Lactation in Dogs

Nothing depicts maternal love better than the scene of puppies nuzzled against their mother nursing. Nothing is less harmonious than a mother dog struggling to make this happen. Knowing her needs and potential challenges prepares dog owners should trouble strike and Mother Nature needs assistance.


Structure Of Mammary Glands

All mammals have mammary glands, males included, although theirs are not functional. Pet Place provides an extensive description of the canine mammary gland system: They are arranged typically in two parallel rows extending from the underside of the chest area to the groin. Canines can have anywhere from eight to 12 teats, with 10 being the most common configuration. Smaller breed dogs often have only four. The mammary glands have an extensive series of veins and nerve endings to supply the large amounts of nutrient-laden blood and brain signals necessary for adequate lactation to occur.

How Lactation Occurs

Even though lactation occurs as a natural response to the process of giving birth, the production of milk is a complicated series of biological interactions. Royal Canin reports that the secretion of milk by mammary tissue and the removal of accumulated milk from the glands by suckling are equally important in effective lactation. Various hormones each have a role. During the pregnancy, estrogen signals the mammary glands to build up the cells that produce milk. Progesterone also is a signaler during pregnancy and a regulator during production. Prolactin stimulates the maternal function in the brain as well as combines with oxytocin to cause milk letdown. In most cases, these hormones work together seamlessly to facilitate that heart-touching scene of a mother with her nursing pups. When this does not occur, it is vital for the health of the mother and pups that a veterinarian is consulted. Always consult an experienced veterinarian regarding the health and treatment of your pet.

Nutritional Needs

It stands to reason that a nursing bitch requires more calories in her diet, but getting up and away from her demanding brood can be challenging. That's why PetMD recommends using a dog food with higher fat and protein content made from highly digestible ingredients, so she can get the maximum amount of nutrition from every bite she consumes. Let her eat as much as she wants. Vetinfo also suggests supplementing with egg yolks, cheese and plain yogurt. Raw liver, with its high iron content, also is an option to help restore blood loss from delivery.

Potential Challenges

There are some biological challenges to nursing. The most common is mastitis, an inflammation of the mammary gland caused by a bacterial infection traveling up the teat opening, according to Pet Place. Pain and swelling in the mammary gland, which most likely is rather hot to the touch, as well as a cottage cheese-like appearance to the excreted milk all are signs of mastitis. Galactostasis is an abnormal accumulation of milk in the mammary gland despite efficient suckling by the pups. Another disorder, agalactia, is a failure to produce milk often caused by nutritional deficits or anxiety in the mother dog.

What About Antibiotics?

The use of antibiotics in nursing bitches is a catch-22 situation. At times, the infection can be cleared only by the use of antibiotics, which naturally end up in the mother's milk. While it might seem that antibiotics would help nursing puppies just as the mother's colostrum or "first" milk, which is full of her natural antibodies, does, this is not the case. The antibodies give the pups the same disease immunity that mother has. The antibiotics being given to the nursing mother are aimed at helping her defeat a disease the puppies don't have. Vetinfo notes that some stronger antibiotics can interfere with bone development in puppies. It is best to consult directly with your veterinarian.

By Amy M. Armstrong


About the Author
Amy M. Armstrong is a former community news journalist with more than 15 years of experience writing features and covering school districts. She has received more than 40 awards for excellence in journalism and photography. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in communications from Washington State University. Armstrong grew up on a dairy farm in western Washington and wrote agricultural news while in college.