Pickles and ice cream may sound like a mouth-watering meal for your pregnant Aunt Peggy, but when your pooch is expecting a litter, nix the pickles and pack on the protein.

Pregnant and nursing canines require an increased supply of nutrients, especially calcium and protein, to support multiple growing fetuses, says Teresa Shisk, a veterinary technician in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences at Texas A&M University.

“Pregnant dogs not only have to support their growing puppies, but themselves as well,” says Shisk.  “This is especially true if the mother is two years or younger, because younger dogs are still growing themselves and cannot afford to exhaust their nutrient reserves.”

During the pregnancy, which typically lasts 58 to 65 days, the fetuses will use calcium in the mother’s body to form strong bones, says Shisk.  Once the puppies are born, the mother’s calcium will be used to produce milk to feed her litter.  But if she hasn’t been on a calcium-rich diet, she may not have enough calcium to support herself, resulting in a potentially life-threatening condition called eclampsia.

Shisk says to keep your dog from experiencing any deficiencies, a quality diet goes a long way.

“If your dog is on a good diet, it can stay on that diet until the last two weeks of pregnancy,” notes Shisk.  “Much of the puppies’ development will occur in the two weeks before the mother gives birth.  Because they’re using more nutrients, the mother will need to ingest more nutrients.  Then you’ll need to put her on a quality puppy formula.”

But why would an adult dog need food designed for pups?

Typically, puppy formulas are high in energy, easily digestible, contain a larger quantity of body-building protein and provide an adequate supply of calcium, says Shisk.  She advises continuing puppy food after the dog gives birth and throughout her lactating period.  An added bonus is that the puppies, once ready to try solid food, will be able to nibble from their mother’s bowl and receive the right mix of nutrients.

Vitamins are available for pregnant and nursing dogs but there is no substitute for a quality diet, says Shisk.  “You can’t fix a bad diet with vitamins,” she believes.

Because her stomach is under more pressure than usual, your dog will probably eat smaller meals on a more frequent basis, she notes.  “As long as the dog doesn’t have any medical problems and is basically healthy, it will consume enough to maintain itself and not overeat,” adds Shisk. “A complete loss of appetite is usually a good indication that she will go into labor soon.”

Even though it may look like Fifi isn’t getting her fill, pregnancy is no time to tempt her with table food.  “You want to be careful not to upset her balance,” says Shisk.  Table scraps like your unwanted meatloaf can contribute to excessive weight gain and digestive problems in your pregnant dog.

Once your dog has given birth and nursed all of her puppies, it’s time to return her to a normal maintenance diet.  “Any time you change your dog’s diet, you want to do it gradually over a period of about two weeks,” Shisk adds.

Abruptly changing formulas can upset your dog’s system and give her the “mother” of all stomach aches, she adds.  Each time you feed your dog, add a slightly higher percentage of the food you want to change to until a complete transition is made.

Having raised many dogs herself, Shisk knows the importance of a healthy diet and proper care for a pregnant dog. “It wasn’t easy,” she recalls, “but I ended up with a healthy mother dog and some beautiful grandpuppies.”