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Care of Newborn Puppies and Kittens

During the first 4 weeks of life, puppies and kittens depend on their mother completely for warmth, nutrition, waste elimination, and hygiene. During this critical time, the owner must observe the puppies or kittens carefully to detect problems. Immediate veterinary care is critical for any sick puppy or kitten.

Warmth: During the first few weeks of life, puppies and kittens may easily become chilled. A room temperature of 70 F is recommended. If the bitch or queen is ill or absent, then the temperature in the infant's immediate environment should be 80 to 85 F. (See Care of orphan puppies or kittens.) The normal body temperature of the newborn is 96 to 97 F, and reaches 100 F by 4 weeks of age. Indirect heat such as that provided by a heat lamp or warm water bottles may be used if needed. Care must be taken not to burn or overheat the neonates.

Body Weight: Puppies and kittens should be weighed every day. A failure to gain weight or loss of weight requires immediate veterinary attention.

Nutrition: Well-fed puppies and kittens sleep contentedly after nursing and have full (not bloated) abdomens. Excessive crying or restlessness, especially after nursing, indicates a problem. If needed, supplemental feeding of a puppy or kitten formula can be prescribed. Esophageal feeding tubes are often used in newborns who are weak or sick, and your veterinarian can instruct you how to perform this type of feeding.

Toilet Habits and Hygiene: During the first 3 to 4 weeks, the bitch or queen stimulates elimination by licking her puppies or kittens. If the mother is ill or absent, this can be performed with a warm moist cotton ball gently rubbed on the anal and genital area every 4 hours.

Eyes and Ears: The eyes open at 10 to 14 days of age. The ear canals open between 6 and 14 days of age.

Worms: Internal parasites are very common in kittens and puppies. A fecal sample can be taken from the litter when the infants are 4 to 6 weeks of age to be checked for parasites by your veterinarian. In a certain sense this recommendation has changed over the years due the the development of wormers that are very safe for use in very young puppies and kittens. At Foothills Animal Hospital we recommend worming puppies starting at about 2 weeks of age with a wormer containing pyrantel pamoate. Most other wormers can not be used on puppies this young. We recommend worming the puppies every 2 weeks until they are started on heartworm prevention. Check with your veterinarian at the puppies first exam (6-8 weeks) about what to do to prevent parasites from becoming a problem later. Kittens can be worm at an early age too however baby kittens are seldom overwhelmed by "nematode" parasites when they are very young like puppies commonly are.

Vaccines: The first vaccines are given at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age in puppies, and at 6 to 8 weeks and every 3 to 4 weeks thereafter until 14 weeks of age in kittens, after which booster shots are required annually (dogs and cats).

Again, the recommendation of a vaccination schedule varies widely with the situation and the vaccines being used. We have see complete failure of vaccination schedules in one situation that might work well in another. Factors influencing this include the relative risk of exposure (for example an employee at an animal hospital would have a much higher risk of bringing viruses home with them and thus should probably vaccinate more often. The presence of diseases like canine parvovirus on a property should probably raise our concerns for 4-5 years. Another major factor is the nature of the vaccine. There are huge differences in how early vaccines may be effective and how late it life they need to be given as a result. There are probably also major differences in the safety of vaccines. I feel strongly that a veterinarian should be responsible for choosing the vaccination program for each situation based on the situation. This decision should be made for puppies and outdoor kittens by about 6 weeks of age and for isolated cats that stay indoors by about 12 weeks of age.

Just as important as vaccination is disease avoidance. If you have puppies or kittens at home you should avoid puppies (or kittens) and the places that they frequent. If your are around puppies and kittens you should clean up thoroughly before making contact with your young pet. Puppies should be considered susceptible to contagious disease until at least 14 days after vaccination with the "last" vaccination of the initial series. Do NOT let your puppy on the ground at your veterinarians office or any other place that people congregate with their pets. Do not take your puppy to play with other puppies or even adult dogs that have not completed their vaccinations. Most of the diseases included in the vaccines are VERY contagious and many (like canine parvovirus) persist for years in the environment. You would never let your child lick the floor at your pediatricians office but that would be one of the first things most puppies would do if you allowed them on the floor for their initial exams.

Weaning: Introduction of a liquid or gruel diet may be done at 3 to 4 weeks of age. Puppy or kitten milk replacer is a good starter, followed by gruel made of puppy or kitten food soaked in warm water. Many times puppies and kittens can be rapidly converted to dry foods by about 5-6 weeks of age. Weaning should be completed between 6 and 8 weeks of age.