A show dog breeder’s life is not glamorous, but it does evoke a response of “aww… puppies!” However, a breeder’s daily routines are more “eww…” than “aww…”
Everyone imagines the deliciousness of being surrounded by fluffy cuteness on comically unsteady legs. The real comical moments, though, are dosing off sitting upright and drooling into a whelping box after a few sleepless nights holding vigil over newborn puppies. Then, stepping into warm poop inside your favorite slippers at 4 AM because the mama dog also held a vigil over her babies and did not want to leave them to go potty outside, even as it would have been just a couple of steps to the doggy door, the grass, and back. Moments like that, or any number of their variations, are known to every breeder.
Breeders are experts at a “fill in the blank” game shared with other breeders. Stepping in (fill in the blank: poop, pee, vomit), finding a chewed up (fill in the blank: silk dress, iPhone, legal document), unending ( fill in the blank: potty break shifts, prevention of dog fights). You get the gist. It’s not all fluffy puppy cuteness.
However, we all take the “eww…” and “oh-no!” moments, even lots of them, in strides. They are worth the “aww…” moments. Not only with puppies, but with our beloved adult dogs too. We love dogs. That is why we do what we do.
What is really hard, and I mean really, really hard is losing a puppy. No heap of dog vomit on my pillow has ever made me think of quitting. Losing a puppy does.
It took me two weeks of digesting the experience and grieving to be able to write about losing one of the newborn puppies. I lost Leelu at day 10 of her life and it hurt so much I found it difficult to get back to covering that litter in the blog. However, I would be deceiving you if I wasn’t including the heartache part of dog breeding.
The litter was born a few days early. The most fragile, critical first few days were not without challenges but I seemed to manage all the little crises well. Moxie got a little hypocalcemic, then two of the puppies developed diarrhea, but I dealt with it and all seemed to be good. Then, one of the puppies, a little black and tan girl Leelu got colicky.
Colic is not uncommon in newborn puppies. It’s an awfully draining experience for all involved because the puppy is in pain and screaming. The puppy is miserable, the mother dog frantic, the breeder worried and suffering with the puppy.
Leelu was responding well to gentle belly massages and being held in a “colic hold”, clasping my hands around the puppy and holding it almost upright, with about 30 degrees tilt forward. The puppy’s chest rests in a palm, while the other hand supports the butt. Any gas pockets in the belly have room to move more freely. The puppy usually settles immediately. I was also giving Leelu tiniest drops of simethicone baby tincture. She was responding well and immediately, but the second I would put her back in the whelping box, she would cry again.
I suspected that she was not voiding properly, so I tried stimulating her to poop. Nothing was happening. The puppy was obviously constipated. I used warm water enema and Leelu started birthing little poop rocks. She seemed to feel much better after voiding. Now my concern was to keep her fed, hydrated and warm. Unfortunatley, Leelu would be OK for a little while and would start crying again. Holding her and helping her to poop helped every time, but not for long.
That went on and off the entire night, then during the day she was better. However, she was not nursing more than for a minute. While her siblings nursed vigorously Leelu would start and then fall off the nipple. I was torn whether I should be bringing her to my vet and risk exposure of a weak premature pup to pathogens. I decided to play it by ear and not visit a vet yet.
Moxie sweetly cuddled the puppy and always made sure she was either trying to nurse or was kept warm. But Leelu was getting increasingly less interested in nursing, so I had to start supplementing mother’s milk.
Tube feeding is a common practice when a newborn puppy, for whatever reason, is not getting enough mother’s milk. The equipment used is a special sterile tube with small holes at its blunt edge, sized appropriately for a given puppy breed (I use size 5 French feeding tube for newborn Norwich pups).
First, the distance from the mouth to the stomach is measured and marked on the tube. The mark tells me whether the tube reached the stomach. Puppy formula, warmed to 100 degrees F, is drawn into a syringe. The puppy is put on a warm towel on a table, end of tube dipped in milk and then offered to the puppy. A hungry puppy starts swallowing the tube. First time breeders should always practice with someone experienced in tube feeding before attempting it, but it’s a relatively easy procedure. Once the mark is by puppy’s mouth, indicating the proper length of tube reached the stomach, you hold the tube and puppy’s head together with one hand and push the plunger of the syringe with the warm milk with the other hand. Once done, you just pull the tube out without any resistance, because the swallowing mechanism protects entry of objects only in one direction. You have to have the pup’s cooperation in swallowing the tube, getting the tube out takes a split second.
Leelu was tube fed for 3 days and nights and she was getting much better. She started nursing with vigor: kneading Moxie’s tit, nursing for a long time, having a good suction, finding another nipple fast when bumped off by a sibling. However, soon after she’d nurse she would start with colic and being constipated. Again, I switched to tube feeding round the clock.
By day 9 of life Leelu was gaining weight well and she was not colicky. However, she still had trouble with constipation. I was making sure she was hydrated and warm, adjusted the milk formula, but Leelu needed enemas to poop. Every time I hoped to get her to poop by stimulation only, not much was happening. However, once she pooped she seemed well. Her temperature was normal and she appeared strong and content. I was hoping the worst was over and her voiding would improve soon as well.
At day 10 of her life, in the very early morning hours Leelu started crashing. She was weak, almost listless. I made the terrible mistake of tube feeding her. She threw up what I fed her less than a minute later. I knew instantly that she might have aspirated her vomit because she started to gasp for air. I grabbed her and brought her to my fabulous vet with years of experience with newborns. After examining Leelu, taking x-rays and an ultrasound Dr.B confirmed that Leelu had some liquid in one lung and that she was terribly constipated. We decided together to end her suffering.
I did not find a conclusive answer to what caused Leelu’s digestive problems. She was severely constipated, but no deformities were found. Someone suggested that it could have been hydrocephaly, but my vet claims that although he did not examine Leelu’s brain, he would have seen hydrocephaly on x-rays. She also did not have any other symptoms of it.
Statistically, puppies born prematurely are ten times more likely to die before 2 weeks of age than puppies born full term. Their lungs and digestive tract are especially vulnerable, as they have to start functioning before being fully developed. I will never know for sure if there was anything else I could have done to save Leelu, and whether not tube feeding her on the morning when she was crashing would have avoided her demise. That question will haunt me.
A Toll Every Breeder Pays
After a few sleepless nights, punctuated with joy of recovery a sudden turn for the worse is an impossibly hard blow. For everyone enjoying their dog bred by a responsible breeder, please thank them every chance you get. The joy of having a healthy, well adjusted, well bred puppy comes at a great emotional toll. I hope to never lose the dedication to every life in my hands, and never to be calloused enough to shrug off a loss of a puppy, but the emotional toll it takes is really high. Every well bred dog had tons of love poured into her.
Hug your incredible puppy today.