When puppies die after birth, many breeders just figure it was inevitable or there was something not quite right with the puppy. I think that’s very incorrect. Puppies who are born alive at full term, barring major cardiac or digestive abnormalities, get SICK and die; they were not destined for heaven from the beginning. And there are a lot of things you can do, as a breeder to address the causes of those illnesses. One of the most important is the use of FFP, or fresh-frozen plasma.

Sarah – of Syd and Breezy and Kane – said that we need a What to Expect book for whelping. Which is absolutely true; there aren’t any out there. I am by no means experienced enough in whelping to write one, but I am going to try to gather bits and pieces of the things I DO know, and write them all down.

Puppies are in some ways like little machines; they need sugar, fats, proteins, and water; they need oxygen and warmth and stimulation. When any of those is missing, the puppy will die like a machine dies, for lack of gas. But puppies also need something else, which is the ability to fight off diseases and bacteria. They have almost none of that on their own as newborns; what they rely on is what their mom gives them through the placenta and her colostrum.

In a perfect world, the mom’s colostrum will have antibodies and disease-fighters and coagulative factors that are primed to attack everything that a puppy could come in contact with. And, in most whelpings, it does. But sometimes a disease or bacteria or virus comes along that the mom has never experienced, which means that she had no way of giving antibodies to her puppies for it. She herself will usually show almost no symptoms while she’s fighting this new disease, but her puppies will go into crisis and die. Other bitches – this is common in Dobermans with parvo, for example – will have been exposed but have a very low antibody titer and will not give enough antibodies to the puppies to last them until they’re able to get the first parvo vaccine.

This is something that many breeders and vets had seen; when it’s in the first two weeks of life it’s often attributed to canine herpesvirus or a similar vague disease. Post-mortems on dead puppies are almost always inconclusive. Later parvo will take a whole litter at an age when the mom’s protection should have been perfectly strong enough to protect the puppies.

What a few vets, most notably Jean Dodds of Hemopet (she of thyroid and other testing fame), wished they could provide was some form of perfect colostrum, one that would fill in the gaps left by an unexposed mother.

They found that blood, specifically the blood of dogs they knew had been exposed to diseases and were showing high titers for antibodies, would work.

More than twenty years ago I was told that if you had a newborn calf or goat kid or lamb whose mom had died before giving colostrum, the way to protect them was to take blood from one or more adults in the same herd and either spin it down or let it separate, then feed the newborn the serum and plasma that rose to the top. So this is not a new idea and it’s been working for a long time.

What’s new enough that most breeders don’t know about it is that it’s commercially available from a colony of dogs that are constantly tested to make sure that their blood offers the antibody levels that will protect puppies against the diseases that most commonly kill before the age of eight weeks. And it’s not even that expensive.

The way FFP works is as a supplement to or replacement for colostrum. In the first 24-36 hours of a puppy’s life, its intestines are not ready to digest food. What they are ready to do is absorb things whole. Instead of having the tiny little pores that let in the digested amino acids and broken-down fats and so on, newborn intestines have big giant pores that let in entire undigested proteins and antibodies. So colostrum – or FFP – given orally will be absorbed into the bloodstream and become an immune system for the puppy.

(As an aside, this is why you never bottlefeed or tube milk to a newborn puppy. Their guts will absorb those milk proteins whole and that’s not good for them. If you have to give energy to a newborn puppy, they can have glucose water or similar but they should not have milk until they are 24 hours old and the intestinal pores have closed.)

The way you give FFP is to get the puppy warm, dry, and wiggling. Then give, via syringe or tube, 3-5 mls per pound of puppy. That’s it. You’re done. For the tiniest of newborns you can split the dose into two, 12 hours apart, if you’re concerned about giving too much liquid orally. You can also use FFP later in life to fight disease that’s already taking hold in the litter, but in those cases you have to give it via IV or injection because the pores of the intestines have closed. That’s why it’s so much easier to give the litter an insurance policy against disease by giving it orally at birth.

The best source for FFP: Hemopet. The last time I checked, the cost for the FFP itself was very reasonable, under $20 per 12-ml vial, and shipping is another $40 or so. The vials last a year in the freezer and can be re-frozen after being warmed. As soon as I confirm that Clue is pregnant, I’ll be ordering several vials. One less thing to worry about would be very nice.