A tiny but precious puppy
This week I visited a precious puppy. The patient was a female Yorkshire terrier of only four days and weighing about 100 grams. She was so young that she had not yet opened her eyes and not even been given a name.
This tiny puppy was not actually sick, but in the few days between her birth and that of her little brother and sister, her two siblings had died, leaving her the last living puppy in the litter. Her owners were distraught at the loss and simply did not want to take any more chances. This was a precious puppy both for its mother and owners.
The birth of a litter of puppies is usually a joyous event. But even with the best intentions, neonatal mortality is not an uncommon occurrence. Neonatal mortality refers to the death of puppies from the time of their birth, up to two weeks of age. Under normal circumstances, puppies will sleep most of the time until they are three to four weeks old.
When they are awake, for the first two to three weeks they will suckle and crawl over one another. When handled, puppies up to four days old will curl up when turned over onto their back, but after that they will start to stretch out their legs. Puppies that do not display these typical behavioural traits should be carefully monitored for possible problems. If something is wrong, there are specific clinical signs to look out for.
Symptoms generally include low birth weight, loss of weight and/or failure to gain weight, restlessness or lethargy, poor appetite, depression, inactivity, low body temperature, diarrhoea and constant crying. Puppies that cry usually emit a high-pitched mewl that some people liken to the call of seagulls. A sick puppy may not get enough milk and slowly fade away, or it may feed regularly but still fail to thrive.
Sick puppies often detach themselves from their mother and the rest of the litter and crawl into a corner to die. Depending on the nature of the disease or condition, the puppy’s poo may be soft and greenish yellow. The belly may be swollen, painful or have a rash, and the liver may be enlarged and malfunctioning. Some puppies develop nasal discharge or nosebleeds, have difficulty breathing and even go blind. Sometimes only one pup is affected, and sometimes it is an entire litter. Either way, death usually occurs because of factors related to the surrounding environment, the parents of the puppy, and/or the puppy itself.
Environmental conditions should be the first factor to monitor. A newborn puppy is as helpless as a baby. It cannot independently regulate its own body temperature. During this time it relies on the warmth of its mother curled up around it, the bedding or a heat lamp if it has no mother. If it gets cold and stays cold, it dies.
Puppies are born with an immature immune system and this means that they are highly susceptible to contracting infections because of poor hygiene. Infections may come from a lack of antiseptic treatment of the cord when the puppy is born, or a lack of proper hygiene of the whelping box, the mothering bitch or the puppy itself during the first few days after birth.
It can also come about through handling the puppy with dirty hands when it’s still very young. Maintaining a clean environment also means treating for fleas and ticks that could feed on the puppy’s blood and leave it too weak to survive.
Bacterial infections such as E. coli, staphylococcus and streptococcus may be present inside the mother and passed on to the puppy while still in the birth canal or through the stump of the naval cord. Viral infections such as canine parvovirus are diseases that strike newborn puppies and can kill an entire litter. Canine parvovirus is unmistakable, predominantly manifesting itself as bloody diarrhoea that smells of rotting fish guts. Vaccinations exist for many viral infections and ensuring that the mother is vaccinated before breeding or birthing could make all the difference between life and death.
Mastitis in the mother is a common reason for puppies dying. Mastitis produces milk with toxins that the puppies ingest every time they feed. It is easily treated by a veterinarian and timely action could save the entire litter.
Breast is best applies to pups as well and within the first 12 hours of birthing puppies need colostrum from their mother. Not only is colostrum produced by the mother only in the first few hours after giving birth, it is also only in the first few hours that the newborn’s digestive system can absorb colostrum’s precious nutrients. Although it may survive without colostrum, the puppy remains susceptible to infection and possibly remains a weakling. Thereafter, maintaining an adequate feed is vital to ensuring the survival of the puppy. If it does not get enough nutrition, it may become hypoglycaemic, which is where sugar energy levels plummet to dangerously low levels, and the puppy will die. Throughout, hydration is important and a persistently dehydrated puppy may not survive.
Accidents do happen and when the whelping box, which is the nest where the mother tends to her newborns, is not suited for its purpose, puppies do sometimes get trapped under the body of the mother and suffocate. The vet will advise you as to what kind of whelping box is best suited for mother and litter.
Depending upon the case, the vet may offer advice about proper home management, conduct a physical examination, administer the appropriate medication or emergency treatment, conduct blood tests and urinalysis. Ideally, you will consult your vet as soon as you are planning a pregnancy of your pet so that the entire pregnancy and birth can be supervised.
The last remaining puppy was truly a precious one we were determined to save. Together we went over every detail. Since visiting her at home, the owners took all the measures necessary to save the little one and now I’m told both mother and puppy are doing very well.
Dr Martin Debattista is a veterinary surgeon.