How To Tell If A Newborn Puppy Is Dying

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There are few things more exciting than raising a newborn puppy, but few things more distressing than losing that puppy within the first few weeks of its life.

Young puppies are extremely vulnerable, though, and they can seem to go from healthy to dying overnight. How do you know how to tell if a newborn puppy is dying? 

Puppies need to be monitored closely within the first few weeks of their lives to ensure that their health is on track and so that any of the key symptoms of a fading puppy can be dealt with quickly. Even a few hours can make a big difference in a puppy’s life.

How to tell if a newborn puppy is dying

In this article, we will look at why puppies are so vulnerable, the main symptoms to look out for that might warn you that your puppy is dying, and steps that you can take immediately to try and save a dying puppy.

Fading Puppy Syndrome

Puppies are extremely vulnerable within the first few weeks of their lives. They have a very high neonatal mortality rate of around one in five, with larger breeds affected more than smaller breeds. They can seem to go from healthy to gone within a couple of hours.

This neonatal death is often called fading puppy syndrome, as their health fades very quickly. It usually hits puppies within the first three weeks of their lives, but they can suffer from similar problems until they are 10 weeks old.

This happens because puppies have an immature immune system, which can make them very vulnerable to things that other dogs can easily shrug off.

Their bodies are also still learning to self-regulate, which means they are very susceptible to environmental factors that they are unable to adjust for.

They also haven’t yet developed backup systems, such as stored fat, to help pull them through any issues.

Symptoms Of A Dying Puppy

Fading puppy syndrome is actually associated with a variety of different causes, with different symptoms, that we will look at in more detail below.

There are a few key symptoms, though, that should always be warning signs when they are observed in young puppies. These also indicate the main things to look out for when monitoring your puppy’s health.

  • General weakness and lethargy – Watch your puppies, which should become a bit more active every day, and watch out for members of the litter that seem less active than their brothers and sisters.
  • Weight issues – A low birth weight, losing (rather than gaining) weight, or the inability to gain weight are all key symptoms, as they suggest that your puppy is not getting the nutrition that it needs.
  • Poor appetite – While sick pups need nutrition, they can often refrain from eating when not feeling well which can quickly exacerbate their problems.
  • Constant vocalizations – When puppies aren’t feeling well and are in distress, they cry, so watch out for vocalizations. There tends to be a distinct difference between the relative happy (but often surprisingly loud) vocalizations of a litter of pups, and the distressed vocalization of a sick puppy.
  • Self-exclusion – Unwell pups will often stay away from the rest of the litter, so a pup that does not like to feed and sleep with its littermates is often suffering.
  • Diarrhea – When things go wrong in the stomach, things tend to come out wrong as well.
  • Dark yellow urine – This is a clear sign of dehydration and malnutrition.
  • Low body temperature – Puppies have lower temperatures than adult dogs, usually starting around 97 degrees Fahrenheit and increasing to around 101 degrees within the first four weeks of their lives. Anything lower than this is concerning, and anything lower than 94 degrees Fahrenheit can quickly lead to death. Puppies should have their temperatures monitored regularly using a rectal thermometer.

Causes Of Fading Puppy Syndrome

A variety of different things can cause fading puppy syndrome because newborn puppies are so vulnerable, but there are a few common causes to be aware of.

Congenital Defects

Some dogs are born with issues that overcome them within the first few weeks of life. Breeders try to control these, but it’s not an exact science.

This is more common with pedigreed pure-bred dogs than other dogs, as selective breeding makes these issues more likely and prevalent.

Malnutrition

If puppies aren’t getting the nutrition that they need to thrive, they will quickly deteriorate. There are many reasons why this might happen with a puppy.

Problems With Mother’s Milk

While nursing puppies is the most natural thing in the world for a mother dog, just like human mothers, dogs won’t always have enough milk or sufficiently nutritious milk to feed all of their puppies, especially if they have a large litter.

When this is the case, you might see that your puppies look like they are feeding but that aren’t gaining the weight that is expected. Alternately, they could cry a lot when they are trying to feed because the milk simply isn’t there.

Weak Puppies

While a litter of puppies will generally look the same while they are being born, within a few days you will probably notice larger and small puppies.

Smaller puppies often struggle to compete with their larger brothers and sisters for access to their mother’s milk. They also do not always have the strength to latch onto their mothers and suck out the milk that they need.

Rejected By Their Mother

Mother dogs will sometimes reject a single pup or even an entire litter. If they reject the entire litter, it can suggest that there is a problem with the mother’s hormone production.

This happens more often after a c-section than after a natural birth. If they reject just one or two puppies, this can be a survival mechanism.

They instinctively know that they don’t have enough milk for the entire litter, and so reject one or two to give the rest of the litter a better chance at survival.

Poor Glucose Regulation

Baby puppies generally don’t have much body fat, which means they don’t have anywhere to store glucose for later.

This means that if they don’t eat often enough, they can run out of glucose, which leads to hypoglycemia, which can quickly turn fatal. This is why puppies within the first few weeks need to eat about every two hours.

Low Immune System

Puppies are basically born without immunity from anything in the world, but if they drink from their mother within the first 12 hours she can pass on immunity antibodies to give them protection.

If they miss this window for some reason, they can no longer get these antibodies as the walls of their intestines have firmed up and will no longer let them pass through.

This leaves puppies vulnerable to infections and means that even minor injuries can be fatal. It also means that poor sanitation can quickly lead to a decline in health.

Temperature Extremes

Because puppies are born with a lower body temperature than adult dogs, they need several weeks to raise their body temperature and for their bodies to learn how to self–regulate their temperature.

This is part of the reason why small puppies need to stay close to their mother and littermates; they are a source of warmth.

Extremes in temperature, sometimes caused by accidents such as falling in water, can cause a puppy’s temperature to plummet and they have no way of restoring it. This can be fatal.

How To Save A Dying Puppy

Treating a puppy whose health is quickly fading depends on the cause, and you may need to speak to your vet to get a specific diagnosis.

There are, however, generally considered to be four main causes of fading puppy syndrome, all of which require different treatments.

Low Body Temperature

Your puppy’s body temperature becoming too low for any reason is one of the main reasons why young puppies die.

There could be an obvious cause, such as getting caught in the rain, or factors such as malnutrition can cause the body temperature to drop as well.

These puppies will probably feel quite cold to the touch compared to other puppies, and they will probably also be very lethargic. You might notice that they do things to try to warm up, but not all dogs will instinctively do this, which is part of the problem.

You can confirm your dog’s body temperature with a rectal thermometer. Anything below 97 degrees Fahrenheit is worrying. If their temperature is below 94 degrees Fahrenheit, they should be taken directly to the vet.

To treat dogs with a low temperature, you need to warm them up gradually over a few hours. Don’t do it too quickly, as the shock to their system can kill them.

Once they are at a stable temperature, you should ensure that they are in an environment that allows them to maintain that temperature, and check their temperature regularly.

Don’t start feeding them until they are at a safe temperature, as the process of taking in food can further affect their temperature. They are very likely to require bottle feeding during their recovery.

Dehydration & Malnourishment

If a puppy is not able to get the nourishment that they need from their mother’s milk for any reason, they will start to fade quickly since they need a lot of nutrients in these formative weeks.

You will probably notice that the puppy is not feeding and that they are crying or in distress at feeding time. They might also have a dry mouth and dark yellow urine if they aren’t getting all the liquid they need.

If the problem lasts for more than a day or so, you will probably notice that they are falling behind in terms of their weight gain, or even losing weight. You can also pinch their skin, and if it does not spring back quickly, this is a sign of a problem.

These puppies need nourishment, and quickly, and will need to be hand-fed with a formula designed to give them the same nutrients as mother’s milk.

You can find our recommendations for the best milk replacers for puppies here.

You can find our instructions on how to hand-feed a puppy here.

Hypoglycemia

It’s very easy for young dogs to develop hypoglycemia because they don’t have fat reserves to store energy for later, so if they don’t eat regularly, their glucose levels can drop below suitable levels. 

This can result in lethargy, weakness, trembling, and even seizures that can be fatal. Some of the key signs to look out for are discoloration around the gums and of the skin in general.

Treatment requires bringing their glucose levels up into the healthy range. This can be achieved by feeding them sugar water with a dropper every 15-20 minutes.

You will probably need to consult with your vet to test their blood glucose levels and ensure that they have returned to a healthy level.

Insufficient Colostrum Intake

If your puppy did not get the antibodies that they need from their mothers in the first 12 hours of life, through the special post-birth milk known as colostrum, they are set to be very vulnerable to disease and infections.

This is why it is very important to monitor your puppy during the first few hours to ensure that they feed.

If it looks like they will not be able to feed, you can give them a colostrum supplement provided by your vet, but this also needs to happen within the first few hours.

This is probably the least treatable form of fading puppy syndrome.

FAQs

How do you know when a puppy is going to die?

While healthy puppies can start to appear ill quickly, they do show symptoms that are detectable. They will often be weak and seem like they are in distress.

They will also quickly lose weight (we keep a puppy weight chart and monitor newborn puppy weights daily) if they aren’t healthy during the first few weeks of their lives. A low temperature is also a sure sign that something is not right with a newborn puppy.

Can a dying puppy survive?

Depending on what is affecting a puppy’s health, and how quickly they get treatment, a puppy that seems like it is dying can survive.

Puppies are living their lives at high speed, though, and issues can appear and become serious very quickly. Puppies need to be monitored closely during the first few weeks of their lives.

How long does it take a puppy to die?

If a puppy is born with a compromised immune system, it will usually die within the first five days of its life. Puppies are still at high risk for the first three weeks, though, which is when fading puppy syndrome is most likely to occur.

Puppies only really stabilize within their bodies at around 8 weeks of age, and they are at a higher risk until this time.

Why did half of my litter puppies die?

If a large portion of the litter dies, it is often a sign that there was an issue with the mother.

She may have been carrying a virus, or she may have been unable to pass on colostrum or essential nutrients to her pups in the first few hours of life, compromising their immune systems.

Viruses can also spread through the litter quickly since they have so much physical contact.

How many puppies usually die in a litter?

How many puppies survive in a litter depends greatly on the size of the litter. The fewer pups are born at once, the more likely they are all to survive; however, with large litters, for example, eight puppies, it is not uncommon for only 4-5 to survive.

The Verdict

There are many reasons why puppies are extremely vulnerable within the first few weeks of their lives.

They have underdeveloped immune systems, their bodies have still not learned how to self-regulate, and they just don’t have reserves of things like stored fat to protect them against anything going wrong.

This is why around 1 in 5 puppies die within the first few weeks of their lives. This phenomenon is known as fading puppy syndrome.

The best thing that you can do is monitor puppies closely during the first few weeks of their lives so that you can spot problems and symptoms quickly.

The quicker you deal with issues, the less likely they are to develop into something more serious.

Do you have experience with fading puppy syndrome?

Share your thoughts with the community in the comments section below.

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