This article, written by me, was featured in the Spring '96 Labrador Quarterly.
My beautiful Labrador babies are sick. Very sick. At only ten days of age, they had little reserve to fight off whatever the problem was. The stools were bright yellow, liquid and sick smelling. The puppies were bloated and vomited on occasion. Stool samples showed us nothing. The puppies had no fever, but were fading fast. Being a nurse, and having an exceptional relationship with my vet, she supplied me with what I needed to establish IV's on my little ones. I found long ago that IV sites on tiny puppies infiltrate very quickly as their veins don't hold up very well. So, I established what we refer to in humans as a saline lock, but I established it into the subcutaneous tissue in the back of the puppy. The rubber cap (saline lock) over the IV catheter permits freedom of movement for the puppy, as it does not require that an IV line be established at all times to it. I slowly infused the IV solution into the back of the puppy, which was well absorbed by the puppy, and removed the IV line, leaving the saline lock in the back of the puppy until the next infusion. This technique was keeping these babies well hydrated while we attempted to troubleshoot the problem. It wasn't parvo, worms, cocci, or anything else we could test for. Before we labeled it a virus, I took my bitch into the vet for an exam. She was healthy, had a normal temperature, and showed no signs of illness. Her stool sample was negative as well. But, a test of her milk showed us the real problem. "Toxic" (highly Acidic) milk. My wonderful sweet Mandy who had enough milk to feed the Russian army, had milk that nearly registered off the scale as being very acid. There was blood in her milk, and pus. She had no signs of mastitis at all.
Mandy is a breeder's dream as far as being a mother goes. She adores her babies and kept them spotless. It was not at all unusual to find her with her head on one of her babies, making a moaning/cooing sound to it. She was the picture of bliss when in the box with babies. Now I had to take her away from them. Not only was I going to have to hand feed seven babies, but I was going to have to strip the milk from Mandy, and somehow comfort her through her upset of not being allowed in with her puppies. I found out very quickly just how much trouble this was going to be in the kennel, Mandy chewed at the chain link. In the crate, she barked, chewed at the door, and if left free in the house, she was at the whelping box, digging to get in. She was inconsolable.
Finally, I stumbled onto a solution that helped her a little. I bottle fed the puppies until they were so full that they could hardly move; I would put a tee-shirt on Mandy with holes cut for her rear legs, and her front legs through the arms of the tee-shirt. I used safety pins to close up the shirt under her tail. She was then permitted in with her puppies, to clean and cuddle them. But, Mandy wanted to nurse her pups. She managed to coax them into any opening in the shirt, where they would naturally begin to nurse.
This presented a danger in them not only drinking her milk, but also when she stood up, she'd have babies caught in the shirt. I was afraid of injury to the puppies. Her visits had to be monitored, so as to protect the pups from the love of their mother. It was very distressing for both Mandy and myself. With a full-time job, a kennel full of dogs, and a family to tend to, the raising of these puppies was obviously very time-consuming even with the help of my family.
Two days into this dilemma, Winnie Limbourne offered me the use of her bitch Biscuit, who had eight-week-old puppies which had gone home the week before. She still had some milk. Having been a great mom with her own pups, we could only hope that she would nurse Mandy's pups. She entered the box and took to her new job right away. She seemed to understand that these little ones needed a mother and curled herself right around the pile of puppies, who were thrilled to have the feel of skin and fur around them, and to have a nipple there that wasn't cold rubber.
Mandy, on the other hand, wasn't so thrilled. She still refused to stay very long in the kennel or the crate, and to see another bitch walk into or out of the house was more than she could stand. She went into a panic. Finally, I allowed her into the house to actually see Biscuit in the box nursing the puppies. This calmed Mandy, who would sit next to the box and quietly watch Biscuit nurse the pups. We gave Mandy a stuffed puppy, which she carried in her mouth every second that she wasn't in with her real babies. When Biscuit was finished and the pups full, my husband would let Biscuit out of the box while I held onto Mandy. We would then allow Mandy into the box to do housework and cuddle her babies, who were too full to nurse. Having done this a few times, we realized that neither bitch was hostile during these changes of the guard. Biscuit seemed to understand that Mandy was the real mother here, and never challenged her. Mandy seemed to understand that Biscuit was performing a duty that was necessary to her puppies, and before long, we simply opened the door to the box and the bitches would perform the change-over without any assistance from us. When both were out of the box, they wagged their tails and greeted one another with friendly body language. Within four days into the foster mother program, they were playing together on the lawn.
It was at this time that I forgot to lock the door to the whelping box while Biscuit was in with the puppies. Mandy, who never misses a thing, didn't fail to notice. I found both Mandy and Biscuit in the box together. Mandy was lying quite literally on Biscuit's side, while Biscuit was nursing the puppies. Forgive me for giving human emotion to a dog, but those of us who know Labradors will understand ... Mandy was pretending to be nursing her puppies. Biscuit didn't mind a bit (although I wondered how she was managing to breathe with the weight of Mandy on her). Mandy and Biscuit worked out the details from that day on. They each knew their job. Biscuit was the wet-nurse. Mandy did everything else. I often found Mandy cuddled up to Biscuit's rear while she nursed the puppies. Mandy cleaned while Biscuit nursed (which thrilled Biscuit, as she had one rule ... no cleaning puppies that were not hers!). We never kept the bitches apart after that day I found Mandy in the box. Her milk dried up slowly, but seldom did I see a puppy trying to nurse from her (it probably tasted bad). When the puppies went out into our puppy kennel, both mothers went out with them, and were in there 'round the clock together. The puppies had the example of two wonderful mothers until Biscuit went home when they were six weeks old. Mandy would never have another litter. She wasn't young when this litter was born, and I would never risk having a repeat of the toxic milk problem. I am so thankful to have her daughter, who should have two mothers listed on her pedigree, as I believe that she and her siblings owe their very lives to Biscuit. I can only hope that "Wish" will be half the mother one day that her mothers, Mandy and Biscuit, were. I am quite aware that I have many things to be thankful for. One is a good friend who trusted me with her bitch. I am well aware of how difficult it is to hand over your bitch to someone and trust that she'll come to no harm. I am thankful for my Mandy, who is the best mother a breeder could hope for. I am thankful for Biscuit, who understood a need and took on a second family without hesitation. Most of all, when I consider the temperaments of any of the breeds I could have fallen into, I am thankful for the Labrador Retriever.
2004 --Author's note: Wish, who is ten years old now, was every bit the wonderful mother I knew she had been taught to be. We still own her, her daughters and her daughters-daughters. Such is the legacy of Mandy.