Milk replacers for puppies

Public domain photo by Gail Forsyth

Public domain photo by Gail Forsyth

In a recent study,1 researchers compared commercial dog milk replacers with actual dog milk. How close did the purchased products come to the real thing?

Unfortunately, not very.

The researchers obtained samples of 15 commercial milk replacers and milk from 5 healthy dogs who were nursing puppies between the ages of 2 and 3 weeks. They analyzed the calorie content of the samples as well as the concentrations of a number of nutrients. The researchers focused especially on fatty acid and amino acid profiles because of the importance of these nutrients in neonatal development.

Their findings? The 15 commercial products varied widely in nutrient composition — except for the ones that turned out to be the exact same product, packaged under different brand names — and in general, they did not closely match the nutrient composition of dog milk. Some had nutrient profiles that could potentially cause serious problems (low calcium, low calorie density, and high lactose, to name a few) and included inappropriate feeding instructions on their labels. Essential fatty acid content was generally too low.

Many of the commercial products had lower levels of essential amino acids than did the dog milk samples. Deficiency of at least one of these amino acids, arginine, has been implicated in cataract formation in Newfoundland puppies fed commercial milk replacers.2 Since dog milk replacers are based on cow or goat milk, and since ruminants like cows and goats do not require dietary arginine, it is not surprising that the milk replacers tended to be deficient in this nutrient. One of the milk replacers was, in fact, 100% goat milk. Although the goat milk was actually a better match for dog milk than were some of the other products, the authors did not recommend it because it was not the best match overall and because it had an excessive lactose content. High lactose levels can cause diarrhea and consequent dehydration.

So which milk replacer should you use? It’s unclear from this study. Although the researchers listed the brands tested in the report, they did not specify nutrient content by brand. I suspect this was because of the study design: they tested only one sample of each brand because of budget limitations, and they probably did not like to make brand recommendations based on such a small sample size. (It’s also possible that none of the samples were close enough to dog milk to be recommended.)

There are any number of homemade milk replacer recipes on the Internet, but I would be very surprised if any of them would fare better in testing than commercial products. The first recipe I turned up on an Internet search included raw egg yolk (do I have to explain why this is a very bad idea for a neonate? At least the recipe could have specified pasteurized eggs.).

My small animal nutrition textbook lists 4 milk replacer options: commercial milk replacers that were on the market at the time of publication, evaporated (not skim) milk mixed with water, canned puppy food mixed with water, and a mixture of whole milk, vegetable oil, and infant vitamins.3

My own recommendation? Find a nursing mother dog to take on the pups, if you can — though we all know how likely that is. I would still use a commercial product if real dog milk isn’t available, and (although there may be no difference at all) I would feel better using a brand that has been around a long time, like Esbilac. Puppies usually start solids around 4 weeks of age. When you’re hand-raising orphaned pups, there is an almost irresistible temptation to give yourself a break and give them a pan of watered-down canned food as soon as they can stand up and walk around in it. Given the results of this study, I think this is actually a good idea. Just keep in mind that canned food is not as digestible as milk. The general recommendation for the amount to feed newborn pups, according to the study authors, is 25 kcal/100 g body weight per day, divided among several feedings. I won’t go into feeding techniques in this blog, but your veterinarian or veterinary technician can help. (Tube feeding can work well, but it is best learned in person from someone with experience.) Also, as always, my recommendations are very general; talk to your vet about what’s best for your own puppies.

What’s an even better option for orphaned puppies, failing a convenient nursing mama dog who will adopt them? Manufacturers who will do their own analyses and supplement their formulas with the appropriate nutrients. The complication is that the proper nutrient profile for canine milk replacers is, as the study authors put it, “not clearly defined.”  More studies would be useful.

References:
1.  Heinze CR, Freeman LM, Martin CR, Power ML, Fascetti AJ.  Comparison of the nutrient composition of commercial dog milk replacers with that of dog milk. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2014 Jun 15;244(12):1413-22.
2.  Ranz D, Gutbrod F, Eule C, Kienzle E.  Nutritional lens opacities in two litters of Newfoundland dogs.  J Nutr. 2002 Jun;132(6 Suppl 2):1688S-9S.
3.  Lewis LD, Morris Jr ML, Hand MS.  Small Animal Clinical Nutrition, 3rd ed.  Topeka, KS: Mark Morris Associates, 1987.

© Laurie Anne Walden, 2014.

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