Interesting Facts and Myths About the Runt of the Litter
First of all, let's get an idea what it means to be the runt of the litter. The word "runt" means "smallest or weakest of the litter." A litter is simply considered a number of young animals born to an animal all at once or, in other words, multiple births from an animal. So, the term “puppy runt of the litter” is used to depict the smallest or the weakest of all the siblings in a dog's litter.
But while runts are often portrayed as the smallest pups in the litter, there is still no clear-cut definition of exactly what a runt is.
The Term "Runt" Lacks a Universal Meaning
Is the categorization based purely on size? Or is it a matter of a puppy being weaker than the others? Are runts just small or do they also have to act sickly to qualify as a runt? It seems like the parameters of what qualifies a puppy as a runt are blurry and subject to personal interpretation.
Even among veterinarians, there doesn't seem to be a consensus as to what constitutes a runt, and the term seems to be used loosely.
There is really no agreement among veterinarians—or anyone else for that matter—as to what constitutes a runt.— Dr. Ron Hines, DVM/PhD
Common Myths About Runts
There are several inaccuracies on the web as to what causes a runt to be a runt. Two of the most common misconceptions state that runts are simply puppies that were positioned in the middle of the uterus or ones who came from the eggs that were fertilized last.
The puppy in the middle of the uterus will be the runt.
False. The theory that the runt is positioned in the middle is based on the fact that the uterus of a dog is shaped like the letter "Y." The belief is that being in the middle positions the runt farthest away from the nutritious blood supply necessary for normal development. This theory is untrue. When puppies are in the uterus, they move around and they are changing positions constantly.
The puppy that's conceived last will be the runt.
False. Another theory states that runts are conceived last. This is an equally unfounded claim, considering that mother dog's eggs are fertilized at the same time or very close to it. All pups in a litter are ultimately the same age.
So What Makes a Runt a Runt?
A veterinary theriogenologist is a board-certified veterinarian who specializes in animal reproduction. These respected professionals have made reproduction their area of specialty. One of the most respected veterinary theriogenologists is Dr. Margaret V. Root Kustritz.
Runts Are Pups With Comparatively Poor Implantation Sites
In her book, The Dog Breeder’s Guide to Successful Breeding and Health Management, Dr. Kustritz explains that runts are simply puppies who had poor placentation. Runts are not weak because they were conceived last or happened to be positioned in the middle of the uterus, they just had the misfortune of having a poor implantation site while the other pups had better one.
"What accounts for runts is not being fertilized later than the other eggs, it is their placement within the uterine horn, " says Myra Savant-Harris in the book Canine Reproduction and Whelping: A Dog Breeder's Guide. She also says that runts are not premature puppies, but that they are simply puppies who had a "poor implantation site in the uterus," just as large puppies are not overdue pups, but simply pups who had a great implantation site.
Runt pups most likely are the same age as their littermates but had poor placentation.— Margaret V. Root Kustritz
Runts Tend to Have Some Disadvantages . . .
Since runts are smaller or weaker than the rest of the squad of puppies, they for sure have several disadvantages, but one of the main disadvantages is that the runt has a harder time competing for the milk that their mother dog provides them. The other pups or puppies are stronger than the runt, so the runt has a hard time getting its nutrition from mother.
They Struggle With Nursing
Getting nutrition in the first 48 hours of life is very important, as this is when a mother dog produces special milk known as colostrum, which is rich in maternal antibodies and provides maternal immunity. Failure to reap the benefits of this milk may lead to a weak immune system and vulnerability for illness. If a puppy is reluctant to nurse, caregivers should provide a commercial puppy-milk replacer that is rich with naturally occurring microbials.
They Are Often Ignored by Their Mothers
Another disadvantage for the runt is that sometimes the runt is ignored by the mother dog because she detects the puppy is small or weak and naturally tends to focus on the healthier pups. This is a form of natural selection; in other words, it is survival of the fittest.
They Are Prone to Ailments
On top of struggling to nurse, runts often also struggle with health ailments which can range from mild to severe and life-threatening.
With Tender Loving Care, They Have a Chance
Runts have a hard time surviving in the wild because they are weak and small, generally failing to survive past their infancy. In a domestic setting, however, things are quite different. When given proper care, runts may not only survive, but also manage to thrive and live happy lives just like the other non-runt puppies. Many caretakers confess that helping these little fellows out and watching them grow bigger and stronger is a very rewarding experience!
Many runts need help from the get-go, but what kind? Because runts are small and weak, their mothers might ignore them. Mother dogs may be reluctant to nurse them or may just simply reject them right when they are born. This means that human intervention may be necessary in order to help the puppy survive.
Puppy owners may, therefore, have to roll up their sleeves to free the runt from the amniotic sac, massage their teeny bodies to increase circulation, clear their airways of fluids and sever the umbilical cord. Puppy owners may also need to provide assistance to help the runt stay warm, clean, and well-fed.
Runts Should Be Checked Out Thoroughly
Upon being born, runts should be monitored carefully and checked out by a vet to determine whether there may be the presence of some underlying congenital abnormality or other health problem that is preventing them from blooming like the other pups. Breeders should take a daily weight of all the puppies to keep track of growth, paying particular attention to the runt.
Upon being adopted in a new home, all new puppy owners are advised to have their puppy undergo a health check by a veterinarian, but this is even more imperative when bringing a runt puppy home. Arrangements should have been put in place in advance with the breeder as to who pays for these veterinary services and what shall be reimbursed should the pup be found to have a health ailment.
Possible causes that may prevent a pup from flourishing may include the presence of a liver shunt, a heavy parasite load, heart defects, and cleft palates, just to name a few.
The runts of the litter can have heart defects and other congenital problems including umbilical hernias that the breeder might not disclose to you so it's a good idea to have your veterinarian do a complete examination of the puppy before you agree to buy the pup (or have a refund if there is a congenital problem).— Dr. Jan
Runts Shouldn't Sell for a Higher or Lower Price
Oftentimes, prospective puppy owners expect to pay a lower price for runts because they are slower to develop compared to other pups; however, as long as the pup is healthy, there should really be no reason to pay less.
Besides, many runts catch up quickly, and it's not unheard of for some to even outgrow their siblings! This is part of why breeders are often unwilling to lower their prices for runts unless there is something wrong in the health department.
Beware of Shady Breeders
I'd like to offer a word of caution about breeders of so-called "teacup" puppies or "micro" puppies who try to sell runts for a premium, making them appear valuable and highly in demand. A breeder would normally sell runts at the same price as the other pups, knowing that they are not more valuable nor less valuable than any other pup in a litter.
The small size does not necessarily mean that the runt of the litter will not be a good pet if all other health issues are within expected limits.— Dr. Robert L. Ridgway
Famous Runts in Pop Culture
Pop culture is stocked with an abundance of characters who were runts of the litter. Clearly, this figure has inspired authors and movie makers worldwide. For instance, Wilbur, the protagonist pig of Charlotte's Web, was a runt of the litter destined for slaughter. Remarkably, he not only survives, but manages to become famous, all thanks to a spider who works tirelessly to save him.
Babe, another piglet runt of the litter, also risks becoming Christmas dinner. But he is miraculously turned into a hero and is even entered in a sheep-herding competition.
Clifford the Big Red Dog is a runt who not only survives but thrives so much that he grows to be 25 feet tall, though sometimes he gets into trouble because of his size.
Other examples of famous runts who have inspired the imagination of novelists, cartoonists and filmmakers include:
- Shade the bat from Silverwing,
- Fiver from Watership Down,
- Goliath II from Disney's movie of the same name,
- Ruth from Anne McCaffrey's novel The White Dragon,
- Jock from the real story Jock of the Bushveld by Sir James Percy FitzPatrick,
- Cadpig in Dodie Smith's novel The Hundred and One Dalmatians,
- and many more!
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2016 Adrienne Farricelli