The First Hour of Life

2010 | Whelping | Dog Breeding Guide, Royal Canin SAS

Fifty percent of stillbirths (death at birth) or neonatal mortalities (death in the first few days after birth) are due to puppy immaturity or poor supervision during whelping.

In the first few hours of life, the immediate needs of puppies are warmth, water and energy


Warmth is one of the most important needs for the well-being of newborns and there are two main ways to achieve right levels of warmth:

Drying the Puppies

From birth up to the age of three weeks, puppies are unable to regulate their temperature, making them very sensitive to cold. Before placing the puppy close to a heating system, they need to be dried with a clean cloth or absorbent paper. Use of a hairdryer is not recommended because this tends to dehydrate a puppy and may even cause burns.

A Warm Environment

The temperature of the whelping box is especially important. Ideally, it should be approximately 30°C during the puppy’s ¬first week of life with the temperature gradually declining as the puppy grows. Temperature is even more important for orphan puppies, who do not have a mother to keep them warm.

  • Check the temperature of the whelping box by placing a thermometer directly into the box rather than on the wall.
  • Infrared lamps are a good way of maintaining the whelping box at the right temperature.
  • Heated pads or hot-water bottles are also an option but their use should be closely monitored due to their potential to cause burns on direct contact with skin.
Always ensure there is a cooler spot in the whelping box, where the mother and puppies can move to and lie down if the temperature is too warm.

The best way of checking the effectiveness of your heating method is by taking the rectal temperature of the puppy. The objective is to keep the puppy’s body temperature above 36° (to protect against canine herpesvirus in particular) but take care not to overheat.


A puppy’s body is approximately 80% water which means they can dehydrate very quickly as their skin does not have the outer protective layer known as the stratum corneum. Relative humidity in the whelping area – that is the percentage of water in the air – should not fall below 55% (65% is ideal). It is a good idea to place a hygrometer, an instrument to measure humidity, close to the whelping box. As the whelping box is warm, the air will dry out faster. You can increase the relative humidity by placing bowls of water or humidifiers in the room.


It is critical that breeders ensure that all puppies are suckling as early as possible, to ensure they receive the colostrum (i.e. the first milk) and also to prevent the risk of dehydration during the first few hours of life. The puppy receives energy from the colostrum but also vital antibodies that help protect it from disease. It is important to guide every newborn puppy to a teat if the mother does not do this herself.

In the event of rejection by the mother or failure of the puppy to suckle properly, is important to measure the puppy’s body temperature. If the puppy’s temperature is below 34°C the puppy will not be able to digest the milk. You should stabilise the puppy’s temperature before trying to get it to suckle or feed from a bottle, otherwise you risk overloading its stomach or inducing vomiting.

Breeds ventilation

Recommended conditions

*Picture content: Recommended ambient conditions in the whelping area.

Picture 1: Right side

Whelping box temperature during the first few weeks of the puppy’s life.

  • Week 1: 30 °C
  • Week 2: 28 °C
  • Week 3: 27 °C
  • Week 4: 24-25 °C

Relative humidity in the room.

  • Ideal relative humidity: 65%
  • Minimum relative humidity : 55%
Exact figures depend on breed and ventilation

Picture 1: Left side

The height of the infrared lamp needs to be regulated

  • First image: The puppies are gathered in a circle under the lamp which suggest the temperature under the lamp is too high, or the lamp is placed too low.
  • Second image: The puppies are positioned close under the lamp, which suggests that it is at the appropriate height.

Picture 2:

If a puppy refuses to suckle, you should take its rectal temperature before trying to feed it with a bottle.

Picture 3:

Development of minimal rectal temperature in puppies.

  • Birth : 35,5 °C+/- 0.5 °C
  • First week: 37 °C
  • Third week : 36 °C to 38 °C
  • Fourth week: 38,5 °C (adult temperature)

Key Points:

  • The aim is to get puppies dry and warm in the first hour of life.
  • Keep the whelping box warm using heating devices, aiming for a temperature of 30°C in the first week.
  • Use a thermometer to monitor the temperature
  • Humidity of the whelping box should not fall under 55% (use of hygrometer advised).
  • Guide the new born to teat if necessary as intake of colostrum is important for immunity and to avoid dehydration.

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