Welcoming an adorable pet puppy into your home is always an exciting time, and while choosing from the litter, you’ll likely be wondering which one is the ‘runt’ of the group. You could then be wondering what their limitations or health prospects may be if you were to pick them – they deserve a loving home too of course.
Runts of the litter can enjoy the same quality of life as their stronger siblings as long as they are cared for properly. If the runt has passed all the essential veterinary health checks and their breeder has provided them with good care after birth, there’s no reason why runts should be automatically rejected.
Quizzing the breeder about their health, as well as observing how well the runt interacts with their mother and siblings will help inform your decision. If you’ve considered taking the underdog of the puppies home with you but still feel unsure, the following guide answers common queries about runts of the litter – from their size and personalities to their long-term health prospects.
What Makes a Dog the Runt of the Litter?
Normally, the ‘runt’ of the litter is considered to be the smallest and weakest of their siblings, but being the smallest puppy does not automatically make them the runt. What makes a puppy the runt of the litter often comes down to developmental disadvantages in the womb and a case of the survival of the fittest once they are born.
Veterinarian Dr. Margaret V. Root Kustriz explains that runts are the result of “poor placentation” in the womb. In other words, the mother’s placenta can be deficient and fail to supply enough levels of oxygen and nutrients to every pup, leaving one worse off – the runt.
This placenta deficiency from the mother then causes the growth of one pup to be hindered, which in turn makes him or her weaker compared to their siblings, so that when they must compete for the best milk-feeding spot at their mother’s teat, they’re often beaten to it by the stronger pups.
Can a Runt of the Litter Be Healthy?
While the disadvantages in the womb won’t get a runt’s health off to a glowing start, there’s no reason why they can’t live healthy lives as long as they are properly cared for once they are born.
Good breeders will recognize the signs of a newborn failing to get enough milk on their own and consider alternative methods such as bottle-feeding from the mother’s expressed milk.
As well as ensuring proper nutrition as newborns, owners can help the runt of the litter grow up healthy by looking out for their physical well-being too, such as providing a warm environment, keeping them clean, and taking them for regular health check-ups.
Will the Runt of the Litter Always Be Smaller?
There are normally 6 puppies in an average litter, so it’s likely that one puppy will appear noticeably smaller than the rest, and this pup is quick to be labeled the ‘runt’, regardless of their health. Remember that a litter of puppies are rarely the same size, so a smaller pup may even be average sized for its age, but appear to be the runt if their siblings are larger than normal.
Just because the runt of the litter starts off small, this is no indication that they will stay smaller than their littermates. Closely monitoring their weight week by week and ensuring they are well-fed should help them on their way to becoming a healthy size for their age and breed.
Is the Runt of the Litter Harder to Train?
Being the runt of the litter should not have an impact on how trainable they are. As long as you show them the same patience, consistency, and care as any other puppy, there’s no reason why they can’t be trained with the same success as any average dog. The runt’s breed is likely to have a greater impact on how easy or hard they are to train.
Does the Runt of the Litter Develop Slower?
At first, runts will struggle to grow at the same rate as their siblings since they may are weaker due to being deprived of adequate nutrients in the womb. However, with proper nutrition, care, and health checks, runts cancatch up with their litter pack in terms of weight, size, and strength.
Does the Runt of the Litter Have a Shorter Life Expectancy?
Particularly frail runts of the litter may struggle to survive past infancy, which is why the care shown to them in the first 6 to 8 weeks is crucial to their development. If a runt can make it to 6 weeks and beyond, they have a good chance of surviving and growing to full adult size.
Is the Runt of the Litter the Last One Born?
Not necessarily. The runt of the litter can be born in any order, so the last pup to be birthed is no indication of a weaker puppy. The runt will normally be determined by how much nutrients they received in the womb, not their birth order.
Do Dogs Kill the Runt of the Litter?
Yes, as with rabbits and other mothers of a litter, it is sadly in a dog’s instinct to kill the weakest of her puppies to ensure she is not wasting her resources on a pup that will not make it.
There can be other reasons why a dam might kill the runt of the litter, including:
- The mother’s post-partum health – occasionally, the dam can suffer from a painful inflammation of the nipples known as Mastitis, and if this becomes too intense during nursing, she could be a risk to her young.
- Stressful birthing environment – if the dam is caring for her litter in a loud, busy home or humans are showing her litter too much attention, this can cause her to become stressed and fearful which can trigger aggressive behaviors.
- Poor motherly instinct – not all dams are made to be mothers and lack the instinct to properly care for their young. Some can become so overwhelmed by post-partum hormones that they exhibit erratic behaviors, which could put the welfare of the litter in danger.
Health Issues with the Runt of the Litter
Due to their nutrient deficiency and delayed development in the womb, runts tend to be associated with the following health conditions:
- Low birth weight
- Cleft palates (making it difficult to feed)
- Heart defects
- Prone to infections and parasites
- Colostrum milk deficiency (from the mother’s mammary glands)
A combination of these issues can see runts deteriorate and develop ‘Fading Puppy’ syndrome, which manifests in the runt becoming lethargic, vomiting, failing to gain weight, and often emitting high-pitched cries. At this stage, human intervention is vital to their survival, so speak to your vet asap to discuss hand-rearing methods.
How to Care for the Runt of the Litter?
Keep them warm – as runts struggle to bask in their mother’s warmth, help things along by keeping their environment between 86-89 degrees F, and consider placing an electric heat pad or lamp close by.
Use gentle massage – With a gentle approach, carefully massaging their frail bodies will help to increase circulation and clear their airways of fluid, making them warmer and better able to breathe.
Make feeding a priority – when runts are struggling to compete for a place at their mother’s teat, you’ll need to express the dam’s milk into a feeding bottle to ensure they are getting the same essential nutrients and antibodies as their siblings.
If the dam’s milk can’t be expressed or the runt is rejecting it, consult your vet about an appropriate puppy milk formula (cow’s milk will not be a rich enough substitute for their immune system).
Monitor their weight daily – a healthy puppy should be gaining around 5 to 10 percent of their current body weight each day for the first month, so make sure you are monitoring their weight with digital scales every day.
If a runt is still failing to gain weight with regular feeds, this could point to an underlying health condition such as diabetes or food allergies, so don’t hesitate to get them checked out by the vet to determine the cause and take alternative steps.
Runt of the Litter Temperament
The temperament of runts will be shaped by the individual breed and the care they receive. In some instances, runts may learn to be more aggressive than their littermates to make up for their smaller stature. And if this is the case, this aggression poses an early advantage if it helps them compete for a better position during feeds to ensure they are not singled out.
Fortunately, an aggressive personality in puppyhood does not necessarily translate to an aggressive adult, provided runts are trained in early socialization, fed well, and shown the same affection and care as their brothers and sisters.