Puppies, just like human babies, feed on a diet of entirely mother's milk before transitioning to solid foods. Proper timing is vital: Weaning -- the period when puppies stop nursing -- too early puts pups at risk of not getting proper nutrients or social skills from her mother.
What Is Weaning?
Weaning is the process whereby a puppy stops drinking milk or milk replacement formula for nutrition and learns to eat puppy food. When a puppy starts the weaning process, she slowly reduces her dependency on her mother’s care and starts to be more independent. Weaning is usually initiated and completed by the mother, but human intervention is required when dealing with an orphaned pup.
When to Wean
The puppy's mother usually starts the weaning process usually when the puppy is around 3 to 4 weeks old. By the time a pup is 7 or 8 weeks old, she should be completely weaned from her mother and no longer nursing. Orphaned puppies may be weaned around the same age. It’s best not to wean before age 3 or 4 weeks because a whelp needs that time with her mother to learn important socialization and life skills. Her body isn't ready to digest puppy food until that time, either.
At 3 to 4 weeks, the mother naturally initiates the weaning process and can usually complete this transition without intervention. She starts by standing up and walking away from a puppy that is nursing. When the puppy tries to nurse again, the mother will push the puppy away with her nose or discourage the act with a little growl. The hungry pup is forced to look for food elsewhere, thus leading her to eat the same thing the mother eats -- or in your pups' case, a high-quality puppy food your vet condones.
Weaning a Puppy From Her Mother
There are circumstances when you may need to intervene in the weaning process -- for example, if you plan on letting someone adopt the puppy and she needs to be ready to eat dry food before adoption. Create a special area to put the pup for a few hours every day away from her mother. This area should be closed off, warm, draft-free and lined with newspaper. This helps protect the area from potty accidents and from the messy business of learning how to eat puppy food. This time away from her mother will give her time to explore on her own, become self-confident and find her independence. Over time, she should be allowed to be away from her mother for longer periods of time. You should offer a small amount of high-quality puppy food during this time away. In a shallow pie pan, add a bit of water to the puppy food to create a soft texture. This will make it easier for your little one to eat. She may get more food on her body than into her belly at first, but she’ll figure it out. Have a pie pan with a bit of water nearby to drink, although that attempt to drink may turn into an overturned pie pan and an unexpected bath. Before you put her back with her mother, gently wipe her clean with a damp washcloth.
Weaning an Orphaned Puppy
If you are taking care of an orphaned puppy, the weaning process is just a bit different. For the first 3 to 4 weeks of her life, feed the puppy milk replacement formula with a bottle, dropper or syringe. When you start the weaning process, place some milk replacement formula in a shallow pie dish and let the puppy try to lap the milk. Continue to offer bottle feedings until the puppy is consistently lapping milk from the dish. At 4 to 5 weeks, don’t offer bottle feedings anymore. Instead, start to offer kibble that’s been soaked in water to make a gruel consistency. Offer dry food around 5 weeks when the puppy starts to act hungry. This will encourage her to try the dry food. You can still feed her softened food until 7 to 8 weeks. After 8 weeks, she should get only dry food.