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Canine mom licks her pups to stimulate development

Original Publication Date: May 4, 2015
By C. Sue Furman, Ph.D.

Mother's Day is a time to honor our human and canine moms. Both offer unconditional love to their offspring although they do not show it in quite the same way.

About three weeks before puppies are due, an expectant mother dog may become a bit broody and rumple up covers preparing a nest. This is roughly equivalent to a human mom preparing a nursery for her anticipated bundle of joy.

Pups are born blind and deaf as their eyelids are tightly shut and their ear canals are closed. The young ones are completely dependent on mom. She instinctively nuzzles and licks her newborn pups to clean them and direct them to her ready and waiting milk bar. Such interactions between a mother dog and her offspring have been shown to be essential to the physical and emotional health of both.

Human moms hug a child to show love, but mother dogs continue to show their affection by licking. As a matter of fact, human moms are the only mammalian mothers who do not lick their young. Licking her young after feeding stimulates the urinary and intestinal tracts of the newborns to release urine and feces. Licking also grooms, promotes bonding and hastens maturation of the nervous system. Puppies deprived of maternal licking fail to thrive or survive.

Interaction is important for mom, too. The sight, smell and touch of nursing pups causes mom's pituitary to release the hormones oxytocin and prolactin that play important roles in fostering maternal behavior.

Oxytocin prompts the expulsion of the afterbirth, initiates the flow of maternal milk and promotes the extremely close bond that develops between mom and her young ones. Prolactin controls milk production and fosters the feeling of maternal protectiveness. The hormones help program mom's undivided attention.

Pups primarily suckle milk and sleep for 10 to 14 days when their eyes and ear canals open. It takes a while longer before their vision is truly as sharp as it will be as an adult, but hearing is quite acute at that time. A whole new world is opened, and the offspring begin to explore their surroundings under the watchful eye of their mom.

Momma dog continues to care for her pups but gradually encourages them to become more self-sufficient. At about four weeks of age, pups start to eat solid food and mom begins weaning them. She continues to watch over them until they become completely independent.

Mother dogs do not have the long-term commitment to their young that humans have, but her love is strong. Pups are independent and ready to leave mom for a new forever home around eight weeks of age. They still need lots of love, supervision, guidance, and training from their new human family, but they come prepared to offer a lifetime of unconditional love in return.

Sue Furman, Ph.D, has published two books and a DVD on canine massage and teaches classes in pet massage, acupressure, first aid and CPR. See her schedule and submit questions at