Premature Puppies & Litters — Health, Care, Preterm Birthing & FAQ

premature puppies

A female dog’s normal gestation period lasts 63 days and puppies born before day 58 are considered premature. Premature puppies come from litters delivered several days earlier than the expected due date.

Preterm deliveries generally produce weaker whelps that have a lower survival rate due to their poor health condition right at birth. Such premature puppies are rarely fed appropriately which decreases their viability. Dog breeders should never give up and keep on monitoring their premature pups until their condition and health stabilize to those of normal puppies.

Once the premature puppies have grown up and are few weeks or months old, they can generally be considered normal for everyday activities and care. However, be careful about their bone and frame as it may be weaker due to the early lack of required nutrients. Ask your vet for a thorough examination to know what to expect.

What is a Premature Puppy?

A premature puppy commonly referred to as a preemie, is characterized by a neonatal puppy that has been delivered sooner than the expected delivery date. This is known as a preterm delivery and is marked by a considerable small size in comparison to normal gestational puppies.

Premature puppies are born before they have fully developed, as opposed to puppies born earlier than the due date but coming out as normal. A dam is normally expected to deliver around day 63 of her pregnancy, so one day can throw off the normal timing and expected whelping period. Generally, puppies are classified as preemies if they are born under 58 days. Preterm puppies have little chance of survival and more often than not, require human intervention for care and feeding.

Preterm deliveries in dogs are not very common. Most times, they are traced back to an error in judgment regarding the breeding dates. However, you can tell by a number of specified signs and symptoms that the delivery is, in fact, premature. In any given case, you can watch for these warning signs indicating that your dam is going into premature labor. Your dog will usually lose all interest in eating which is common in dams who are just about to give birth. Second, see if she is preparing a place to whelp, which she will usually do by instinct, and don’t forget to check her temperature. A drop in temperature below 100 degrees Fahrenheit is a good indicator she may about to go into labor.

What Causes a Premature Litter of Puppies?

Determining a direct cause in premature puppies is not a simple task as many factors may be involved that caused the premature delivery of the dam’s litter of puppies. Technically, a premature litter is caused first by premature contractions in the dam that cause an unexpected early delivery. This is usually calculated as being any day before the 58th day of gestation, although some puppies have been born within two days prior with no difficulties.

Infections, infant deaths, injuries all play a major role in causing premature deliveries in dogs, and it generally is a mix of reasons. The position of the puppies in the uterus can contribute to causing a premature litter if one puppy is conceived at a later time, or if the egg is not positioned in an ideal spot for normal maturation and that prohibits it from receiving nutrients. Often times, the actual root cause of the premature litter or puppy cannot be determined and measured until an autopsy has been performed on the deceased puppy or litter.

There are some common causes that we are reviewing below.

Genetics

Genetics play an important role in the phases of pregnancy and delivery. Some genetic abnormalities can cause a dam to go into labor earlier and produce one or more premature puppies. In fact, some dog breeds are even prone to preterm deliveries, miscarriages, and cesarean sections.

Bacterial Infections

In many cases of a premature litter of puppies, it has been noted that bacterial infections have been known to cause the whelps to be born prematurely. Lyme disease happens to be one of the main bacterial infections which are transmitted to the dog by ticks and is more prevalent in younger dogs. If it gets too serious it can lead to complications in the kidneys, nervous system, or even the heart and may become fatal. Another common bacterial infection is caused by the Brucella genus and it is most commonly known for causing spontaneous abortions in various animals.

Viral Infections

Viruses are common culprits that develop into infections which cause a dog to whelp earlier than expected. For example, the canine parvovirus (CPV) is a viral infection in dogs that is very contagious. It could manifest inside the intestines which can cause symptoms such as vomiting or diarrhea, or it can manifest inside the heart muscles and cause cardiac problems and be fatal. The canine herpesvirus is also another well-known cause of premature birthing in dogs.

Fetal Death or Injury

Many preemies have been born in a litter where one or more of the other puppies have been stillborn, that is, already deceased. Any injury to a fetus will cause a dam to go into early delivery. If it’s not too soon in the pregnancy, there may be a chance of survival, as opposed to finding the injured fetus later on in the pregnancy in which case, it may be too late. A fetal death can be due to an absorption where it is spontaneously aborted, or it can be detected only during delivery.

Ovarian Cysts

Some dogs may be prone to ovarian cysts in which small structures inside the ovaries become filled with fluid. Cysts can be bilateral or unilateral. Ovarian tumors are most common in older dogs or dogs who are under contraceptive care. Various tumors can contribute to a cause in early fetal delivery and should be handled with extreme urgency once found.

Injury

Various injuries can give rise to a preterm delivery especially if the injury occurs around the uterus. A fall or being hit can be extremely dangerous to the unborn fetuses in which case, can be fatal. Some injuries may even cause internal bleeding inside the dam which can lead to an internal hemorrhage.

Life Stresses

Just like humans, dogs tend to respond adversely to high-stress situations in our lives. The stress can be physical or emotional, but either case it can cause overwhelming symptoms that can lead to an early delivery of the dam. If the dam is frequently exposed to stressful agents, such as fighting in the household, it will affect her greatly. Other outside influences that stress a dog are cold temperatures, being vaccinated, and moving to a new household.

Other Common Causes

Aside from the previously mentioned, other common causes include malnutrition in which the dam has received insufficient nutrients to sustain her health due to lack of eating or eating poorly. Hormonal imbalances are also common that disturb the length of gestation and cause early deliveries. Furthermore, a dam who has received any form of a drug that doesn’t coincide with pregnancy, or has received a round of chemotherapy, will experience unfavorable reactions and go into early labor.

How to Raise Premature Puppies

Because of their size and lack of development, preemies require extra caution after birth and need 24-hour assistance and vigilance. The aftercare of a preemie depends greatly on whether the mother is still alive or not. If she is still alive, then encouraging bonding time is very important so that the puppy can get all the necessary nutrients from nursing. If the mom is not alive then you will have to take complete responsibility.

Feeding

A preemie puppy will need to feed at regular intervals about every couple of hours, but you can feed a little at a time on an hourly basis. Premature puppies have not yet developed their sucking mechanisms so you will need to use external devices to keep the food down such as feeding tubes, syringes, or eye droppers.

Having a homemade or store-bought puppy formula prepared and ready will save you the hassle of leaving the house. If you do start the puppy off on formula due to the mother’s absence, then implement some drops of her colostrum into the feedings. Ideally, you should give a preemie about 1cc of milk for every ounce of weight. Check their weight on a regular basis in order to determine if more, or less, feeding is necessary and judge accordingly. Do try to burp the preemies after feeding to help alleviate tension.

Keep Warm

Like normal newborns, premature puppies are not able to regulate their own body heat and tend to be very cold, therefore they will thrive in a warm and moist environment. If they are with mum make sure the dam does her job of keeping the babies warm, but more than likely, you will need to incorporate your own mechanism such as a crate to keep the preemie in. You can utilize various means, such as heat pads or hot water bottles, but make sure to not get them too hot. The added heat will also lead to dehydration so make sure they are hydrated well and check for dehydration signs by pinching their skin if it stays intact and doesn’t loosen after letting go then that’s a sure sign.

In addition to feeding and sustaining a warm environment, be vigilant and watch for signs of an infection such as gurgling and sneezing in which case some raspberry leaf tea may help. Moreover, preemies tend to not have much hair when they are born and are prone to having sticky skin. You can help alleviate this by applying coconut oil or olive oil to the skin. Lastly, you will need to monitor the stools and assist in evacuating by rubbing down on the bellies and take note of the color. If it’s white, that could mean the digestion is stalled.

preterm birthing in dogs
Caring for premature puppies is difficult and time-consuming. You must monitor each puppy’s weight, temperature, and overall health every two hours at first.

How to Induce Labor in a Pregnant Dog?

It’s always the hope of dog owners to watch their dam experience an easy and expedited delivery in the most natural way possible. However, that’s not always the case. There are times in which a dog cannot go into labor, and this can greatly be detrimental to the survival of both mom and pups. The success of any canine labor induction will depend on the breed, the state of health in both pups and dam, as well as the size of the litter. You can either try to induce labor on your own using common home remedies, or to be on the cautious side, go to an animal hospital or your vet so you can get a qualified technician to make sure the dog goes into labor safely.

A normal gestation is 63 days and anything past 63 days is considered late. If a dog reaches day 65 and still shows no signs of going into labor, or there are signs of dystocia that considerably slows down the labor, it may be time to assist with an emergency cesarean section.

At Home Remedies

Most dog owners try to avoid veterinary assistance when it comes to inducing labor because of the costs, which could result in a $500 to $5,000 fee. If it’s not an emergency situation and you are at home with the dam you can try some remedies like allowing her to go for regular walks to encourage the movement of the fetus and uterus. Always wait for a sign from your dog, such as a drop in temperature, before beginning.

It also helps to rub her tummy in the direction of the birth canal to help facilitate the natural movement of delivery. Do not try to feed her food because usually at this stage a dog’s natural instinct is to not eat, but you can offer her water. Do not try to give her laxatives or alcohol as this can seriously harm the dog. Just be patient and watch for signs of progression.

Veterinary Assistance

In the event that the home remedies do not produce any results, seek professional assistance. In fact, going to a vet or hospital is your best bet in the case things don’t work out as planned.

A vet will first put your dam on an intravenous drip (IV) to assure she is receiving the proper liquids. Normally, dogs will be injected with a solution of dextrose and calcium that helps stimulate the movement of the uterus to facilitate natural delivery. In order to prevent any complications, the puppies need to be in the right position. If they are not, the delivery may have to result in an unplanned C-section.

Regular doses of oxytocin will be given at intervals to speed up the process and assist with the contractions. If nothing happens and too much time has passed, then a vet may have to manually assist taking the pups out herself or perform a cesarean section. See our article listing the dog breeds most affected by c-sections.

What Health Problems Are Premature Puppies Prone To?

Premature puppies need intensive care during their first few weeks of life to ensure a high survival rate. They are more prone to health issues than normal whelps. The most obvious health concern is the lack of nutrients and because they are weaker, they tend to eat less, entering a vicious circle.

Check their weight every day. Try to avoid malnutrition by supplementing well and on a regular basis throughout the day and night. Due to their inability to regulate heat, puppies born from premature litters are prone to suffer hypothermia. Also watch for signs of pneumonia, an infection of the lungs, as this can prove to be fatal in a newborn. Infections of the mucosa is likely and can be determined by checking for gurgling, sneezing or sniffling. Other infections preemies are prone to are meningitis in which the brain becomes infected.

In addition, because of lack of physical organ maturity, they are prone to having weak vascular systems and may suffer from lack of sufficient blood supply for a healthy development. Furthermore, the lungs are also slow to develop and may suffer from lack of oxygen circulation. The heart and kidneys are also at risk of not developing and can lead to severe complications, or death.

What Is the  Survival Rate of Premature Puppies?

Studies show that the survival rate and viability of premature puppies heavily depend on how soon the whelps were born, and their health condition at birth. Many puppies born around day 56, for example, have lived to see the next day and survive, while others don’t even make it past a few hours. A dog’s gestation period of 9 weeks makes every day vital, therefore pups who are about a week early, although have a chance of survival, will need extra care. However, a preemie that surpasses 10 days early will not survive at all.

How the premature puppies are treated and cared for after delivery, including their state of health, is what usually determines their viability. You will have to act accordingly if they show signs of infection or malnutrition as this will lower the threshold for survival. After some time, if they are moving around and their coats begin to grow shiny it is a good sign that they are developing well.

How early can premature puppies survive? Generally, puppies born within a seven days window prior to their due date will have a good chance of survival. These premature puppies will still have a weaker health at birth and for their first few weeks of life. A vet should monitor their health closely over the course of a few months.

How to Keep Premature Puppies Warm?

After a preemie is born, it is more susceptible to outside sources affecting its survival rate. Aside from feeding and hydration to ensure a higher chance of surviving, the preemie needs to be kept warm. A dam’s body is kept around 100 degrees Fahrenheit inside the womb and premature puppies are instantly thrown into a cooler environment immediately after birth. They miss out on those extra days of mother’s warmth and therefore, premature whelps need to be artificially heated.

All newborn puppies have trouble regulating their own body heat during the first stage of life making preemies even more sensitive. When carrying the preemie make sure to hold it close to your skin at all times and if she is with the mother make sure the mom makes close contact so that she can warm the puppy, if not then you will have to intervene.

Making a small nesting area for the preemie to be kept warm is usually what breeders do when human intervention is needed. You can use hot water bottles around the puppy but usually, that is used as an aid. You can create your own puppy incubator using a crate, box, or small bucket wrapped with various heating pads and packed inside with warm water bottles and warm bean bags. Many breeders set heat lamps close to the whelping box. An ideal temperature for the whelping box is roughly 85 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit. Moreover, you can incorporate a heated water vaporizer in the room where the puppy will be kept in to keep the room moist and at a comfortable temperature. This is the part that gets tricky. You can’t let a puppy get too warm or it will get dehydrated, so always make sure the area is not too hot as to avoid overexposure and avoid cooling temperatures because cold puppies cannot digest food.

What to Feed a Premature Puppy?

Puppies of premature litters need to be fed well and around the clock by a caregiver due to the fact that most times the mum has not yet produced sufficient amount of milk or is busy feeding the other stronger pups. They are also very weak after birth with not enough energy to even nurse or fight for the access to a teat.

In the event that the pup is able to nurse naturally with the mom, you still need to supervise and monitor the puppy’s weight gains. Because preemies are already malnourished, supplementing additional feedings on top of the nursing will be essential. Generally, premature puppies need to be fed every two hours for optimum assurance. Various methods can be implemented to assist in feeding, considering most preemies are not functionally able to swallow yet, you will have to take over and substitute for the mother. Read our guide on bottle-feeding to be ready!

You will need to buy puppy formula and have it prepared and ready for when the puppy is born. Many breeders recommend adding a few drops of the mother’s colostrum — the mother’s first milk after giving birth — freshly squeezed into a clean bowl mixed into the formula and also some glucose or NutriCal. Mixing some of the NutriCal with warm water is a great way to hydrate the puppy. Do not feed it cow’s milk as this can cause dehydration and diarrhea.

The most common options available for use is an eyedropper, a syringe, tube feeding, or artificial nipple and bottle. When using a tube to feed, always make sure you test it out with water first to see if anything comes up out of the nose. If you have a bottle with a nipple just simply use a hot needle to poke a few tiny holes to mimic the mother’s teat. Ideally, most breeders recommend giving 1cc of milk replacer for each ounce of body weight; every 2.5 hours, increasing by 30 min to an hour every week. If the puppy has not developed instinctive sucking yet, an eye dropper or syringe works great. You can even find various recipes online for creating your own homemade milk replacement formula.

Below is a video showing the bottle-feeding of a premature whelp.

The care that must be given to a premature puppy, or to an entire premature dog litter, is enormous so you will need to take some time off work for the first days and even weeks. The main reason is to inspect the puppies every few hours and feed them at regular interval. By being absent, you allow them to miss meals which would be fatal for any puppy, let alone a premature one. Preterm deliveries are tough for everybody in the household so think about them before planning a breeding.

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