Anyone who has witnessed the bringing of new life into the world knows that the miracle of birth is a powerful thing. Mamas of all species have powerful instincts. Even first-time mothers often know what’s best for their little ones without being told.
Dogs are no different from humans in this regard. Female dogs instinctively know how to birth and care for their young. When a new litter is born, maternal instincts tell the mother how to sever the umbilical cord, remove the birthing sac, clean the pups and start feeding them—all on her own!
That’s pretty impressive.
Unfortunately, instinct can also lead a mama dog to do things that we, as humans, find unthinkable. While it’s rare for a mother dog to eat her young, it does happen. If you are the proud owner of an expecting female dog, you may be curious to know why this happens and what you can do to prevent it.
A mother dog’s strongest instinct is to ensure the health of her litter. In the days before dogs were lying around on our couches eating Scooby snacks and getting scritches, this instinct was critical to the survival of the species.
It’s the survival instinct that drives a female dog to sever her umbilical cord and eat her afterbirth. In the wild, these actions deter predators and give her the freedom to move and defend herself and her litter.
Her instinct tells her to prioritize the litter’s health over the health of a single puppy. If the mother senses that a pup threatens the litter, her instinct will be to remove the threat.
It is vital to keep this instinct in mind when discussing the question, “why do dogs eat their puppies?” A dog is not “evil” or “bad” for eating her puppies. She should not be punished for doing so. She is not a monster. She is simply following a deeply ingrained instinct.
Reasons Dogs Eat Their Puppies
Instinct is the main thing that drives a dog to eat their puppies, but there are other reasons too. Some may eat their puppies by accident, some may eat stillborn puppies, and some may be responding to stress or a medical condition.
Here are five answers to the question, “why do dogs eat their puppies?”
The Puppy is Sick
As stated before, a mother dog will prioritize the litter’s health over the health of an individual pup. Many things can cause newborn puppies to get sick and die. Respiratory infections, heart conditions, or improper nutrition in the womb are all things that can cause a puppy to be born sick.
A mother dog can quickly sense if a puppy is sick. When she does, she will have to decide whether it is worth expanding her energy and milk on a puppy that may not survive. Often, the mother will put the pup out of its misery rather than waste precious nutrients.
A sick puppy is also a threat to the litter. Infections and diseases can spread quickly and kill all the puppies. Rather than allow this, a mother dog will remove the threat to spare the rest of the litter.
If you are able, remove the sick puppy from the litter and seek medical attention for it. You may be able to re-introduce the puppy to the litter later.
She Made a Mistake
A mother dog may accidentally kill her puppies, especially if it is her first birth. When the mother removes the birthing sac and severs the umbilical cord, she runs the risk of injuring or even killing the puppy as she does it.
Once a puppy is dead, the mother may decide to eat the body. This is a way for her to regain the precious nutrients and strength she lost during the birth. Those nutrients will ultimately pass to the rest of the litter through her milk.
It is usually best not to intervene with your dog while she is birthing. Her instinct will tell her what to do. However, If you notice she is having difficulty, and you are afraid she might hurt a puppy, it is okay to step in and give her a hand.
She Doesn’t Recognize the Puppy
In rare cases, a mother dog may not recognize her puppies as her own. This is more likely to happen if the puppies were delivered by C-Section. Vaginal birth conveys hormones to the puppies that strengthen their immune systems and mark them to the mother.
Often, if a dog does not recognize the puppies right away, she will recognize them given time. In this case, it is crucial to prevent her from killing or eating the pups, as her maternal instinct may kick in in a few days.
Try hand-feeding the pups and slowly reintroducing them to the mother little by little.
She Is Suffering From Mastitis
Mastitis is a rare condition that affects new mothers. It does not just affect dogs—human mamas can also get mastitis. In dogs, the condition can be fatal for puppies.
Mastitis is an infection of the breast tissue that causes the nipples to become inflamed and sensitive. A dog’s teats can become incredibly painful to the touch, making nursing very difficult.
Young pups do not know that their mama is in excruciating pain. They just know where the milk is. As the pups attempt to feed, the mother may lash out and potentially injure or even kill the puppies.
She may also abandon them or drive them out of the den. Abandonment can be just as deadly as an attack.
If you notice your dog is having trouble nursing her pups or seems to be in pain or lashing out, take her to the vet as soon as possible. Your vet can treat Mastitis and make nursing much more comfortable for your dog.
She Is Stressed
A newborn is stressful! A litter of six or more newborns is six times as stressful! A mother dog has just gone through the harrowing ordeal of birth.
She is probably tired, hungry, scared, and has to deal with a litter of wailing pups.
It’s not difficult to imagine the stress of this situation could cause her to lash out. If she accidentally injures or kills a pup in a moment like this, her predatory instinct could kick in and drive her to eat the puppy. She needs nutrients, after all.
To alleviate the stress for your mama dog, ensure she has plenty of easily available food and water. Do not bother her too much or try to interfere with the litter unless she seems to need help. Remove the father if he is still around—a mama dog can get stressed when a male is near the litter.
It is a grim and unpleasant subject to discuss, but the truth is that mother dogs do eat their babies. It does not happen often, but when it does, it can be traumatizing for a new breeder or owner. The most important thing to remember is that your dog is only following her instinct.
The good news is that you can take steps to prevent this.
Provide your dog with a safe, comfortable place to birth her pups. Give her plenty of food, water, and privacy from other animals. Stay nearby to help her if needed.
Closely monitor your dog during her pregnancy, the birth, and the first few weeks of the pups’ lives. If you notice that the mother is struggling or that something appears to be going wrong, step in and remove the puppy. Then, consult with your veterinarian on how to move forward.