Puppy ailments – (continued) – THE RUNT

We had consciously diverted from this general topic relating to the pup’s well-being during the first weeks of its life in order to address a health situation in cats that we are currently experiencing in Guyana. Practising veterinarians have been encountering a wave of ailments in kittens and young cats, the symptoms of which are reminiscent of a Feline Viral Respiratory Disease Complex (simply but not quite accurately called “Feline Flu”). We spent an inordinately long time (actually, four “Pet Care” columns) explaining all pertinent aspects of this ailment in kittens, young cats, and even mature cats. Pet owners are urged to remain vigilant, and to act immediately once they observe any of the symptoms of the disease in their feline wards.
Thus far, in relation to canine pediatrics, we have discussed “Worm Burdens,” the “Swimmer Syndrome”, “Strangles”, “Hernias”, “Parvovirus”, and the “pups’ relationship with their mother soon after birthing.” We will now recommence our discussion on sickness conditions experienced by puppies even before they become healthy and young adults.

There are certain empirical observations that caregivers notice early in a pup’s life, namely that one (or more) puppy in the litter exhibits slower growth and a general failure to thrive and to attain the body size and weight relative to the other pups, and that which is expected for that specific breed. I will mention below the issue of genetic predispositions as a causative factor for the litter to have one or more runts.
Any physically immature puppy (or kitten) would obviously be at a severe disadvantage due to its inability to compete with its siblings for milk flowing from the mother’s breast. You may remember me explaining how important the mother’s milk is during those first few days of nursing. Also, and this is more from my own empirical experience, the mother herself seems to know which one (or more) of her pups is unusually small and has stunted growth. She tends to reject this small statured individual. She may even crush the weakling and bite it to death, and – horror of horrors – eat it. (Part of “Survival of the fittest” in nature’s plan?).
[I promise that we will, in a future column, address the caregiver’s intervention in nurturing the newborn weakling to viable adolescence].
I should also mention that over the many decades of dealing with this issue of maternal rejection, it has been observed that caring mother dogs do actually nurture the runts of their litters. Further, if perchance there is in the household another nursing mother dog, she would function as a surrogate and accept and nurse the runt from another litter. In fact, I do know that if (for whatever reason) the mother dog dies during childbirth or shortly thereafter, or is unable to produce milk, another nursing dog may be quite willing to nurse the orphaned pups. Such wonders of the animal kingdom do evoke heartwarming emotions!
But back to the more common reality. the runt most likely will exhibit – in addition to the low birth weight – a lack of muscle mass and inadequate layer of fat under the skin. Usually, the runt will show obvious difficulty in its oxygen intake via breathing. We have already mentioned maternal rejection, but the other pups are also competing for the mother’s milk; they are literally fighting for their lives. In such a scenario, the runt cannot compete (=nurse) effectively. As a consequence of this inability, the immature weakling would not only be unable to nurse effectively, but it will not be able to maintain its own body temperature. We have already established that the disadvantaged pup will, in all likelihood, not get any warmth-giving assistance from the mother.
It is important that we recognise that a major cause of subnormal birth weight is inadequate nourishment of the mother during the pregnancy. You can be assured that if all the pups are undersized/ underweight at birth, the mother dog was inadequately fed before and during pregnancy. Further, when even two or three of the newborn pups are undersized, the problem could very well be one of an anatomical deficiency — in this case, a placental insufficiency – stemming from overcrowding of puppies in the womb. Such puppies would be born underweight and undersized because of their compromised development (from lack of space) while in their mother’s womb. In fact, as has sometimes been observed in large litters, the mother expels the pups earlier (prematurely) than expected. If she retains them until full term, other birthing problems (the mom’s) often do arise.
If the obviously disadvantaged pups are to survive, they may soon (after 3 days) have to be separated from their mother and be hand raised.
Of interest: One of my clients has a Rottweiler female who consistently gives birth to 12 (on occasion 13) pups. She, of course, only has ten functioning breasts. You can imagine the postpartum competition for her milk. The owner accepts his losses but has been able to reduce the mortality rate of the newborn pups by an assiduous management protocol in alignment with science-based advice.

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