While it may sound a bit nauseating to us, it is a natural instinct for dogs and many other mammals to eat the placenta (a.k.a. afterbirth) of their offspring after giving birth.
In this article, we are going to look at what exactly the placenta is, the main theories on why dogs eat their puppy’s placenta, and what the experts in the field have to say on the subject.
What is the placenta?
The placenta, which looks like a green pouch full of liquid, is an organ that develops and attaches to the dam’s uterus during pregnancy. During gestation, it acts as a link (via the umbilical cord) from dam to pup, providing nutrients and oxygen to the youngsters and removing waste products from their blood.
When happens to the placenta during birth?
When a puppy is born, he is still inside a thin membranous sac with the umbilical cord attached to his abdomen. Usually the placenta (which is attached to the umbilical cord) will appear shortly after the birth of the puppy, though sometimes two or more pups may come out together, followed by their placentas*.
After the mother has licked the puppy clean of the membrane and bitten through the umbilical cord, the mother’s instinct usually drives her to consume the puppy’s placenta.
*In some cases, the placenta can be retained, which can be serious; for this reason it is important to check that the mother expels the same number of placentas as puppies.
The 4 main theories on why dogs eat their puppy’s placenta
Placentophagy, the act of mammals eating the placenta of their young, is a common occurrence. But why? Well, experts differ in opinion on the matter, so there is no definitive answer to this question.
There are, however, 4 compelling theories on why dogs eat their puppy’s placenta:
1. It encourages milk production and speeds up birth
Renowned dog breeder Ann Seranne argues that the mother needs to eat some of the placentas for their high vitamin and hormone levels, which induce milk supply. She also claims that these hormones help the uterus to contract, speeding up the birth of the remaining puppies.
2. To clean up the “den”
The only reason dams eat their placenta is to clean up the area, argues veterinarian Martin Coffman. While this could be simply to get rid of bacteria, there is a theory that this is an instinct dogs retain from living in the wild, when they would have needed to reduce the scent of the birth in order to protect themselves and their young from predators.
3. To get a nutritious source of food
In her book “Advanced Canine Reproduction and Puppy Care,” dog breeder and Registered Nurse Myra Savant Harris argues that the puppy’s placentas, packed with calcium and protein, provide the mother with a nutritious source of food when she most needs it.
She states that many breeders notice that the mother is often uninterested in eating for a couple of days after the birth, which is likely due to her instinct not to leave her newborn puppies while she hunts for food. For this reason, Harris believes the protein-rich placentas are “her food source” for the day or two following whelping, helping her to recover as well as to better nourish her pups.
4. It helps the uterus return to pre-pregnancy state
Gould and Haviland suggest that eating the placenta can help the mother’s uterus revert to pre-gestation shape thanks to high levels of prostaglandin.
Should the mother eat the puppy’s placenta?
Just as experts differ on the reason why dogs eat their puppy’s placenta, they also have different views on whether we should interfere.
Dr Root Kustritz, Diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists and specialist in small animal reproduction, claims that there is “no good physiological reason” to allow your dog to eat the puppy’s placenta. Veterinarian Dr Beaver holds the same opinion and adds that, while it would have served a purpose for wild canids, it is not necessary in domesticated dogs, who have no need to hunt or protect themselves from predators.
On the other hand, other experts in the field – such as Dan Rich, an experienced veterinarian; and dog breeder and nurse, Harris – strongly advise not to interfere with the dam’s maternal instinct. While Rich does not believe the placentas have any great health benefit for the mother, he says he prefers to see a dam eat all the placental tissues than see someone interfere and take them from her reach.
Many experts do report that eating a large amount of placentas can cause digestive upset like diarrhea and vomiting, however. Even Rich says that, if the whelping process allows it, with utmost discretion you can dispose of some of the placentas to avoid her experiencing adverse effects.
If you are going to allow the dam to eat the placenta, the general consensus seems to be that she should consume no more than two, especially if she is a small breed.
So, we have seen 4 compelling theories as to why dogs eat their puppy’s placenta, which include:
- It induces milk production and speed up the rest of the birth
- It cleans up the den
- It provides the mother with rich nourishment at a time when she needs to recover and won’t leave her young
- It help the uterus return to pre-pregnancy size
As for whether humans should interfere with the mother’s instinct is another matter of debate. Some argue that there is no benefit to dogs today, who live very different lives to wild canids, and the placentas should be disposed of. Others strongly believe that the placenta should be eaten, as it is highly nutritious. Another argument is that, whether it is beneficial or not, we should simply not interfere with the mother’s maternal instinct.
In conclusion, letting the mother eat one or two placentas seems to be harmless and may very well benefit her and her pups.
Sources and References
- Coffman, M. (2011). Sports Medicine for Hunting Dogs by Martin Coffman. Belgrade, MT: Wilderness Adventures Press.
- Seranne, A. (2004). The Joy of Breeding Your Own Show Dog. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Publishing, Inc.
- Harris, M. S. (2010). Advanced Canine Reproduction and Puppy Care: The Seminar. Wenatchee, WA: Dogwise Publishing.
- Gould, F, & Haviland, D. (2010). Why Dogs Eat Poop, and Other Useless or Gross Information About the Animal Kingdom. New York, NY: Penguin.
- Kustritz, Dr R. “Whelping”. University of Minnesota. Retrieved from the web on May 4th 2017.
- Beaver, Dr B. (2009). Canine Behavior: Insights and Answers. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier Health Sciences.
- Rice, D. (2008). The Complete Book of Dog Breeding. Hauppauge, NY: Barron’s Educational Series, Inc.