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Ask The Vet: Why Do Mother Dogs Eat Their Puppies?

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Green-eyed monster dog

Mother dogs eat their puppies in some cases, and this is something that many dog owners perceive as abhorrent. However, as disconcerting and heartbreaking as this behavior may appear, mother dogs may do this for some valid reasons. Understanding this behavior requires learning more about how mother dogs take care of their puppies and the consequences associated with dealing with weak, sickly puppies who have very little chances for survival. Veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec provides some insights into why mother dogs eat their puppies and answers some common questions dog owners may wonder about.

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Maternal Care in Dogs

Generally speaking, there are three possible problems of maternal care: neglect, clumsiness and exaggerated care. Sadly, all forms are potentially lethal to newborn pups.

Maternal neglect is obvious to an owner. The mother may fail to remove the fetal membranes at birth. Later, when she does not lick, clean, nuzzle and nurse one or more of her pups, maternal bonding fails to take place. Mothers that take no interest in their pups are, most frequently, first-time mothers and individuals deeply attached to their human family.

Clumsiness may occur at birth or afterward. A mother can injure her pups as she chews off the placental attachment, or she may roll on them while they are sleeping which is a considerable problem with large breeds that produce big litters.

Exaggerated maternal care is a particular concern with Staffordshire Bull Terrier mothers. Maternal licking of the birth membranes can become, so exaggerated, that it damages the skin around the umbilicus or the pup’s head. In some distressing circumstances, this behavior can evolve into cannibalism, when a pup’s head is consumed. Bull Terrier mothers should be monitored for 24 hours each day for the first several days to ensure that the maternal care does not become exaggerated.

To prevent such events, make sure that the whelping pen offers protection for pups from the weight of a clumsy mother. Monitor all new mothers carefully, both at birth and immediately after birth. Give them whatever assistance you think is necessary. It is also helpful to keep any curious visitors away to reduce distractions and to allow the mother to concentrate on bonding with her pups. In some cases, if necessary, the vet may prescribe tranquilizers or sedatives.

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Cannibalism in Mother Dogs

As disturbing and disgusting as it may sound, sometimes mother dogs kill and eat their own puppies. As we will explain in the article, being angry at the mother for doing so is not correct because, more often than not, she has good reasons for the cannibalism.

The term cannibalism is used to describe the situation when an animal eats another animal of the same species. Puppy cannibalism usually occurs either at birth or 1 to 2 days following birth.

Theoretically speaking, when it comes to cannibalism there is no breed predisposition. Both purebreds and mixed dog mothers are equally prone to cannibalizing their offspring. However, it is worth mentioning that cannibalism is most frequent among Staffordshire Bull Terriers. It should also be noted that, puppies delivered through Cesarean sections, are at higher risk of being cannibalized by their mothers.

Why Do Mother Dogs Eat Their Puppies?

Unfortunately, the concept of cannibalism is not very-well explained. There are several theories that explain why it occurs, but there is still place for further investigations and discoveries. The most popular theories include:

Survival of the Fittest

Statistically, one in seven or eight pups is born with a constitutional medical condition. This illness usually causes a drop in the pup’s temperature. A mother naturally disregards any pup with a subnormal body temperature. She may separate it from the rest of the litter. This is her way of supporting the survival of the fittest.

Mastitis

Mastitis means inflammation of the teats. When inflamed the teats are red, swollen, hot and hard, but most of all painful to the touch. It goes without saying that if a pup tries to suck milk from an inflamed teat, the mother will be in pain. In some cases, that pain can cause the mother to either reject the pup, or depending on the circumstances even kill and cannibalize the pup.

Lack of Recognition

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Stress or Fear

Negative emotions, such as stress and fear, may trigger aggression. Sometimes the aggression can progress and if directed towards the puppies it can turn into cannibalism.

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Some Frequently Asked Questions 

Following are some answers to some popular dog questions on mother dog behavior.

Are all female dogs good mothers?

Answer: Not necessarily. There is no "maternal behavior center" in the dog’s brain and such behavior cannot be hormonally-induced. It is true that a mother’s behavior does depend on hormones to some extent, but also depends on how well the dog was mothered by her own mother.

Will a Cesarean section interfere with a dog’s mothering behavior?

Answer: Normally, the passage of a pup through the birth canal, and licking the pup just after birth, will trigger subtle chemical changes in the mother’s brain that imprint the pup in her mind, which is necessary for good mothering. If those events do not occur, there is a great risk that the mother will reject the pup.

Why do some mother dogs eat their puppies?

Answer: Cannibalism of pups is relatively rare in dogs. It occurs most often in Bull Terriers, especially in those that have had a Cesarean section. Some authorities claim that cannibalism of some pups, or the rejection of runts, is a realistic and sensible way for a mother to limit the number of mouths to feed and increase the chances of survival of the healthiest in her litter.

Should cannibalism-prone mother be allowed to breed again?

Answer: It is not well determined whether cannibalism is an inherited trait or not. Therefore it cannot be predicted before it actually happens. What is more, there is no guarantee that it is a recurring process. A mother that cannibalized her puppies during one litter may behave as the perfect mother during another litter.

The Bottom Line

It is not uncommon for a mother to separate one of her pups and distance it from herself and her litter. In some cases, she may even eat the pup. This is because she probably senses something wrong with the pup. It is a natural and evolutionary efficient way for her to devote all her energies and resources to those most likely to survive. Therefore, from a health and ethical perspective it is questionable whether vets and owners should interfere.

About the Author

Dr. Ivana Crnec is a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia.

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She currently practices as a veterinarian in Bitola and is completing her postgraduate studies in the Pathology of Domestic Carnivores at the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Zagreb, Croatia.

Ivana’s research has been published in international journals, and she regularly attends international veterinary conferences.

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