesses not listed, please seek out veterinary treatment. Early and urgent veterinary intervention is essential to the survival of your dog and pups. With all of these diseases, it may be necessary to take over feeding the puppies, as it may not be in the best interest of the dam to allow normal nursing to continue.

Milk Production

Sometimes refusing to feed pups is not caused by illness, but instead is due to problems with milk production (Besteiros, 2019). Unfortunately, these types of issues frequently cause a mother dog to reject or even fully abandon her litter. This means that the issue needs to be corrected as quickly as possible to prevent the dam’s disinterest.

In the first scenario, the milk does not flow properly from the breast to the teat. This is typically caused by either stress or malformation of the teat. Although in some cases, this condition can be treated by a specialist, it must be done rapidly, and may not always be possible.

Alternatively, the dam could have agalactia, or an insufficient supply of milk (Besteiros, 2019). This can be due to a genetic disorder, illnesses such as those listed above, or an unusually large litter of puppies. Improving the mother’s diet and ensuring treatment of any health issues can improve milk production. In cases of very large litters, it may be necessary to supplement the puppies with formula and or puppy food, to provide them enough nutrition.

Pain or irritation

Pain is naturally irritating and discouraging. Despite their small size, puppies usually develop sharp little claws at only a few weeks of age. As the puppies move about, and knead against the dam’s breast, her skin may be scratched or chafed. Once the puppies are a few days old, their nails should be gently trimmed, to prevent injuring their mother. There is unfortunately little that can be done to reduce the dam’s pain as the pups’ teeth come in and nip against her teats (Paretts, 2020).

Like other mothers, especially first-timers, the dam may become frustrated and irritated by the constant presence of the puppies. Even the average litter size of five to six is a lot of puppies to feed, clean, and attend to. This can become particularly tiresome if the dam has no space of her own or a place to escape for a few moments of quiet to relax and reset. Thankfully, this is easy to solve by ensuring the dam can get in and out of the whelping box as she pleases, and that she is fed away from the puppies.

Rejection of one or more pups

Unfortunately, there are times when despite thinking everything was done right and there weren’t any issues, a mother dog may reject one or all of her puppies (Bunny, 2018). 

If only one puppy seems to be rejected, it is likely that the one puppy is sickly or has a birth defect (Besteiros, 2019). Although it may seem cruel of the mother, she is simply following her natural instinct to sacrifice a weak puppy to focus on the strong ones. Most of the time a sick puppy can make a full recovery with veterinary treatment, and no one would ever be the wiser.

If a mother dog has rejected multiple puppies, or even the entire litter, it is more likely that something is wrong with her. As mentioned in the paragraphs above, both medical issues, problems relating to milk production, and generally feeling overwhelmed can cause a mother dog to reject or abandon her puppies.

Another reason a mother dog may reject her pups is lack of maternal instinct. This is common in dogs who become pregnant before they are fully mature, or who were taken from their own mothers too young (Bunny, 2018). It can also occur in dogs who give birth via caesarean section. It is believed that all of these scenarios cause a lack of maternal hormones like oxytocin, which are meant to encourage motherly behavior and attentiveness to the pups.

What to do if your mother dog refuses to feed her puppies?

So, now it comes down to the big question. If this is happening to you, your dog has stopped feeding her puppies, what should you do, what are the steps you should take?

  1. Bring your dog and her puppies to your veterinarian.

Your vet will look over both dam and pups to ensure there are no health issues, problems with milk production, and no pups in danger of being rejected (Bunny, 2018). 

  1. Follow your veterinarian’s advice.

As the expert on the matter, you should do as your vet recommends. That includes any potential treatment plans, formula feeding, or specific care your animals may need.

  1. Follow through

If your veterinarian tells you how to solve the problem and you don’t do it, you’ll have to bear the weight of the consequences. There are some scenarios which may seem cruel or unnatural, like separating a dam from her puppies if she is deemed likely to harm them. It is your responsibility, though, to follow through on what is best for all animals involved.

Conclusion

The processes of pregnancy and raising young can be difficult for any species, and dogs are no exception. Despite doing everything right, your dog might still stop feeding her puppies, with or without reason. If this is happening to you and you’re searching the internet in a panic, take a breath. By reading this article, you are now equipped with the proper knowledge of what is happening, why, and what to do about it. So put your phone down, call your veterinarian, and know that things are going to be okay.

References and Resources

Besteiros, M. (2019, November 25). My Dog Won’t Feed her Puppies – Causes and What to Do. animalwised.com. https://www.animalwised.com/my-dog-won-t-feed-her-puppies-causes-and-what-to-do-3351.html. 

Breeding Business. (2021, January 1). When Do Dogs Stop Feeding Their Puppies? Breeding Business. https://breedingbusiness.com/when-dogs-stop-feeding-puppies/#:~:text=At%20around%20three%20to%20four,%2Dto%2Dchew%20moist%20foods. 

Bunny, E. (2018, December 17). What to Do If Your Dog Rejects Her Puppies. PBS Pet Travel. https://www.pbspettravel.co.uk/blog/what-to-do-if-your-dog-rejects-her-puppies/. 

Kruzer, A. (2020, June 18). What Is Mastitis in Dogs and How Can You Treat It? The Spruce Pets. https://www.thesprucepets.com/mastitis-in-dogs-4846628. 

Llera, R., & Ward, E. (2019). Eclampsia in Dogs. vca_corporate. https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/eclampsia-in-dogs. 

Paretts, S. (2020, November 19). Why Would a Mother Dog Reject a Newborn Puppy? The Nest. https://pets.thenest.com/would-mother-dog-reject-newborn-puppy-11774.html. 

Pet MD Editorial. (2016, April 13). Bacterial Infection (Metritis) of the Uterus in Dogs. PetMD. https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/reproductive/c_multi_metritis#:~:text=Metritis%20in%20Dogs,a%20non%2Dsterile%20artificial%20insemination.