Reproductive success in the dam should be defined as the generation and weaning of an adequately sized litter of healthy viable puppies reflecting the genetic potential of the dam (mother) and sire (father), while preserving the health of the dam. The choice of the correct nutrition, and the feeding regimen, will provide the dam with all the necessary nutrients for health, and allow the puppies to grow and develop properly. Here we look at the importance of nutrition in the pre breeding phase focusing on ingredients proven to make a difference.
At the beginning:
Of course prior to any mating, the dam should be in ideal health. An important note to remember is that the reproductive process does not begin at mating, but several weeks prior to the mating process when ovarian follicles are being recruited for the upcoming cycle.
The dam should be:
- Up to date with all vaccinations
- Free from infections and disease
- Free from parasites
- In optimal physical condition
- Exercised regularly and maintained on a diet that matches energy needs
- The breeding dam should have evident muscle tone, but also have a slight degree of body fat. This body condition will help promote a healthy hormone system that will influence the degree of reproductive success
- If the dam is too thin there is an increased risk she will produce a small litter or have problems during lactation, provided she conceives
- If the dam is overweight there is an increased risk of dystocia (abnormal or difficult birth)
Long lasting effects?
Nutrition and the health of the pregnant bitch are likely to have a long lasting effect on the health and longevity of her puppies. It has been recognised in humans that birth weight and growth in the first 1-2 years of life has a profound effect on the risk of subsequent disease in humans. Interestingly the effects on the placenta are also involved and the subject of research in humans1-3.
Probably unsurprisingly to most, birthweight and placental development have effects on longevity in humans too. It has become very clear after many studies in humans that effects in utero are very important. Rather frustratingly though there are no observations looking at the effect of birth weight or placental size on the risk of subsequent disease in dogs but according to Specialist in Small Animal Medicine, Dr. Penny Watson (Queen’s Veterinary School Hospital, Cambridge), it is very likely that there is an effect which could be exaggerated by the fact that dogs have litters with multiple puppies.
Which nutrients have been proven to help?
Nutrition has long been recognised as an influential factor in dam reproduction4-7. Any inadequacies of a diet may not be severe enough to halt the dam from reproducing; however, they most likely will prevent her from performing to her genetic potential.
During the reproductive process, a dam’s diet must support: 1) her body maintenance, 2) the growth of her reproductive tissues, and 3) the growth and development of her offspring, so the dam must obtain a sufficient supply of nutrients from her diet or mobilise them from her body stores. Should her diet fail to meet the required nutrient levels, she will respond by sacrificing her own body condition and will mobilise nutrients from fat, muscle and skeletal tissue. In extreme cases, her only solution may be to reduce the demand by decreasing the number of offspring or by completely aborting the pregnancy.
There are some key nutrients that should be highlighted, as recent data shows that their inclusion is very important for the dam and puppies.
a) Fish oil to aid learning and development
One of the most important nutrients in the dam’s diet right from the start of pregnancy needs to be the omega-3 fatty acid called Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). This fatty acid, found in fish oil and other fish based ingredients, is important for the correct development of the brain. Its inclusion in the diet of human mothers during pregnancy and while feeding, is widely advocated. Babies actively take up DHA while in the uterus especially during the last 3 months of pregnancy as well as in the neonatal period. Improvements in IQ, eyesight, and learning have all been shown to be a result of increased DHA intake.8-9
What about dogs? Eukanuba performed the first observation on DHA and learning in puppies10. In a carefully controlled groundbreaking observation, the effect on learning of a high, or low, DHA level in the diet of pregnant dams and their puppies was identified. The results clearly show that puppies receiving high levels of DHA during pregnancy, lactation, and then after weaning, have significantly better learning capabilities compared to puppies raised on low DHA levels.
b) Optimal omega-6:omega-3 balanced diet
An optimal omega-6:omega-3 fatty acid ratio in the range of 5:1 to 10:1 when fed throughout the reproductive cycle results in fewer missed conceptions, a reduced number of stillbirths and more consistent-sized litters. It is not fully understood yet why a diet higher in omega-3 fatty acids should produce more favourable results but may be linked to the role of omega-3 fatty acids in the development of the lungs. All Eukanuba formulas contain this optimal ratio of omega 6 & 3 fatty acids.
- Select a commercially available premium food with animal-based protein sources that is recommended for gestation and lactation and is produced by a reputable company, such as Eukanuba Performance/Working and Endurance.
- Approximately two weeks prior to breeding, the dam should be transitioned (if necessary) from her maintenance diet to a diet comprised of approximately 30% highly digestible animal-based protein and 20% fat.
- The lipid portion of the diet should be balanced for fatty acid content to supply an omega-6 to omega-3 fatty acid ratio in the range of 5:1 to 10:1. To aid puppy development the diet should be high in the omega-3 fish oil DHA.
- The exact amount of food required will vary depending on breed and metabolic rate; however, caloric intake should be similar to maintenance levels, thus avoiding over-feeding the dam.
It is extremely difficult to achieve a complete and balanced diet using these recipes. Home-made diets can often be deficient in vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients and are undefined with regard to amino acid and fatty acid levels. They may also vary over time due to an inconsistent ingredient supply.
- Barker, D.J.P. et al., 2012. Rescource allocation in utero and health in later life. Placenta, 33 (S2), pp. e30-e34
- Painter, R.C., Roseboom, T.J. & Bleker, O.P., 2005. Prenatal exposure to the Dutch famine and disease in later life: An overview. Reproductive Toxicology, 20(3), pp. 345-352
- Flouris, A.D. et al., 2009. Effect of seasonal programming on fetal development and longevity: Links with environmental temperature. American Journal of Human Biology, 21(2), pp. 214-216
- Nutritional recommendations for gestation and lactation in the dog. Mosier JE. Vet Clin N Am 1977; 7: 683-692.
- Feeding to optimize canine reproduction efficiency. Moser E. Prob Vet Med 1992; 4:545-550.
- Prenatal development. Evans HE. In: Evans HE, ed. Miller’s Anatomy of the Dog. 3rd edition. Philadelphia, PA: W.B. Saunders Company,1993; 32-97.
- Book of the Dam: A Complete Guide to Under-standing and Caring for Dames. Evans JM, White K. New York: Howell Book House, 1997
- Duration of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids availability in the diet and visual acuity. Morale SE, Hoffman DR et al. Early Hum Dev 2005; 81(2): 197-203.
- Effect of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids in infant formula on problem solving at 10 months of age. Willatts P, Forsyth JS et al. Lancet 1998; 352: 688-91.
- Effect of dietary fish oil on puppy trainability (abstract). Kelley RL, Lepine AJ et al. In Proceedings. Preconf Workshop 6th Int Soc Study Fatty Acids Lipids Cong 2004: 51