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Why Do Dogs Eat Their Puppies? Expert Explains - PawSafe
Dog Behavior

Why Do Dogs Eat Their Puppies? Expert Explains

Photo of Tamsin De La Harpe

Written by Tamsin De La Harpe

why do dogs eat their puppies

Dog owners can be startled to witness the distressing scene of a mother dog eating her own puppies. This behavior, though shocking, has several underlying reasons that might explain why it happens. One consideration is the mother’s instinct to protect the rest of the litter. If a puppy is born with problems or dies, the mother dog may eat it to protect the other puppies.

Another reason could be related to the mother’s mental state or health. A new mom may get too stressed or not know how to care for her puppies, so she might act strangely, like eating them. In fact, Dr. Laura Mathews, a Zoologist, tells us that this isn’t just a random act. It’s a well-known behavior in the animal world, called filial cannibalism. This article will also look at how to prevent a dog eating her puppies below, according to research on Kangal dogs who had a history of eating their pups.

In nature, survival often leads to tough choices. If a mother dog finds herself unable to support her entire litter, she may consume her offspring to preserve her strength. This act is called filial cannibalism. It’s not done to be cruel, but to help the mother survive and care for future litters in better conditions.

Sometimes, when a mother is overwhelmed and resources are scarce, she may eat her entire litter to start over. Other times, only part of the litter is eaten, allowing the mother to redirect her energy to the remaining puppies.

The behavior might be unsettling, but it’s because the mother wants to protect herself and her future puppies. It’s important to tell apart natural behavior from cultural practices. In some places, people eat dogs. But this is a choice that people can make. However, in the case of dogs, this behavior is often just a natural consequence of stress and instinct.

It is actually normal for certain animal species, like dogs, to ensure their survival and species’ health. 

Key Takeaways

  • A mother dog may eat her puppies to protect the surviving litter from predators.
  • Inexperience or stress in mother dogs can contribute to this behavior.
  • Nutritional deficiencies might drive a mother to cannibalize her offspring.

Before we explain all the complex reason for this traumatic behavior, let’s note that you can actually do a lot to stop it from happening, starting with medication.

How Do You Stop a Dog from Eating Her Puppies?

Worried your dog might munch on her pups? Scientists found a cool fix. They tried a synthetic hormone, carbetocin, on 19 Kangal dogs known for this behavior. Here’s the deal: they gave them this hormone every 6 hours for 10 days right after the pups were born. And guess what? It worked like a charm! None of the mama dogs went all weird on their babies, and there were no bad side effects. Looks like we’ve got a nifty new way to keep those pupper families safe and sound.

Now let’s look at why mothers may kill their puppies in the first place.

Canine Maternal Behavior

When you’re trying to understand why a dog might eat her puppies, it’s crucial to consider her natural maternal behaviors. These can include protective instincts and certain stress responses.

Protective Instincts

Your dog’s protective instincts are key to her puppies’ survival. Normally, a mother dog is incredibly attentive to her litter. She constantly licks and nuzzles them, keeping them clean and facilitating bonding. Through these actions, a mother dog ensures warmth, safety, and helps her puppies learn how to interact socially within the pack.

Stress Responses

However, stress can significantly alter your dog’s typical maternal behaviors. When a mother dog is feeling stressed, you might notice behaviors like:

  • Pacing;
  • Whining; and
  • Neglecting her puppies.

High levels of stress can lead to extreme measures. A stressed mother might, in rare cases, harm or eat her puppies. This can be a response to:

  • Perceived threats: If the environment feels unsafe, she might sadly see the puppies as a liability.
  • Resource scarcity: If food or water are scarce, she might be driven by the primal urge to survive.
  • Health issues: If the puppies are ill or weak, she may intervene in a misguided attempt to remove the weakness from the litter.

Young and Inexperienced Mothers

You might find it shocking but sometimes young mother dogs, who are mere puppies themselves, struggle with their new role. Stress is a significant factor here; imagine being thrown into a situation you’re completely unprepared for. New, young mothers might abandon their litter, overwhelmed by the crying and constant need for attention.

  • Stressful scenarios:
    • Abandoning the litter;
    • Accidental harm due to careless stepping; and
    • Inability to cope with the puppies’ cries.

Consider a young mother dog. They don’t understand why their pups are crying or how to properly pick them up without causing harm. In your mind’s eye, you can see how a mother might accidentally step on her pup. The pup’s cries grow louder, the mother’s stress levels skyrocket, and her maternal instincts could tragically misfire.

At times, this extreme distress might lead to more heartbreaking outcomes. When a young mother is stressed by injured or crying puppies, she may become aggressive . This could cause her to harm them more or, in some cases, even kill and eat them. It’s an unintended consequence of inexperience and the panic of the chaos they’re thrown into.

  • Possible outcomes of heightened stress:
    • Aggression towards pups;
    • Unintentional further injury; and
    • In the worst cases, infanticide and cannibalism.

Remember, these actions are not cruel. They are confused behaviors from a first-time dog mom overwhelmed by motherhood. She lacks the maturity and experience to handle the demands.

Biological Factors

To understand why dogs eat their puppies, we need to look at evolutionary and health factors.

Evolutionary Perspectives

You might find it shocking, but for some canines, eating their puppies is rooted in natural instinct. Mothers with larger litters often face a heartbreaking choice. In the canine world, not all pups are created equal — those that are smaller or less vigorous may not survive. A mother dog may repel a weaker pup to focus her energy and resources on the stronger ones. It’s a survival tactic; one that ensures the healthiest of her litter thrive.

These smaller puppies are usually called runts. So to give them the best chance of survival, make sure to read our article on how to fatten up a runt puppy.

Sometimes, a mother might eat a dead or weak puppy to stay strong and feed her other puppies. This act can also protect the healthy puppies from diseases that might come from a sick sibling and make sure the strong puppies have more milk to go around.

Health Issues in Puppies

Fading puppy syndrome is a sad but real concern within litters. Puppies born with an inability to properly nurse or fight off infections might not survive the critical early days.

  • Mothers instinctively detect these issues and may isolate a fading puppy, which can include:
    • Pushing it away: Prevents it from consuming milk needed by healthier pups.
    • Cannibalism: A grim reality where a mother might consume the weak to provide for the strong.

Injuries too, small or accidental, can occur in a litter, resulting in a pup’s demise. A mother dog will occasionally remove the remains of an injured or squashed puppy from the immediate environment. This measure prevents the attractant of predators and the spread of decay within the confined space shared with the living puppies.

Hormonal Issues

Dogs may kill their puppies due to low levels of serum oxytocin and lipids (fats), as found in a study on Kangal dogs. The research showed that dogs with a history of maternal cannibalism had significantly lower levels of oxytocin and lipids like HDL, LDL, and cholesterol compared to those with normal postpartum behavior. 

These findings suggest that oxytocin is crucial for normal maternal behavior in dogs, and low lipid levels might contribute to abnormal maternal actions. This indicates that these factors should be considered in dogs exhibiting unusual maternal behavior.

Genetics

When you think about behaviors in dogs, genetics might not be the first thing that pops into your head, but it plays a big role. Just like how you can inherit your mom’s eye color or your dad’s knack for music, dogs can inherit behaviors from their parents too.

Inherited Behaviors:

  • Specific behaviors can weave through generations, becoming part of a dog’s genetic code.
  • Just like certain physical traits are inherited, a dog’s maternal instincts can also be passed down.

Mother to Pup:

  • If a female dog had a mother that wasn’t exactly nurturing, there’s a higher chance she might struggle with motherhood herself.

Breed-Specific Traits:

  • Some breeds have been tailored for aggression, which can unfortunately spill over into their parenting, making them more likely to harm their young.

Remember, these genetic traits aren’t dogma; not every dog from an aggressive line will be a bad parent. But just like humans, dogs’ genes can set the stage for their behaviors.

Mapping Genetics to Behavior

Genetic TraitBehavioral Outcome
AggressionPotential harm to puppies
Poor Maternal InstinctsIncreased risk of neglect or harm

It’s a mix of nature and nurture, with genetics scripting a part of the story before the pups even enter the world.

Environmental Influences

When you’re considering why mother dogs might consume their young, it’s crucial to look at the environmental pressures they face. Stressors in their surroundings can lead to such extreme behavior.

Nesting Impulse

You might notice mother dogs are extremely protective of their space when they have pups. This nesting instinct is strong and sometimes can turn tragic if they feel their puppies are in danger or if a puppy seems to threaten the wellbeing of the rest. In the wild, when resources are scarce, a mother may consume a weaker pup to redirect care to the healthier ones.

External Threats

External dangers can also drive a mother dog to this extreme act. If she perceives a threat from predators or even severe environmental challenges, she might decide to eat her infants. This is a visceral response to protect the remaining litter and also an effort to recoup some of the energy she’s invested in her offspring. Here’s a rundown of threats that could trigger such behavior:

  • Predators: Presence of other animals causing the mother to feel her litter is at risk.
  • Human Activities: Disruptions caused by humans or domestic activities creating stress.
  • Environmental Instability: Dramatic changes in weather, such as extreme cold or heat, which make survival more challenging.

Human Intervention

When it comes to dogs sometimes eating their puppies, your actions and the breeding practices can play a significant role.

Breeding Practices

You might not know it, but selective breeding can inadvertently contribute to this behavior. If you’re breeding dogs that show high levels of stress or anxiety, those traits could be passed down to offspring, potentially leading to harmful behaviors.

  • Genetics: Puppies inheriting anxiety or stress traits.
  • Temperament: Breeding for specific traits without considering the mother’s nurturing instincts.

Caregiver Mistakes

Sometimes, your actions can trigger a mother dog to react negatively. For example, if you frequently handle the puppies too soon, you might unintentionally stress the mother.

  • Too much handling: Early or excessive puppy handling.
  • Environmental stress: Interrupting the mother with frequent check-ups or changes in environment.

Psychological Aspects

In exploring why dogs might eat their puppies, it’s crucial to consider the psychological factors. Your understanding of these aspects hinges on recognizing the complexities of maternal bonding and the mental states that can lead to such behaviors.

Maternal Bonding

When a mother dog gives birth, her instinct to nurture and protect her puppies is paramount. However, this bond may not form instantly or effectively in all cases. If the mother is inexperienced or if there has been minimal physical contact, she might not recognize the puppies as her own. This lack of connection can sometimes lead to tragic behaviors, such as neglecting or harming the pups.

  • Reasons for weak maternal bonding:
    • First-time mothers;
    • Lack of physical interaction; and
    • Prenatal stress.

Anxiety and Confusion

Dogs can experience a range of emotions, and intense situations may trigger anxiety or confusion. After giving birth, if a mother dog is anxious or stressed, she might act unpredictably towards her puppies.

  • Signs of anxiety in mother dogs:
    • Pacing or restlessness;
    • Excessive panting or whining; and
    • Aggressive behavior toward humans or other animals.

In certain stressful circumstances, a mother might fail to recognize her offspring as living creatures needing care. Such mental confusion, occasionally compounded by the stress of the birthing process, can lead to the mother harming her puppies unwittingly.

Nutritional Considerations

In rare cases, you might find a mother dog eating her puppies. This behavior may be connected to her nutritional state and instinctual behaviors.

Dietary Needs

Your dog has specific dietary requirements, especially when nursing. High-energy demands for milk production can lead to nutritional deficiencies.

  • Caloric Intake: Nursing dogs need up to 4 times their normal caloric intake.
  • Nutrient-Rich Diet: They require a diet high in protein, fat, and calcium.

Competition for Resources

When food scarcity looms, survival instincts kick in for your dog.

  • Prioritizing Survival: A mother may eat her puppies to reclaim nutrients.
  • Natural Instinct: It’s a way to ensure her own survival and that of the remaining litter.

Eating Puppies That Are Dead: Keeping The Area Clean

When you’re faced with the unsettling sight of a dog eating their deceased puppy, it’s crucial to understand why this happens. Instincts play a big role. In the wild, a dead pup could attract predators, so a mother dog might consume a stillborn or deceased puppy to keep the area clean and protect the rest of the litter.

Fading Puppy Syndrome is a condition that can cause puppies to pass away within the first few weeks of life. They might be born weaker and unable to survive.

  • Mother’s Response: If a puppy succumbs to this syndrome, the mother may eat the puppy.
  • Health Risk: By removing the deceased body, she minimizes the health risk to her and the surviving puppies of having a corpse in the whelping box.

Your dog isn’t being cruel; it’s a natural response to:

  1. Prevent Disease: A dead puppy can spread infections to the other puppies.
  2. Protect the Living: Survival instincts push her to focus on the living pups.

Remember, this behavior, although disturbing to you, is a form of housekeeping for dogs. If you encounter this situation:

  • Keep Calm: Understand it’s a natural instinct.
  • Monitor: Check the living puppies for signs of illness.
  • Consult a Vet: They can offer guidance on how to proceed and confirm the health of the remaining puppies.

Why do male dogs eat their puppies?

Male dogs eating young puppies is extremely rare. Although male dogs may not know their puppies are theirs, most of them either ignore puppies or are quite kind to them. Still it can happen for the following reasons.

One key reason is the perception of puppies as competition. An aggressive male dog might see his own offspring as rivals, especially other males, and may decide to eliminate them to maintain dominance or access to the female. This behavior is observed in other species as well, such as lions and dolphins. 

Additionally, male dogs do not inherently recognize their puppies. They may view them as strangers or even threats, leading to aggressive behavior. There is also a lack of a paternal instinct in male dogs; they don’t have a natural inclination to care for or identify with their offspring as humans do. 

Consequently, even if a male dog recognizes his puppies, he might not hesitate to harm them as animals do not share our moral values. Lastly, male dogs might accidentally harm or kill their puppies by playing too roughly, another reason why they are often kept away from the litter during the early stages​.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

In this section, we tackle some of the most pressing questions you might have about why a dog may harm or even eat her puppies, and what you can do about it.

What could cause a mother dog to harm or eat her puppies?

If a mother dog harms or eats her puppies, it can be due to factors like birth defects in the puppies, environmental stress, or a mother’s instinct that something is wrong with her offspring. Sometimes, inexperienced mothers may also accidentally harm their puppies.

Is it common for male dogs to show aggression towards their offspring?

Male dogs may show aggression towards their offspring, but this is generally not common. It’s usually a behavior observed in males that are not neutered or in high-stress environments.

How can I tell if my dog has harmed one of her puppies?

Signs that a mother dog has harmed a puppy can include visible injuries on the puppy, the mother’s avoidance of her puppy, or frantic behavior from the mother that’s directed at the litter.

What should I do if I find that a puppy has died in the litter?

If you discover a deceased puppy, remove it from the litter immediately to prevent illness or distress to the rest of the puppies and the mother. Then, consult a vet to determine the cause and ensure the health of the surviving puppies and the mother.

Can puppies be in danger from their parents due to stress or confusion?

Yes, puppies can be at risk from stressed or confused parents. Stressful conditions for the mother or a lack of recognition of the puppies as her own can lead to tragic outcomes.

What steps can be taken to help prevent tragic incidents with newborn puppies in a litter?

To prevent harm to puppies, provide a calm and safe environment for the mother and litter, supervise interactions, especially in the case of first-time mothers, and consult with a veterinarian about appropriate care before and after the birth.

Final Thoughts

You’ve explored the heart-wrenching topic of why dogs might eat their puppies. It’s a rare occurrence, but when it happens, it’s usually linked to instinctual behaviors or a response to stress. Remember:

  • Health Issues: Dogs with health concerns, especially those affecting their mental state, can behave unpredictably.
  • Environmental Stress: A stressful environment may lead to a mother dog harming her puppies.

Sometimes, despite a dog owner’s best efforts, these tragic events unfold. It’s crucial that you:

  1. Monitor Stress Levels: Watch for signs of stress in your dog, especially after birth.
  2. Ensure Health: Regular veterinary care will help catch and treat any health issues early.
  3. Provide a Calm Environment: Give your dog a quiet and safe space, especially when they have a new litter.

If you’re faced with such an occurrence, seek professional advice from a veterinarian or an animal behaviorist. They can provide guidance and support for both your dog and you as an owner. It’s tough to witness, but understanding the potential reasons helps you prevent future incidents.

References:

Meet Your Experts

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Tamsin De La Harpe

Author

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.

Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions. Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.