Most mother dogs have a natural maternal instinct, and begin nurturing and caring for their puppies as soon as they are born. Some, though, may reject either one puppy or the entire litter, and refuse to nurse. Several factors can cause this behavior.
Normally, a mother dog tends to each puppy as it is born. She will lick and clean the puppy and consume the placenta. If puppies are whelped vaginally, she will repeat this procedure with each puppy as it is born. Her owner may place the puppies at a nipple so they can start to nurse once she has cleaned them.
When a litter is delivered by C-section, the mother dog is under anesthesia and does not have the opportunity to meet each puppy as it appears. Some mother dogs, especially with first-time litters, don't know what to do with the puppies when they're presented to her as she awakens, groggy and disoriented. She may show no interest in her puppies. In these cases, it helps to place the puppies on a nipple to nurse. The suckling motion helps to bring in colostrum -- the milk produced the first few days -- and stimulate the hormones that spark her maternal interest.
If a mother dog seems disinterested in her newborn puppies and the puppies don't know how to nurse, squeeze a bit of milk from her nipple into your hand and rub it on a puppy. This can stimulate her to clean and lick the puppies.
The Vital Hormone
The process of whelping puppies produces the hormone oxytocin in the mother dog. Oxytocin stimulates the dam's maternal instinct. In some cases, the dam's body does not produce enough oxytocin or, following the birth of the litter, the level decreases in her body. Consult with your veterinarian if your mother dog shows no interest in her puppies once she is finished whelping the litter.
Never leave a mother dog unattended while giving birth or immediately afterward. Most dogs need very little help to whelp a litter and instinctively know what to do with their puppies, but if there is a problem, early help is key.
Medical Rejection Causes
Conditions such as eclampsia and mastitis can keep a mother dog from tending to her litter. If she appears restless, nervous, paces and pants, or is stiff or disoriented, she may suffer from eclampsia, also known as milk fever -- a lack of calcium in her blood. This condition is most common in first litters and can be caused by supplementing calcium during pregnancy, poor nutrition or low body weight. In mild cases, the administration of oral calcium may help resolve the condition. In more severe cases, the puppies must be removed from the dam and require intravenous calcium from your vet.
An infection of the mammary glands, mastitis makes nursing very painful for a mother dog. It is a bacterial infection that can become an abscess without veterinary assistance. It can affect one or more mammary glands, which may feel hard and hot to the touch. A mother dog can appear listless and feverish, with no interest in her puppies. It is usually treated with compresses and, in some cases, antibiotics. Your veterinarian will advise you on the best treatment for the dam and her puppies.
Single Puppy Rejection
Sometimes a mother dog will appear to reject one puppy in the litter. It may be the smallest or appear to be weak. This does not mean that the puppy can't survive. Remove the puppy from the whelping box and keep him warm with a heating pad or in a warming box. You may need to supplement his feeding with a commercially prepared puppy formula if the mother dog won't let him nurse. You can sponge feed, tube feed or use a syringe or squirrel bottle to feed the puppy. Ask your vet to instruct you in supplemental feeding methods. Frequently, once a rejected puppy is stronger, the mother dog will accept him.
The Worst Case
In rare cases, a mother dog will become aggressive toward her puppies and snap at them or try to harm them. She will need to be removed from the litter. Sometimes, she can be held down for the puppies to nurse and then removed, but it may be necessary to care for them yourself. Newborn puppies must be kept warm for the first two weeks of their lives, fed every two hours and stimulated to eliminate. Consult your vet for the best way to manage the mother and her puppies.
Never leave a mother dog alone with her litter if she seems aggressive. Remove her from the puppies and consult your vet.