CHAPTER 9 Care of the Orphaned Puppy and Kitten
Puppies and kittens may require hand rearing for a variety of reasons; the most obvious is death of the mother. However, some mothers are agalactic, have mastitis, have an underlying disease, or are so debilitated that they cannot care for the litter. Occasionally, litters are so large the dam is incapable of supplying adequate nutrition to the offspring. Some neonates are much smaller or weaker than their siblings and have difficulty competing, thus necessitating hand rearing to improve their chances of survival.
A common assumption is that most neonatal orphans die from infectious disease. However, the majority of orphan puppy and kitten deaths are due to caregiver error by either a delay in identifying a problem or inadequate husbandry knowledge or technical capability to correctly respond. Normal puppies and kittens should eat or sleep for 90% of the day for the first 2 weeks of their lives; if not, all efforts should immediately be directed at identifying the source of their discontent.
Orphans are at higher risk of infection because of a variety of factors, including but not limited to a decreased immune response secondary to stress and not receiving local antibodies from their mothers’ milk. Visits from individuals outside the home should be limited. Handling of the litter should be primarily restricted to the caregiver; and everyone should wash their hands before handling the neonates.
Orphaned puppies and kittens along with their mothers and littermates should receive complete physical examinations to ascertain the possible cause of the abandonment. Often, abandoned neonates have significant medical problems, including hypothermia, hypoglycemia, dehydration, and a variety of congenital malformations that need to be addressed. Dams that are preeclamptic secondary to low calcium levels often are nervous and poor mothers and may savage their young.
Fostering is an excellent approach for managing abandoned or orphaned puppies and kittens. Fostering, if successful, allows issues of proper nutrition, stimulation to eliminate, and temperature control to be managed by the surrogate mother. This approach is not without risk as some bitches or queens may neglect or attack and kill the adoptive puppies and kittens. Successful foster mothers usually accept and nurse orphan neonates immediately. Often, caregivers try to put some odor from the natural offspring onto the adoptive neonates to aid in the process. This is not always necessary; however, care should be taken to monitor the interaction between the new foster mother, her offspring, and the orphan neonates, particularly early in the adoptive process.
Control of the physical environment is very important. Orphans need a dry, warm, draft-free, and comfortable nesting box. The nesting box should have sides that are tall enough so the neonates cannot climb out when unattended and get chilled. The nesting box should be easy to clean. However, there are risks with materials that are easier to clean, since they can often be a tremendous heat sink; for example, stainless steel cleans easily, but any neonate coming into contact with this material will rapidly chill.
Plastic sweater boxes work very well as nesting boxes; heating pads can be set on low under a portion of the box. This will limit the risk of moisture conducting heat from the electric heating pad, inducing significant burns of the neonates. One drawback of plastic or glass containers is that they are not absorbent, so care should be taken to deal with any fluids that may end up in the box. Some caregivers advocate locating the nesting box at table height, since neonates receive closer attention if caregivers do not have to bend over (Figure 9-1). Nesting boxes should not be placed near heating vents or air conditioning ducts.
(From Poffenbarger EM, Olson PN, Ralston SL, et al: Canine neonatology. Part II: Disorders of the neonate, Compend Contin Educ Pract Vet, 13:25-37, 1991.)
Once puppies reach to 5 weeks of age and are much more ambulatory, the use of a child’s plastic swimming pool works well as a housing solution. These pools are inexpensive and easily cleaned. Additionally, standard-sized folding exercise pens will fit firmly around the pool, keeping the puppies contained. Rubber-backed floor mats with close cloth nap work well as bedding, providing excellent footing and warmth. These are easily removed and cleaned, and when used as a pair, can be rotated so while one is in use the other is being cleaned and dried.
Bedding material should be soft, absorbent, nonabrasive, and easily cleaned and should comfortably insulate the neonate from heat loss. Bedding should provide good footing and be incapable of bunching up and trapping the neonate. Many breeders like newspaper (some purchase unprinted newspaper from local newspaper publishers) because it is easily obtained, absorbent, and inexpensive. Other caregivers (including this author) prefer fabric because it tends to provide better footing; however, material should be selected that does not allow the neonates nails to snag. Poor bedding will retain moisture, dissipating the heat away from the puppies and allowing increased bacterial growth. Regardless of how appropriate the bedding material employed, it must be kept clean or changed frequently.
Environmental temperature control is important for a variety of reasons. Normal rectal body temperature in the first week of life is considerably lower than in adult dogs or cats. Neonatal puppies and kittens do not generate heat by movement and do not have an active shiver reflex until about 6 days of age, relying on the environment and brown fat for thermogenesis. In the first week of life, normal body temperature is 95° to 97.5° F (35° to 36° C). In the second and third weeks of life, before the puppy or kitten is actively crawling and walking consistently, normal body temperature ranges from 98.6° to 100.0° F (36° to 38° C).
Puppies and kittens rely on environmental temperatures to keep warm, particularly early in life. Room temperature during the first few weeks of life should be no less than 72° F (22° C). Remember that floor temperatures are significantly lower than thermostat height (heat rises).
Requirements for strict temperature control are particularly needed when there is a single orphan. When there are multiple neonates, they will huddle together to preserve their heat. Neonates in the first week of life need an incubator-like environment with temperatures approximately 85° to 90° F (29° to 32° C). The nesting box temperature can then be dropped to 80° F (26.5° C) for the next 3 to 4 weeks (Table 9-1).
|Age in days||Nesting box temperature||Normal neonatal body temperature|
|0-7||85° F (29° C)||96-98° F (35.5° C-36.5° C)|
|8-28||80° F (26.5° C)||99° F (37° C)|
|29-35||75° F (24° C)||100.5° F (38° C)|
|35+||70° F (21° C)||100.5° F (38° C)|
A variety of heat sources are available; however, radiant heat is preferred. Hot water bottles wrapped in towels are effective but can be frustrating since they are labor intensive and necessitate frequent monitoring and reheating. The use of heat lamps is common; however, drawbacks include poorer humidity control and increased risk of burning down the house, kennel, or cattery. Another disadvantage of the heat lamps is that many kittens dislike the open bed required for their use. Heating pads are avoided by some as they can generate inconsistent temperatures (the low setting on one pad can be significantly different from another pad) and are much more likely to induce thermal burns (or scalding) if moisture soaks through from the neonate to the electric pad. Heating pads set on low with some moisture barrier between the pad and the neonates is the most common heat source employed. Very young neonates do not respond well to high environmental temperature and cannot be relied on to crawl away if overheated.
Correct humidity should be 55% to 65%; less humidity is dehydrating and more increases the chances for bacterial growth and subsequent infection. The risk of dehydration is high in the newborn, since 82% of their weight is water. Glomerular filtration rates are 21% of those of the adult at birth but increase in function to 53% by 8 weeks of age.
Minimizing stressful situations is important, allowing the neonates to sleep, eat, and grow. Orphaned neonates are already stressed as they try to cope with a new environment and life without the calming effects of their mothers. Areas with lots of foot traffic and noise increase the stress level. Overhandling, particularly by children, significantly increases stress levels and should be avoided until the neonates are at least 3 to 4 weeks old. High stress levels decrease the immune system, increasing the risk of infection, and can have potentially detrimental effects on future socialization. Some kennels and catteries use pheromone dispensers in the nursery area (Feliway for cats from Veterinary Products Laboratories, Phoenix, AZ, and Dog Appeasing Pheromone for dogs from CEVA Animal Health Inc., Manchester, MO) in an attempt to minimize neonatal stress levels.
Proper hygiene is vital because puppies and kittens have a variety of structural, metabolic, and immune conditions that, although normal for their age, make them more susceptible to infectious disease. Orphans are at greater risk for infectious disease, and the owner should be meticulous about cleanliness of bedding and feeding supplies. The number of individuals handling the orphans should be kept at a minimum, and everyone should frequently wash their hands.
Cleaning and disinfecting should not be considered as synonymous because few disinfectants work well in the face of organic debris; therefore proper cleaning should occur before disinfecting the area. Proper cleaning consists of mild soap, warm water, and elbow grease. This activity along with frequent removal and washing of bedding material needs to be accomplished before any disinfecting activity.
Proper selection of disinfectants is important and care should be taken to keep these from becoming environmental toxins. Neonates have very thin skin and transdermally absorb toxins more readily than adults. Additionally many disinfectants are significant respiratory irritants at higher concentrations. The owner should be particularly careful with cleaning agents such as pine oils and phenols. Overuse of bleach or other disinfectants or employing high concentrations of these products put the neonates at risk.