Special Nutrient Considerations for  Dog Pregnancy and Lactation


Special Nutrient Considerations for  Dog Pregnancy and Lactation

The use of dietary supplements is often highly debated. Everyone knows someone who claims that some “special additive” will help solve a given reproductive problem. It is very important to understand that dietary supplements are needed only when the diet fails to supply optimal levels of a nutrient. If a breeder is feeding a diet that requires elaborate supplementation, it is advisable to seek high-quality foods that meet the nutritional needs of the pregnant or lactating female. Supplementation thereafter should serve only to enhance the diet, rather than replace foods that are not supplying adequate nourishment.



The dogs’ natural diet contains maximum levels of high biological protein. Therefore, if a female is consuming the Mother Nature’s menu, protein requirements should not need to be increased during pregnancy. Protein quality and quantity are important to provide all the essential amino acids for growth and development of the fetuses and maintenance of the female. Meat and organs supply high quality biological and digestible protein.

Fats and Essential Fatty Acids

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Fat is beneficial because of the increased energy demand during pregnancy. Fat delivers over twice the number of calories as the same amount of protein or carbohydrate and facilitates absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. Studies comparing the fat content of reproductive diets concluded that higher fat levels increased the number of offspring per litter, decreased puppy mortality, and improved reproductive efficiency. Moderate to high-fat foods enhance lactation performance in dams.


The dog’s body can synthesize some of the fats it needs from the foods it eats. However, two essential fatty acids cannot be synthesized in the body and must be consumed in the diet. Their names are linolenic and linoleic acid and these basic fats are used to build specialized fats called omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are important for the normal functioning of all tissues of the body. Deficiencies are responsible for a host of symptoms and disorders including reproductive disorders, abnormalities in the liver and kidney, changes in the blood, reduced growth rates, decreased immune function, and skin changes. Essential fatty acids are a vital part of every cell membrane in every cell in the dog’s body. Essential fatty acids must be present in the pregnant dog’s diet to ensure that hormones and egg cells are normal and healthy.

Linoleic acid (omega-6) is essential in diets for dogs and is abundant in animal tissues, therefore supplementation should not be required if the diet is adequate. Linolenic acid Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is not considered “essential” for dogs as of yet, but will likely be regarded as a requirement in the near future.

Recently it has been discovered that the omega-3 fatty acids are necessary for the complete development of the fetal brain during pregnancy and the first two years of life. The Omega-3 fat and its derivative, docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), is so essential to development that if a dam and offspring are deficient in it, the offspring’s nervous system and immune system may never fully develop, and it can cause a lifetime of unexplained emotional, learning, and immune system disorders. DHA is also important for normal retinal and brain development. DHA status correlates positively with neonatal birth weight, birth length, and head circumference.

The DHA fatty acid status of the developing fetuses depends on that of their dam. Pregnancy is associated with a decrease of biochemical fatty acid status and normalization after delivery is slow. Because of the decrease in fatty acid status during pregnancy, the neonatal fatty acid status may not be optimal. However, this status can be optimized by maternal fatty acid supplementation during pregnancy. A dietary source of EPA in combination with DHA should be included in the diet of pregnant and lactating dams. Raw fatty fish, brain, eyes, eggs, liver and supplemental cold water fish oil are sources of essential fatty acids.

A true carbohydrate requirement for dogs has not been demonstrated. Many pet owners and pet food manufacturers insist on adding species-inappropriate vegetables or grains to a dog’s diet claiming that they would eat them along with the stomach and intestines of their prey. Dogs in the wild reflect their preference for animal tissues. The wild dogs’ diet consists mostly of muscle meat and fatty tissue from various animals. Heart, lung, liver and other internal organs are eaten. Bones are crushed to get at the marrow, and bone fragments are eaten as well. Even hair and skin are sometimes consumed. However, when ingesting prey, plant materials contained in the entrails are avoided. For instance, wolves have been observed to ignore the stomach and its contents, and although some vegetable matter is taken separately, it not well digested.

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A true carbohydrate requirement for dogs has not been demonstrated. Many pet owners and pet food manufacturers insist on adding species-inappropriate vegetables or grains to a dog’s diet claiming that they would eat them along with the stomach and intestines of their prey. Dogs in the wild reflect their preference for animal tissues. The wild dogs’ diet consists mostly of muscle meat and fatty tissue from various animals. Heart, lung, liver and other internal organs are eaten. Bones are crushed to get at the marrow, and bone fragments are eaten as well. Even hair and skin are sometimes consumed. However, when ingesting prey, plant materials contained in the entrails are avoided. For instance, wolves have been observed to ignore the stomach and its contents, and although some vegetable matter is taken separately, it not well digested.

Dogs consuming a natural prey diet lack salivary amylase, the enzyme responsible for initiating carbohydrate digestion. All animals have a metabolic requirement for glucose. This requirement can be supplied either through endogenous synthesis (endogenous synthesis refers to the synthesis of a compound by the body) of glucose or from carbohydrate food sources. Metabolic pathways in the liver and kidney use other nutrients to produce glucose through a process called gluconeogenesis. This glucose is then released into the bloodstream to be carried to the body’s tissues. The dog can maintain normal blood glucose levels and health even when fed a carbohydrate-free diet.

The need for a dietary source of carbohydrate during pregnancy and lactation is often debated. During pregnancy, the dam’s needs increase because glucose is a major energy source for fetal development. Similarly, during lactation, additional glucose is needed for the synthesis of lactose, the sugar (disaccharide) that is present in milk. While some studies have shown that carbohydrate-free diets fed to dogs during reproduction have adverse effects, these effects do not occur if the protein and fat levels in the diet are sufficiently high. This indicates that carbohydrate is an indispensable component in the diet, even during the metabolically demanding stages of pregnancy and lactation.

Vitamins and Minerals

The primary vitamins are vitamin A, D, E, K, C, and B complex, all of which must be accounted for prior to, during pregnancy and throughout lactation. Of these, A, D, E, and K are the fat soluble vitamins. Vitamins C and B complex are water soluble. The fat soluble vitamins are commonly stored in special fat storage cells called lipocytes, whereas, the water-soluble vitamins are not stored within the body except in small amounts. Minerals are grouped into macro and micro categories. Macro-minerals are needed in greater amounts in the diet and are found in larger amounts in the body than micro-minerals. Macro-minerals include calcium and phosphorus, magnesium, potassium, sodium and chloride. Micro-minerals include copper, iodine, iron, manganese, selenium and zinc.

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Vitamin A

Vitamin A and pregnancy is a controversial topic. The main source of vitamin A is called carotene and is found in the yellow pigment of plants. Under optimal conditions, dogs can indeed convert carotenes to vitamin A. This occurs in the upper intestinal tract by the action of bile salts and fat-splitting enzymes. Of the entire family of carotenes, beta-carotene is most easily converted to vitamin A. Early studies indicated an equivalency of 4:1 of beta-carotene to retinol. In other words, four units of beta-carotene were needed to produce one unit of vitamin A. This ratio was later revised to 6:1 and recent research suggests an even higher ratio. This means that a dog would have to eat an awful lot of vegetables and fruits to obtain even the daily minimal requirements of vitamin A, assuming optimal conversion. Better sources would include whole fish, liver and animal fats.

Vitamin A is essential for normal cellular differentiation and in regulating organ development in the fetus. Long-term studies have shown that adequate amounts of vitamin A (retinol) are necessary to prevent deformities and provide for normal puppy development during lactation. This vital nutrient is needed for the growth and repair of body tissues; it helps protect mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, throat and lungs; it prompts the secretion of gastric juices necessary for proper digestion of protein; it helps to build strong bones and teeth and rich blood; it is essential for good eyesight; it aids in the production of RNA; and contributes to the health of the immune system. Vitamin A deficiency in pregnancy results in offspring with eye defects, displaced kidneys, harelip, cleft palate and abnormalities of the heart and larger blood vessels.

Concerns about vitamin: An overdose during pregnancy are overly exaggerated. Synthetic forms of vitamin A can indeed be toxic but natural vitamin A found in foods like cod liver oil and liver do not cause problems except in excessive amounts and side effects from large doses of natural vitamin A promptly resolve when the dosage is reduced.

Vitamin D

Vitamin D works synergistically with vitamin A. It is vital to fetal growth, bone development, tooth enamel formation and neonatal calcium balance. Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is important to convert vitamin D precursors into the active D form. This conversion takes place in the outer skin layers. Dogs may have limitations to meet the metabolic need for vitamin D photosynthesis; therefore, should consume a dietary source of vitamin D. Vitamin D is acquired from animal organs such as liver, and egg yolk, fish or fish oils.

Vitamin E

Vitamin E helps to reduce the risk of oxidative stress, which may disturb fetal development. Vitamin E plays a vital role in the health of the immune system along with other antioxidants such as vitamin A, and the minerals zinc and selenium. Vitamin E helps prevent the destruction by free radicals, of vitamin A in the dog’s body. This group of nutrients must be present to ensure the healthy growth of all bodily systems in growing fetuses including the immune and skeletal system. Vitamin E is also involved in the formation of the genetic material – DNA – passed on by both the sperm and the egg. Animal studies have implicated a lack of vitamin E in early termination of pregnancy by resorption or abortion.

B Complex Vitamins

The B-complex vitamins are actually a group of eight vitamins, which include thiamine (B1), riboflavin (B2), niacin (B3), pyridoxine (B6), folic acid (B9), cyanocobalamin (B12), pantothenic acid and biotin. These vitamins are essential for: the breakdown of fats and proteins (which aids the normal functioning of the nervous system), muscle tone in the stomach and intestinal tract, skin, hair, eyes, mouth and liver function. The B vitamins are most effective for health when consumed as a complex, rather than individually. Specifically, folate, B6, and B12 have im0ptant roles during pregnancy.

During the early stages of pregnancy, folic acid (folate), together with cobalamin (B12) and Pyridoxine (B6) are important nutrients that maintain normal healthy development of the neural tube and nervous system; for growth of the fetuses and is vital for cell division from a single cell to a fully developed puppy. Folic acid and vitamin B12 are closely related. They are necessary for the bone marrow to produce red blood cells, and a deficiency of either can lead to advanced anemia. In this type of anemia, the red cells are fewer in number but are larger than normal (macrocytic). The quantity of white blood cells may also be reduced. Vitamin B6 also helps cells to form and is used by the body in the utilization of amino acids. Folate, B6, and B12 are sensitive to heat, oxygen and ultraviolet light. Major dietary sources of these B vitamins include raw organ meats, especially liver, and to a lesser extent, muscle meat.

Vitamin C

Dogs do not have an essential requirement for a dietary source of vitamin C. Under normal conditions, they synthesize vitamin C in their liver which produces the active enzyme L-gluconolactone oxidase, the last of the chain of four enzymes which synthesize ascorbic acid. There is no purpose in supplementing the dog’s diet unless there is a high metabolic need or inadequate synthesis. It is important to note that dietary vitamin C in natural products has a distinct advantage over supplemental synthetic vitamin C, e.g. in supplemental form since food sources also provide a number of other important micronutrients, bioflavonoids, carotenoids, and pectin. Vitamin C, in the form of ascorbic acid and dehydroascorbic acid, is widely available in foods of both plant and animal origin. Fruits, vegetables, and organ meats, e.g. liver, kidney, thymus, spleen and lungs, are generally the best sources.

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Adequate consumption of zinc and conditions for its optimum absorption are required in early pregnancy. The “intelligence” mineral, zinc is required for mental development, for healthy reproductive organs, for protein synthesis and collagen formation. Zinc is involved in the blood-sugar control mechanism and is needed to maintain proper levels of vitamin E in the blood. Zinc deficiency during pregnancy can cause birth defects. It helps organize cells into healthy tissues and organs so the developing fetuses have what is needed when vital organs are being developed. Food sources include various organs and meat.


As its primary function, iron combines with copper and protein to form hemoglobin, the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen. Iron also is necessary for certain enzymes in the body to function normally. Puppies can be born with lower than normal stores of iron if the dam did not receive adequate iron during pregnancy. Feeding supplemental iron to the dam while nursing can not make up for this lack of reserves since this treatment does not increase the iron content of the milk. Puppies with this condition often develop iron deficiency anemia during the nursing period. Iron values in the blood often decrease in the dam near the end of pregnancy. Iron is found in organs, meat and fish.

Calcium and Phosphorus

Calcium and phosphorus are required at levels greater than maintenance to support fetal skeletal development and lactation. During the later stages of pregnancy, iron and calcium requirements significantly increase as the fetuses begin to draw more from the dam to meet their own demands. One of the biggest mistakes made by breeders is to supplement with calcium in the hopes of preventing eclampsia.

Eclampsia is a condition of severe muscular spasms and high temperature that can occur in dams in the period from before birth through to weaning of the pups. It most commonly appears in the two to three weeks following whelping when the dam is at peak lactation. As the dam pours calcium into the milk, she must replace it. That replacement comes from the dam’s food and her bones and it is the bones that the body depends on most. If there are insufficient calcium stores in the bones or if hormones are not available to get calcium from the bones into the blood, the calcium levels will drop resulting in eclampsia.

Although normally unnecessary if feeding a proper diet, the time to add extra calcium to the diet, is after the birth of the puppies, not before. Excessive prenatal calcium may down-regulate parathyroid gland (hormone) secretion and impair normal mobilization of calcium from skeletal stores. As demand for calcium increases during late pregnancy and lactation, calcium homeostasis is no longer able to maintain critical levels. A diet containing sufficient digestible bone supplies calcium to phosphorus in a ratio of 2:1, more than adequate amounts for normal lactation demands.


Magnesium requirements increase during pregnancy due to the synthesis of new tissue – both fetal and maternal. Magnesium may also be important for normal vascular circulation during pregnancy. A severe deficiency during pregnancy may lead to birth defects puppy mortality. Magnesium and calcium work in combination: Magnesium relaxes muscles, while calcium stimulates muscles to contract. Research suggests that proper levels of magnesium during pregnancy can help keep the uterus from prematurely contracting, which results in the onset of labor. Magnesium also helps build strong bones and teeth, regulates insulin and blood-sugar levels, and helps certain enzymes function properly. Food sources of magnesium are found in bones, liver, heart and kidneys.


Selenium is essential for all dogs but especially vital for proper fetal growth and development. The requirement for selenium appears to increase during pregnancy, particularly during the later stages. A lack of selenium, together with vitamin E has been implicated in fading puppy syndrome. Selenium deficiency may result in infertility, miscarriages, and retention of the placenta. Since selenium is a trace mineral, it is only required in small amounts. Selenium is supplied by meat and organs.

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The need for adequate fluid intake deserves some discussion. During reproduction, water serves as a carrier of nutrients and wastes eliminated from the developing fetuses. Other important functions of water intake during pregnancy and lactation are the regulation of body temperature and as an aid in milk production. Fresh water in a clean bowl should be available at all times. Keeping water bowls clean and changing water frequently tend to encourage water consumption. Animal tissue is high in moisture content (75 %+), which contributes to fluid requirements.

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