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Not much is cuter or more cuddly than a puppy, so taking care of newborn ones might seem like an awesome job. It's not -- unless you're the momma dog. Your main role is taking care of her.
Momma starts caring for her puppies the minute they're born by cleaning them off and cutting their cords. Each pup pops out in an amniotic sac with its placenta. Momma breaks the sac, cleans the puppy's face so he can breathe, chews through the cord once it stops beating and eats the placenta. She licks her pups all over to stimulate them and get them interested in eating, and helps them latch onto her nipples. Once they're all out, they should sort themselves into a warm, nursing puppy-and-momma pile.
New pups are completely dependent on their mommy. She provides milk, warmth, even the ability to eliminate. The puppies nurse almost constantly, and spend the rest of their time sleeping. Momma licks their bellies and "diaper areas" to get them to go potty, and then to clean them afterward (it sounds gross to us, but it's nature). Pups should stay huddled up with their mom, brothers and sisters at all times for the first 10 days. After this, their eyes start to open and they'll begin crawling short distances.
Caring for Momma
Your job is to make sure your dog can do her job by keeping her warm, secure, well-fed and comfortable. She needs to be on a whelping formula (special food for pregnant and nursing dogs) or high-quality puppy food. Make sure she has clean, fresh water at all times.
Provide her a safe, secure place to birth and nurse -- use a whelping box, or let her choose an area where she feels safe, but be warned that birth is messy. She'll need bedding to make her nest -- plain newspaper or towels or blankets you're willing to throw away. Keep momma's spot warm, free of drafts and traffic, and dimly lit. Your doggy may not be willing to leave the pups long enough to "do her business," so be prepared to clean up messes for a couple weeks.
Have a vet check momma and litter within the first two days. A house call is best. You should also check mommy and puppies a few times every day. Make sure that the mother's private parts look okay -- greenish black discharge is normal; swelling, bleeding, continued grunting, squatting and pain, or a foul odor are not. Check her breasts every day: swollen, red, hard, painful ones signal mastitis -- a severe danger to mom and pups that needs emergency attention. Stiff movement and pain are the first signs of often-fatal eclampsia. If you notice any of these symptoms, have a vet check immediately.
Some dogs are very defensive of their puppies, even if they love you. If your dog threatens you when you approach her, leave the pups alone for the time being, and consult your veterinarian.
Orphans and Others
It's very rare for a mother dog to abandon or reject her pups, but if you do have a pup or a litter with no mom, you'll have to do everything she would -- feed at least every 2 hours with special puppy formula and puppy-size nipples, stimulate excretion with a warm, wet washcloth or paintbrush, and provide constant heat.
Check the pups throughout the day and night to make sure they're all nursing and huddled together with mom. A puppy away from the crowd desperately needs your help.
If you need to care for an orphaned or rejected pup, seek the guidance of your veterinarian.