If you’ve ever experienced a dog having a litter of puppies, you will know that you can face several surprises. As with births across the range of species, each one can bring something new and exciting. We’re here to address your concerns, including answering why dogs eat their puppies.
It is usually a wonderful experience to watch your female dog give birth, and they tend to make naturally caring mothers. Some breeds are better equipped to provide exemplary nurturing to their pups and have notoriously strong maternal instincts, such as Golden Retrievers and Labrador Retrievers. Still, most bitches will tend to their litters well.
However, not all pregnancies go to plan. There can be unexpected events that result in some puppies’ death, their Mothers can also abandon puppies, and in some cases, a female dog can even kill and eat their babies. It’s a grim topic, but we’re here to explain why it can happen and what you can do to try and prevent it.
6 Reasons Why a Dog May Eat Her Puppies
There are several reasons why a female dog may eat her puppies, and some of them you just can’t prevent. Some will come without warning, but others you can intervene and do something about.
If a dog eats her puppies, it will usually occur immediately following the birth or within the first few days. Eating offspring isn’t exclusive to one breed or even one species. Bears, primates, rodents, birds, insects, and reptiles have all been witnessed killing and eating their young, as well as both domestic and wild feline and canines.
When you understand why dogs eat their puppies, you can learn more about what is going on with the litter you have to better understand if you should intervene or let nature take its course. Here are some known reasons as to why a female dog will eat her puppies:
1. Accidental Cannibalism
It isn’t always an intentional act, especially for first-time or very young Mothers. It can simply be a case of inexperience. When a puppy is born, it is born within a sac that the mother uses her teeth to free her baby. There are times when this won’t go particularly smoothly and result in the accidental death of a puppy.
A Mother will also eat the placenta as a way to recover much-needed nutrients lost during the pregnancy. It isn’t uncommon for a puppy to die in the womb before birth. When this is delivered, the Mother may not even recognize it as a puppy and eat it as though it was part of the afterbirth.
2. An Unhealthy Pup
Not all puppies are born strong and healthy. Some are sick with infections, respiratory problems, or congenital disabilities that will result in a range of health complications. You may be able to spot a poorly puppy after delivery, but so can Mom.
Especially for large dog breeds who are prone to larger litters, there can be just too many pups for a dog to be able to manage comfortably. If she has a poorly puppy who requires extra care and time, she may make the tough decision to take that puppy out of the litter.
This would be considered a mercy killing as it ends the suffering of the poorly pup and ensures the rest of the litter’s survival.
3. A Stressed Mom
Pregnancy and birth is a stressful time for any Mom, dog, human or other. Your dog will be scared, exhausted, and overwhelmed, which can sometimes lead to bad decision-making.
A female dog can lose her temper with an entire litter of wailing pups and growl, bark, or even bite them. With predatory instincts kicking in, cannibalism can be the result in rare cases.
There are ways you can help alleviate her stress, but these must be preventative measures, which we will discuss below. If you try to intervene when she is already in a mental crisis, you risk making the situation worse or even ending up being attacked yourself.
Mastitis is a serious condition that can cause a great deal of pain for a Mom and lead to many complications for her litter too. It is an infection of the breast tissue that can occur after delivery. Her teats will become incredibly sensitive, red, and swollen, making feeding her puppies painful.
While you can intervene with puppy nursing replacement kits, it is always best for a Mother dog to feed her pups herself – it’s more nutritional for puppies and is a great bonding activity.
Mastitis requires immediate veterinary care. Without it a female dog will often still try to feed her puppies while in significant pain. Without medical treatment a bitch can start to reject her puppies or abandon the litter completely. In extreme cases, she will kill and eat her puppies just to relieve her pain.
5. Hormonal Problems
This is one of the saddest reasons, and there is very little you can do, aside from rearing the litter yourself. A dog can resort to cannibalism if she does not recognize her puppies as her own young, which would be down to hormonal issues.
During the delivery of a litter, dogs produce hormones, and some of them are responsible for identifying the puppies and creating an automatic maternal bond. These hormones aren’t always released, especially if the delivery has been unconventional – such as through a Cesarean Section.
When puppies aren’t delivered through the birthing canal, the necessary hormones for bonding don’t always come. A female dog can awake from surgery to find herself surrounded by screaming pups she doesn’t recognize as her babies. Generally, pretty quickly, she will tend to them instinctively. But at times, a prey drive can kick in, and she will attack the unfamiliar, noisy small creatures she has discovered next to her.
6. Too Young to be a Mommy
The last reason why dogs eat their puppies is that they’re just not ready to be a Mom. It is advised for a bitch to wait until she is at least one year old. However, different breeds mature at different rates. Therefore it is recommended to wait until a female dog reaches between 18 months to two years of age before breeding.
When a dog is bred too young, they’re just babies themselves, without the maturity to care for anything properly. An unprepared Mother can exhibit behaviors that are anything but maternal. She may show no maternal instincts and simply abandon a litter, or she may react in fear of the unknown and resort to cannibalism to get away from the scary, unfamiliar situation she has been put in.
How You Can Intervene to Stop Canine Cannibalism
Cannibalism is a harsh reality of the natural world. We view our dogs as adorable, loving animals who are loyal, friendly, and obedient. But it is important to remember they are part of the animal kingdom with animalistic instincts. It is rare for a female dog to eat her young, but it does happen.
Let’s look at a few ways you can help to keep Mamma dog happy and baby dogs alive.
Good parenting practices can be identified way before a female dog gives birth. Similarly to pregnant women, a pregnant dog should adopt ‘nesting behaviors.’ She will start to get her environment ready for her babies, and this may include roaming around to find a suitable place to give birth and the chewing up of blankets or fabrics to create soft bedding.
Nesting generally occurs around a week before delivery. In ancient times a female dog would find a cave, or dark den, to reside in from around day 58 of gestation to protect her upcoming litter from predators and the eliminates. Dogs still emulate this instinct today.
You can help to get your dog properly prepared by considering a Crate with a cover in the weeks before birth so that the dog has time to realize it is a safe place for her to be. A Whelping liner is comfortable, durable (and washable!) and will reduce her anxieties in preparing a bed herself. A relaxed expectant Mom tends to be a better Mom following the birth.
Ensuring that your pregnant dog has a high-quality diet will mean that she has the proper nutrients, and energy, to be able to take care of her brood. Her food intake should be increased gradually by up to 25% by the time of whelping to make sure that she has adequate body weight gain and sufficient nutritional reserves.
If you want to increase her nutrition further, you could opt for Multivitamins that are Veterinarian recommended. It is best to leave her alone with some calming treats in the days leading up to the birth, these will be the last few hours of peace she will get for some time, so let her enjoy them.
During the Birth
Most births run smoothly, are uneventful and no human intervention is necessary. It is advisable to remain close by so that you’re able to help promptly, should any issues arise. It may also be soothing for your dog to have you there with her. But it is important to not take over.
Typically, a dog’s contractions will last between 6 and 12 hours before ‘active’ labor starts. She will start to lick her vulva, pant, and appear anxious but this is all very normal. During the next stage, you will see a bag, containing a puppy, hang out before it should slide away easily.
Mom will free the pup and deal with the umbilical cord. The next puppy will come between 15 minutes to two hours later. The majority of issues that can arise, Mom is well-equipped to deal with but there are some signs of an abnormal delivery where emergency veterinarian care is required, these include:
- A dog actively straining for 30-60 minutes with no sign of a puppy
- No additional puppies within an hour, yet you know there are more inside
- A bloody or purulent discharge
- Dark green fluid coming out of the vagina before any puppy is born
- Seizures, spasms, tremors, muscle rigidity, or weakness
By taking note of our advised preventive measures, you will significantly reduce the chances of your dog eating her puppies.
Hi, I’m Walter,
I live in Oklahoma City, USA, and have extensive dog caring and grooming expertise. In addition, I provide dog training tips and tricks through my blogs in Canine Weekly. I have a Dog Behavior and Training diploma and have previously worked as a Dog Trainer at ROC Animal Training and Behavior and Tip Top K9 of OKC Dog Training.
Apart from writing on Canine Weekly, I share my views on Twitter and Linkedin.