There is nothing that will touch your heart more than watching the runt of a litter trying to survive with “the bigger guys”. Compassion for the small and the weak seems to be a very real and innate human emotion in all of us. -But empathy alone won’t warm and nourish the puppy. If the pup is to survive, your love, action and commitment can pull it through. Don’t give up! Even when the vet recommends putting it down, tender loving care can often accomplish what modern, veterinary medicine can’t. Watch for signs if the mother is rejecting the pup and take action. Provide around the clock support for the first few days. Provide comfort when the mother doesn’t. Finally, provide nourishment in addition to the mother’s milk. Rest assured that it can be done! We know. Raising our Dachshund runt was a blessing to us as we learned to care for the puppy that we named Itty Bitty.
The first sign that we had that Gwenny, our female Dachshund, was rejecting a puppy was when she completely ignored it after the other pups were born. She knew that there was something wrong with him and focused her attention on the healthy pups. As soon as Gwenny was strong enough, she actually picked Itty Bitty up and put him outside of the whelping box. What an emotional thing that was, to hear him cry out and then find him alone and shivering on the cold tile floor. We took our runt in to the vet that morning and the prognosis was not good. He had an irregular heartbeat and, the vet surmised, a liver problem. He gave him two days to live. That is when we said a prayer and jumped into action by using the following steps:
1. Provide around the clock support for the first few days: The night that Itty Bitty was born, I pulled an old camping cot and my sleeping bag out of storage and set up a nursing station right next to the whelping box. When Gwenny put Itty out of the box, I would gently pick him up and put him right back in the box next to Gwenny and the other pups. The bonding that goes on between the pups and the mother at this point is very, very critical, so you do not want to completely remove the pup if you can help it. You want the pup to bond with the mother, too, in spite of her rejection.
a. Set your alarm to go off every two hours during the first night or two. Check in on the pups. Doing this together as a family can be a very rewarding time that will provide a lasting memory.
b. If you need the sleep, have a helper or two; set up a schedule so that everyone takes a turn.
2. Provide comfort when the mother doesn’t: Don’t miss opportunities to comfort the puppy. On those times when Gwenny put the puppy out of the whelping box, I would wrap a soft, dry wash towel around Itty Bitty and comfort him. I would caress him and talk very softly to him. Amazingly, just like a human baby, he responded to the comfort and to my voice. This began a strong bond between the pup and me that Itty Bitty and I have to this day.
a. During the day, I would find Itty Bitty alone in a corner of the whelping box. Gwenny’s attention was fully on the healthy pups. I would wrap the wash towel around him and hold him to my chest as I watched TV. Puppies love body heat! Your warmth warms and comforts them. It won’t be unusual for the mother to be concerned and want the pup right back in the box, even if she will reject it again. Her rejection does not mean that she doesn’t care for her pup. She is trying to tell you that she does not know how to fix whatever is wrong with it.
3. Provide nourishment in addition to the mother’s milk: You will notice right away that your puppy is not getting his share of the mother’s milk. The others are getting stronger and he is too weak to “fight” for his share. It is very, very important, though, that you regularly move the other pups away (like to the other end of the box, or even to another box) and let the little one nurse on its own. Even if the mother tries to move away, gently hold her down and command her to stay in a gentle voice (being loud or firm with her will not only upset her but the runt will sense it, too). The puppy MUST have access to some of its mother’s milk. There are life- protecting antibodies in her milk that will help the puppy fight off disease.
a. Next, purchase some puppy milk replacer. I like the powdered version that you mix with water. You will want to have an eye dropper or syringe to feed the newborn pup, depending on the pups size. For Itty Bitty, I found the puppy formula and a small, syringe like applicator at the local pet store.
b. Warm the milk by adding warm tap water to the mix. Refrigerate the milk between feedings. Cold milk can be warmed by putting it in a small container and placing that container in a larger bowl or container that is full of tap hot water. DO NOT MICROWAVE the milk or the water! This will get the milk so hot that it burns the puppy.
c. Set up two hour feeding intervals at first, then increase to four as the runt gets stronger. When you can, move from the small applicator to a syringe, then to a puppy baby bottle (you can get these at the pet store, too).
d. The puppy may not suck on the syringe at first. Simply place a small amount at a time in his mouth. Be careful not to put so much that it gags. It will slowly lap the milk down.
e. As the pup gets the idea, in a day or two, you will notice that he will actually start sucking the milk right out of the syringe.
f. As the puppies get older and you move them to a rice cereal, make sure that the runt continues to get its share, including nursing from its mother.
Please know that sometimes puppies may not make it because they are in fact too sick; but also know that, as of this writing, Itty Bitty is now twenty months old and stars in his very own children’s book (“Itty Bitty Saves the Day”)! If my wife and I had not put the effort in to save our Itty Bitty, we would have denied ourselves of the blessing that he has become in our lives. The way that he runs in to say “good morning” to MaryAnn each day, the way that he runs through the house with his “happy feet”, the way that he runs up my leg when I am on the couch and climbs up onto my shoulder, and the way that he loves us unconditionally; we would have missed out on that! Fortunately, tender care, commitment and love were the right prescriptions for Itty Bitty, the runt of the litter.