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Single Puppy Syndrome: How to Avoid Problems for Singleton Puppies

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

Puppies learn a whole lot from staying in the litter with littermates and mom.

Puppies learn a whole lot from staying in the litter with littermates and mom.

Understanding Singleton Puppies

As the name implies, singleton puppies are puppies that are born solo. In other words, they don't have any brother and sisters. Being born as an only pup is not a very common occurrence, but it happens every now and then.

When we look at a female dog's phenotype, we'll notice physical traits meant for her to accommodate large litters of puppies. Just count how many milk stations nature has gifted her with. Female dogs have on average a total of 8 to 10 nipples divided in two rows.

On top of this, a mother dog's uterus is generally large enough to accommodate several puppies, so when only one puppy occupies the space, there is belief that it tends to become larger than the average puppy. Some vets debate this, discussing that singleton pups are not necessarily larger, stronger, or smarter than puppies born in an average litter.

Six Problems of a Single Pup

When only one puppy is conceived, a variety of problems may arise.

  1. Birth Difficulties. For starters, if it's true that singletons are of a larger sizer, the larger size may lead to problems in delivery. The singleton puppy may be difficult to pass causing difficult childbirth (dystocia) or even the need to deliver via C-section.
  2. Labor Issues. In some cases, mother dog won't even go into labor because a singleton pup may not allow enough hormones to be produced to start the contractions; therefore, there are also risks for uterine inertia. Even once the puppy is delivered, either naturally or through C-section, several other problems may set in.
  3. Hormones, Maternal Instincts, Confusion, Colostrum, and Rejection. If mother dog failed to start labor due to a lack of hormones, this may interfere with the mother dog's maternal instincts, especially if this is her first time giving birth. If she went through a C-section, she may be too groggy and may fail to recognize the pup as hers, which may cause the pup to be rejected. The puppy needs the important colostrum, a special milk only available for a limited time, and the sole act of nursing may be helpful to trigger the release oxytocin hormones which can help trigger some mothering instinct.
  4. Keeping Warm. Because the singleton puppy is alone, he cannot huddle with the other puppies to keep warm. Newborn puppies are unable to regulate their body temperatures, so it's important that they stay warm for at least the first couple of weeks. Yes, mom can be a wonderful source of heat, but she'll sometimes have to eat and use the bathroom. If mother dog is unwilling to cater to the pup, artificial means will have to be used. A heating unit can be beneficial, but some breeders find that a stuffed animal stuffed with a warm pack may better mimic a sibling.
  5. Learning How to Deal With Frustration. Since there are no other puppies, life is quite easy for the singleton pup. When he nurses, there's no competition over the nipples. When he wants attention, mother dog is always there just for him. As much as this easy life sounds good, many owners of singleton pups soon notice how, later in life, singleton pups may have a harder time coping with frustration.
  6. Lack of Socialization With Other Dogs. Because the singleton pup has no other litter-mates, he will strongly bond and attach to humans, but lack of socialization with other pups may lead to future problems when he must relate with other dogs. The pup will fail to learn the basics of social dog language and the important basics of bite inhibition.

Potential Behavior Issues With Singleton Pups

As seen, a lot can go on in the lives of singletons, so it's not surprising that they may be prone to developing behavioral issue. The following are some steps breeders and new owners can take to help these puppies bloom.

Issues With Tactile Stimulation

Dog trainer Susan Garrett has a trick to help the pup overcome the lack of tactile stimulation seen in singleton pups. With no litter mates around, singleton puppies miss out important tactile stimulation under the form of other puppies crawling over and under them. Susan suggests using a stuffed animal to recreate tactile stimulation twice a day. The pup can snuggle with it, and walk over it or crawl under. Handling exercises are also important, so get the puppy used to being touched, picked up and handled in all areas, much more than you would with a puppy with litter mates.

Problems Coping with Frustration

In a normal litter, puppies are used to not getting what they want all the time. This teaches them to cope with frustration and self control. Just like children, a singleton pup must learn coping mechanisms and how to control their emotions. For instance, if the pup whines for attention, the owner will give attention only when the pup settles down. Also, in the litter, pups must learn to deal with interruptions. Countless times a pup will walk towards a nipple when another pup will get in his way and get there first. Some breeders will push puppies off nipples to mimic what other puppies do, but this is an approach that can backfire.

Dr McConnell discusses how she took a similar approach in raising a singleton pup. She used a stuffed toy to push the puppy off the nipple when he nursed. Not surprisingly, the pup growled at her one day when the pup turned five weeks and she touched him. She then had to take steps in conditioning the puppy to like being touched and was successful after using counterconditioning.

Socialization and Bite Inhibition Needs

Because lack of litter mates can have a major impact on the singleton's future behavior, some caring breeders will try to introduce the singleton pup to another litter of pups, in hopes he will be accepted and will integrate well. Further socialization can be implemented by the new puppy owners by taking the puppy topuppy classes where they can learn the ABC's of dog body language and start learning about bite inhibition. Of course, the ultimate solution to prevent singleton puppies and reduce the pet overpopulation problem is to spay and neuter your dog.


The Dog Trainer's Resource 2: The APDT Chronicle of the Dog Collection, Stacey LaForge, edited by Mychelle Blake

Animals Make Us Human: Creating the Best Life for Animals; Temple Grandin, ‎Catherine Johnson

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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.

© 2014 Adrienne Farricelli


Brenda sue Wright on September 02, 2017:

Why did my female dog have only one puppy

What the heck on March 20, 2016:

Seriously? "The U.S. is importing 300,000 third-world dogs a year, and some "rescues" are now PRODUCING puppies to keep up with demand?" Why are people wanting third world dogs if where I live so many unwanted dogs are being put to sleep? Are people going crazy? And if these 300,000 dogs are left intact, do the math and you have a recipe for disaster when it comes to the number of dogs. What you make sound like a good thing, is actually bad, many of these dogs risk bringing infective diseases that we have so hardly fought to remove.

Adrienne Farricelli (author) on March 20, 2016:

It's neutering, not speutering. And neutering is for male dogs, female dogs are spayed. Well, until people become responsible enough, spay and neutering is the way to go to reduce the pet overpopulation issue. If you know a better way to educate the whole world quickly and effectively with a magic wand, please share. I have worked for a shelter, and I tell you only by first-hand experience do you realize how many unwanted pets are killed every day. I used to go home crying and got so sick of it, I could hardly work there anymore. Too many owners have no idea how to manage their intact dogs. Even those I thought were doing fine, ended up a day or another with a mishap and soon pups were on their way to the shelter:( I suggest you visit or work for a shelter and see how many pups are killed each day if you haven't yet. It's sickening. The only place I have seen admirable ownership and management of intact dogs is Norway. I see reaching that level here, a far cry, but there's hope. I might be particularly biased though because I lived in puppy mill state.

And no I never made any recommendations of eliminating dogs as a species:(

mmctaq on March 19, 2016:

Seriously? You suggest preventing the possibility of dealing with a singleton pup by speutering? Speutering what... every single dog? That would truly be the ultimate method of preventing singletons... eliminate dogs as a species!

The U.S. is importing 300,000 third-world dogs a year, and some "rescues" are now PRODUCING puppies to keep up with demand. A vast body of research is rapidly becoming available detailing the negative physiological consequences of de-sexing dogs (INCREASES in many cancers, hip dysplasia, cruciate ligament tears, hypothyroidism, increases in inappropriate fear and aggression, etc.).

Perhaps, it is in the best interest of dogs and owners to support responsible ownership and management. Mindless adhesion to an agenda that ultimately will end pet dogs is not particularly "Pet Helpful," is it?

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