It is up to the breeder to determine when it is an appropriate time to initiate the weaning process as some mothers may continue to nurse until the puppies go to their new homes. All breeders will likely have their own recipe for success when it comes to weaning a litter of pups. Still, I get a lot of questions and I'm often surprised to find that even the most experienced breeders can be frustrated with the weaning process. For those that are new to breeding or raising a litter, the best overall advice I can give is to have a good mentor in the breed. A relationship with a mentor will provide an excellent opportunity to learn and develop your own skills and techniques for success!
WHY do we wean the puppies?
We do this to augment the correct growth and development of the pups, and to also lessen the stress on the dam. This is very helpful to allow the dam to start her recovery. Some dams will continue to nurse until the pups leave for their new homes. This is not necessary and will delay the dam's "drying up". You may have to physically separate them at some point to stop her milk production.
WHEN do we begin the process?
We typically start the introduction of semi-solid food at 3 to 4 weeks of age. Starting at this time will enable a nice smooth transition from the dam's milk and ensure adequate nutrition during the rapid growth process. Starting at this age will also lessen the stress on the dam; producing milk is a huge metabolic burden and the larger the litter the more the bitch could use some help! On the other hand, if you have a small litter and the pups are overly chubby, you can start solid foods that are lower in calories than the mother's milk and perhaps slow down the growing a bit. Consider the first week a transition week while the pups will still nurse often. By 4 to 5 weeks of age, the nursing should decrease and most pups can be weaned from the dam by 5 to 6 weeks entirely.
WHAT to use for weaning?
This can be a controversial topic as many breeders have varying opinions on what to use when weaning puppies. Some breeders will use a transition diet of either human-baby rice cereal mixed with either a canine milk replacer (such as Esbilac®) or goat's milk. If the pups are overweight, use water to cut down the caloric intake. We've recently heard some good reports about the Esbilac® second stage product as part of a transition diet. After a few days of the rice cereal mush, breeders will gradually add in ground kibble soaked in water or milk replacer to also make it mushy. Many breeders will go directly to kibble and skip the rice cereal stage. I have not seen a difference with the final outcome of these two regimens. To use kibble directly, some will grind it in a food processor. Whether you grind the kibble or not, it needs to be soaked in water or milk replacer for about 45 minutes until it has absorbed the moisture and is quite mushy. Then spread this in a flat dish (a pie tin works well) and let the pups at it. They will make a mess and it will be everywhere, but they do figure out how to eat! Next question is what kibble to use? At this age, we want a growth formula/puppy food - but not the ones considered "large breed" as these are protein restricted. You will have to use your judgment regarding how fast the pups are growing - if they get too fat, feed less and/or use the protein/calorie restricted foods. I always advise to stay within the line of dog food that you will use as they continue to grow; people have their favorite brands for a variety of reasons. Some breeders prefer grain-free diets if their breed is prone to allergies. As the pups grow, the soaking of the kibble can lessen as they will be able to eat dry food by 6 to 8 weeks of age. Some breeders like to mix in a bit of canned food as well, which is fine. By 8 to 10 weeks of age, when they are ready to go to their new homes, the pups should be on dry kibble three times per day. At this point, they can also transition to a restricted growth puppy food to encourage a slow, steady growth curve to allow them to reach their full growth potential without getting there too quickly.