hand rearing a litter

Hand rearing 1

Hand-rearing is time-consuming and stressful. However, it is sometimes essential; for example, if the bitch has sadly died, is too unwell to nurse her puppies or has rejected the litter (which can sometimes happen after a Caesarean section). Some of this guidance also applies to supplemental feeding (which may be required if the bitch does not have sufficient milk for a large litter, or if smaller puppies require extra nutrition if they are being pushed aside constantly by stronger, larger pups). 

foster bitches

As hand-rearing is very demanding, one thing to consider is the possibility of finding a foster bitch that has puppies of a similar age to your own litter. One big advantage of a foster bitch is that she can teach the puppies things that are more difficult for a human to do such as learning bite inhibition and when enough is enough at play time. You can try looking for a foster bitch through your vet (who may know of a client who owns a bitch who has whelped recently), social media and breed clubs. Make sure the owner is responsible and suitable, and if you are in any doubt, it is better to rear the litter yourself.


Colostrum is present in the milk that the bitch produces during the first 24 hours after birth. It is a highly concentrated mixture of antibodies, water, vitamins and electrolytes. Most hand-reared litters are brought on after this time so will have received colostrum, but in the event that they have not, oral or injectable doses of blood serum or plasma from a healthy dog may compensate for the lack of colostrum (and those vital antibodies). Puppies who have not received colostrum will always be much more vulnerable to infection and illness.  

urination and defecation

A bitch will stimulate the puppies to urinate and defecate, so in her absence this will become your job. You’ll need a large supply of cotton pads and some tepid water. Use this to gently massage the anus and urinal orifice after every feed, although don’t be concerned if urination or defecation doesn’t happen every time. Keep an eye on stool colour and consistency. The faeces of very young puppies are normally quite sticky, but if the stools are loose then do seek veterinary advice, because young pups can very quickly become dehydrated and lose electrolytes if they suffer from diarrhoea. After the pups are about 3 weeks old, they should be urinating and defecating by themselves, but may still need help cleaning themselves up afterwards

milk substitutes

Formula milk especially for puppies, such as Welpi, is the best option, and it is easy and convenient to use as you simply add water to reconstitute it. In an emergency, diluted goats’ milk or evaporated milk can be used. There are many recipes on-line that include household staples that may be fed for the short-term as a bitch milk substitute until you are able to obtain formula milk


Formula milk should be reconstituted according to the instructions, and the concentration may depend on the age of the puppies. The amount to feed to each puppy is based on age and body weight and may be per day or per feed. The milk should be fed at body temperature using a bottle with a teat for the pup to suckle from. This is safer than syringe feeding because aspiration pneumonia (a dangerous condition where milk is inhaled into the lungs rather than going down the normal digestive tract channel) is more of a risk when using a syringe, especially if you are new to hand-rearing. Equipment should be kept very clean, and unused milk should be discarded rather than re-warmed.

The puppies should be fed when they are stomach side down rather than upright or upside down, and the head must not be over-extended. Don’t be tempted to over-feed, as again this can result in aspiration pneumonia. It can also overly distend little tummies which is uncomfortable to say the least, and cause diarrhoea. Not all puppies stop drinking when they are full, so it’s important to be very aware of when they have had enough. If the belly feels very taut or is more than gently rounded, then it’s a sign of too much milk.

Hand rearing 2
frequency of feeding

Feeds are usually every 2 hours until the pups are a week old (although if the pups are not underweight, they can take a break between midnight and 4am). The second week, providing all is well; the feeds can be reduced to 4 hourly. From week 3, 6 hourly feeds are generally fine. Much will depend on the litter though, and some pups may need more frequent feeds if they are not taking enough milk when offered. At 4 weeks, 4 feeds per day are usually acceptable unless there are any late developers or poor feeders. At 3-4 weeks, liquidised solid food can start to be gradually introduced, and the pups can be encouraged to lap on their own. Arden Grange Weaning Puppy Food can be used (made into a porridge with the addition of water), and this product is suitable for feeding throughout weaning and later puppyhood.


One of the most beneficial things for someone taking care of a hand-reared litter is a supply of willing helpers. The intensive feeding schedule is tiring enough in itself, but the constant cleaning up and monitoring of the litter are also time-consuming. Hand reared pups need burping, bathing, drying, parasite control (worming from 2 weeks of age) and constant monitoring in addition to the feeding and husbandry already described, and this all increases the amount of time needed when hand-rearing. 


Just like a “normal” litter, the puppies will need safe, warm and secure accommodation. This should be situated in a quiet area away from any other pets in the household. They’ll need a sleeping area lined with safe, disposable bedding (or easily cleaned bedding such as fleece). Make sure that any fabric bedding has no snags or loose thread that the pups can get caught up in or ingest. A heat pad should be placed at one side, and there should be sufficient space for the pups to move away from the heat if they are becoming too hot. Any sources of heat should be puppy-safe and there must be no accessible electrical cables. A toy stuffed dog can be a very welcome addition, and provides something furry for the puppies to snuggle up to as well as each other.

Puppies are unable to properly regulate their temperature until they are 2 weeks old. Prior to this they cannot generate enough heat to keep themselves warm, and they will not yet have developed a shivering reflex.

Hand rearing 3

If your puppies get too cold, warm them up slowly so as not to shock them. The initial temperature of their accommodation should be in the region of 29-30 degrees C. The temperature can gradually be brought down as the litter get older, and by the time they are 4 weeks old, normal room temperature is fine. Humidity should be at about 55 to 65%. An atmosphere which is too dry can contribute to dehydration.  

monitoring / normal healthy signs

Hand-reared puppies should be weighed daily, have their mucous membrane colour and hydration status checked several times per day. Knowing what is normal and what’s not can be a great help. The rectal temperature at birth is 35.6 to 36.1°C, increasing gradually to 37.8° by 1 week of age.

During the first day of a puppy’s life, the respiratory rate can range from 8 to 18 breaths per minute, depending on the breed size (smaller breeds have a faster metabolic rate so faster respiratory and heart rates). At day 2, the respiratory rate increases to 15 to 35 breaths per minute up. By 2 weeks of age, 12-35 breaths per minute is the normal range. The heart rate of a newborn puppy can range from 120-180+ beats per minute.