Fading puppy syndrome is the term used to describe puppies that fail to thrive or die within the first 14 days of birth.
It is a complicated condition as there are many possible underlying causes including the puppies not nursing enough, lack of milk production from the mother, birth defects or infectious causes (virus, bacteria or parasites).
It often comes as a shock to breeders, as most of the time the mother dog appears to be in good health and the puppies were born normally. One pup or many in the litter may be affected.
In this article we will find out the truth about fading puppy syndrome. We will look at the possible causes, how to spot the signs early, the diagnosis and treatment options, and what you can do to prevent this condition from affecting your litter.
If you are breeding dogs, then this is a real and serious issue you should be fully aware of.
Puppies are born vulnerable!
Your precious puppies are born with their eyes and ears closed, unable to move much, and totally reliant on their mum for all their needs.
The pups are very vulnerable during the first two weeks of life, as they are unable to regulate their own body temperature and have a poor ability to regulate their body’s fluid and blood sugar levels. That’s why they need to be kept warm and fed little amounts very regularly.
Additionally, their immune system and organs are still developing, so they are at high risk of catching some serious infections.
Although they can get some protection against certain diseases from their mum’s colostrum (the energy and antibody dense milk produced in the first two days) and milk, it wont protect them against everything.
Signs of fading puppy syndrome
The quicker you notice any abnormal signs in your puppies the better. The problem is the signs are often vague and non specific, and can easily be missed by a beginner breeder. Often by the time the signs are obvious, it is too late and the puppy is too sick to be saved.
Common signs of illness/fading puppy syndrome in newborn puppies include:
Puppies that are born with a lower birth weight, often called the “runt” of the litter, should be extra closely monitored as they are at a higher risk of becoming ill.
It may be because they have less body fat reserves to keep them warm and provide energy.
Cause of fading puppy syndrome
There are many reasons why puppies may fail to thrive or pass away in the first few days or weeks of life. It may be one thing or a combination of a different factors which causes illness.
Generally, the underlying causes of fading puppy syndrome can be grouped into three groups: environmental, genetic or infectious.
Newborn puppies can’t control their body temperature very well in the first week of life. Therefore, they are at risk of becoming too cold or too hot depending on their environment.
If they are snuggled up with their mum, then they will probably be kept at the right temperature.
However, if they wriggle off away from their mum and the other pups, they are at risk of becoming too cold and developing hypothermia. When pups become too cold (hypothermic) their body starts to shut down, their heart rate decreases and their circulation and respiration slows down.
They can’t digest food and will struggle to nurse. It is an emergency if a pup has hypothermia, as they are at risk of collapse and death. You should seek veterinary help, and slowly and safely warm the pup. Don’t be tempted to place hot water bottles or heat lamps directly on their skin as it will cause severe burns.
Hyperthermia (when they body is too hot) is less common but can occur in hot climates or if you are using heat sources such as heat lamps or hot-water bottles.
Prolonged delivery or dystocia (difficult birth) are probably the most significant causes of new born pup death. The puppies in these situations are often starved of oxygen and born weaker than normal.
Unfortunately, some dogs are less “motherly” than others. First time mums often need some time (and help from you, if she is happy with this) to figure out what to do.
Poor mothering such as a reluctance to lie with the pups, keep them warm and nurse them, or not licking them to encourage their toileting or clean them, can all lead to weaker pups and risk of fading puppy syndrome. Overweight, or large breed dogs might be at higher risk of stepping on or clumsily lying on the pups.
It is essential that the pups receive their mum’s colostrum in the first two days, as it provides energy and immunity against certain infections. Without this “liquid gold” the pups are at higher risk of not surviving!
If mum isn’t producing enough milk, producing poor quality milk (due to sickness or poor nutrition) or has mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands) the pups will be weaker than normal and struggle to survive. In these cases, the pups need extra bottle feeding with puppy formula.
Puppies have thinner skin than adult dogs, this means chemicals can be more easily absorbed into their tiny bodies.
You should be extremely careful in only choosing safe bedding material, safe cleaning products and keeping all other potentially poisonous things out of reach from the curious pups.
Choose a gentle cleaner with little odour, approved by your vet, and rinse with water after cleaning to remove any residues.
Puppies may have congenital (present from birth) defects, which may or may not be obvious at birth. Breeding siblings together or other family members increases the risk of the pups being born with defects. Common examples include abnormalities of the mouth (cleft palate, cleft lip), anus (atresi ani), skull or heart (patent ductus arteriosis). These abnormalities may make it difficult or even impossible for the pups to survive. All pups with abnormalities need to be checked by a veterinarian as soon as possible, and some abnormalities may improve with treatment or surgical correction.
Low birth weight
The birth weight of puppies varies depending on their breed. Low birth weight is a high risk factor for fading puppy syndrome, and these lighter pups should be closely monitored and offered supplemental feeds if necessary. You should be ready to weigh your pups twice daily to record their weight gain.
The pups should steadily gain weight, on average 5% to 10% daily. In the first 24 hours, some pups may lose a little bit of weight, but if they are bright and nursing it should be nothing to worry about if the following day they are gaining again. If a pup isn’t gaining weight it can be the first sign something is wrong!
Puppies have immature immune systems, and can easily become infected with bacteria through their umbilicus, gastrointestinal or respiratory tract.
Bacterial infections are the most common infectious cause of neonatal death in puppies with Escherichia coli, streptococci, staphylococci, Pseudomonas sp., Klebsiella sp., Enterobacter sp. being the most common organisms.
Clinical signs of bacterial infection vary depending on the type of bacteria and location of infection, but may include: vomiting, diarrhoea, crying, high temperature, reduced nursing, and sloughing of the ear and tail tips and toes.
Many different viruses can affect puppies. Their immunity depends on the health and immunity of their mum, and if they have received sufficient colostrum in the first two days of life. The most common viruses associated with fading puppy syndrome include:
- Parvo virus
- Herpes virus
Talk to your veterinarian about vaccinating your bitch against these diseases before she is pregnant to reduce the chance of your puppies having any problems.
Pretty much every pup is born with a roundworm and hookworm infection because of the transmission of these parasites through the placenta. Puppies can also get roundworm infection through their mother’s milk.
The intestinal parasites may cause vomiting, diarrhoea and failure to gain weight. External parasites like fleas and ticks can infect puppies too, sucking their blood and quickly causing anaemia.
All these parasites can weaken the pups, by taking vital blood and nutrients which they need to grow. Affected pups will often not increase in weight, fail to thrive, become ill and eventually die if not treated.
Haemolytic anaemia or alloimmune hemolysis is a rare cause of fading puppy syndrome. It is due to the transmission of antibodies through the colostrum from the mum to her puppies.
These antibodies cause the pup to attack and destroy its own red blood cells. Within 2-3 days the affected pups will be weak, anaemic and jaundiced (yellow skin and gums).
The mum dog often develops these antibodies after having an unmatched blood transfusion. If your dog has had a blood transfusion in the past, ask your vet about checking for this condition before the pup’s receive their first colostrum.
Fading puppy syndrome:Treatment options
If one of your puppies is showing signs of sickness, then it is important that they are seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible, to increase their chance of survival.
Often the exact cause of your pup’s illness will not be obvious when the vet first examines him, but immediate treatment should focus on supporting the patient while further tests are carried out.
Initial treatment may include:
- Warming the puppy
- Hydrating the puppy by carefully administering fluids via intravenous, subcutaneous (under the skin) or intraosseous (into the bone) routes.
- Administering glucose/dextrose
- Administering vitamin K
- Oxygen supplementation
- Blood transfusion if necessary
- Antibiotics (if bacterial disease is suspected)
Once the pup has been warmed and received glucose, then feeding is the next requirement.
If the pup is ill and has little or no sucking reflex, then tube feeding is a great option. There is a risk of aspiration pneumonia, or milk going into the lungs, if a weak pup is forced to drink from a bottle or syringe fed.
A small tube placed directly into the pup’s stomach, allows the vet to give small, warmed amounts of formula safely to the pup every 2 hours or so.
Very ill puppies are often given antibiotics in case a bacterial infection is present, as pups can quickly die from untreated septicaemia. One study showed that the antibiotic amoxicillin/clavulonic acid had the highest rate of success in pups with bacterial infections. Anti-viral medication may be a treatment option for some viral infections in puppies.
One case study found that acyclovir treatment was successful for puppies with canine herpes virus infection, a notoriously difficult viral infection to treat in pups.
Surgery may be an option for certain physical defects, including cleft palate. Usually the pup will need to be carefully monitored, treated and tube fed until it is around 6-12 weeks of age.
Some physical defects may be so severe, or there is a risk for further lifelong consequences, that euthanasia is often the best option.
Sometimes the worst happens, and a puppy passes away suddenly. Although it may be difficult to think about it at the time, a necropsy (or autopsy) should be performed to help determine the cause of death.
This could help prevent further problems or deaths of other pups in the litter. Your vet should discuss and offer this option. Samples may be taken from the pup and sent to a laboratory for analysis to try to figure out what caused the death.
Prevention of fading puppy syndrome
Its impossible to be able to prevent all possible causes of illness in your new born pups but there are some easy ways to help reduce their chance of getting sick.
The preventative measures focus on good care and nutrition of the dam, good husbandry and careful monitoring of the puppies.
#1 Take good care of mum
A healthy bitch is more likely to produce healthy pups. Therefore, it is very important to keep the mum at a healthy weight for her breed, and feed her a high quality complete and balanced diet before, during her pregnancy and when the pups arrive.
She needs to be eating a good diet to produce great quality colostrum and milk for her pups. Ideally she should be de-wormed during pregnancy too using a veterinary prescribed anti-parasitic treatment, to reduce the number of roundworms and hookworms passed on to her pups.
Talk to your veterinarian about vaccines for your dog before she gets pregnant, as many viral causes of fading puppy syndrome can be prevented through vaccination of mum.
#2 Keep the pups warm
If the pups become cold, they are at a higher risk of suffering from fading puppy syndrome. They shouldn’t feel cool when you touch them.
Usually, if they stay close to their mum they are kept warm. But sometimes they crawl off on their own, or mum leaves the puppies alone for a while, or where you live may be very cold. VCA Hospitals state that “during the first four days, the temperature of the area where the puppies are kept should be maintained at 85 -90°F (29.5-32°C).
It may then be gradually decreased to approximately 80°F (26.7°C) by the seventh to tenth day”. Usually heating the area over the whelping box with a vet-approved heat lamp is all that is necessary.
#3 Colostrum is important
Colostrum is often called liquid gold, as it is so important for the survival of the puppies. Generally, the bitch will only produce colostrum for around 12-24 hours, before her normal milk production starts.
Colostrum is important for the transfer of antibodies (to help the pup’s immune system) and to give the pup a much needed energy boost. Pups should be carefully monitored in the first 24 hours to make sure they are latching on and nursing well- some pups might need a helping hand!
#4 Vet check at 48hrs
Most veterinarians will recommend that mum and all her pups have a health check when the pups are 48 hours old. This allows the vet to check that mum is producing enough milk and that there are no signs of mastitis (inflammation or infection of the mammary glands).
The vet will also check mum for any abnormal vaginal discharge or any other signs of illness. All the pups should be checked for congenital physical defects or signs of illness too.
#5. Monitor weight gain
Be prepared with a small electronic scale to weigh your pups. Ideally you would weigh each pup soon after birth, then once or twice daily. Every pup should be gaining weight daily.
If a pup doesn’t gain weight (or loses weight) over a 24-hour period, then it should be given supplementary feeding with bottled formula. Pups that are born with a low birth weight for their breed, are at a higher risk of fading puppy syndrome and should be given extra care and feeding.
#6 Ensure good hygiene
Keeping the whelping area clean helps to keep mum and the pups healthy. The pup’s immune systems are weak and developing, and they are risk of many different infections.
Bacteria from faeces can enter the pup’s body easily through the umbilical area or the mouth, and parasites can also be transferred through mum’s stools to the pups. So its best to regularly clean up faeces in the area. Keep other dogs away from the whelping area, they could transmit viral or bacterial infections to the pups.
Fading puppy syndrome is a complicated condition with many possible underlying causes. It can quickly cause serious illness or frequently death in new born pups.
The signs can be vague and difficult to spot, but treatment is more likely to be successful if the clinical signs are caught early so the pups need to be closely monitored for any abnormal changes.
Treating fading puppy syndrome initially concentrates on warming the pup, correcting dehydration, providing glucose to correct hypoglycaemia and providing nutrition. Then the pup will be treated for any disease that is present such as a bacterial or viral infections.
Unfortunately, not all causes of fading puppy syndrome can be prevented. However, there are some useful ways to reduce the puppies risk of becoming ill, such as keeping the pups warm enough, ensuring they receive colostrum, monitoring their weight gain and ensuring good hygiene in the whelping area.