Fading puppy syndrome: know the signs

December 16, 2023 - 6 min read
This article is not intended to be a substitute for professional veterinary advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your veterinarian with any questions you may have regarding your pet’s care, treatment, or medical conditions.
newborn baby wrapped in pink blanket

A puppy’s early weeks should be joyful, but it's important to be aware of health issues that can arise during this critical period.

A puppy’s early weeks should be joyful, but it's important to be aware of health issues that can arise during this critical period.

Fading Puppy Syndrome, also known as “failure to thrive,” is a critical condition in puppies characterized by a precipitous decline in health. It usually manifests within the first one to two weeks of life.

Those involved in the breeding process and pet parents who have adopted exceptionally early should know how to recognize the symptoms and how to treat them.

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What is fading puppy syndrome?

Fading Puppy Syndrome is a term that strikes fear into the hearts of dog lovers. It refers to a situation where a puppy, seemingly healthy at birth, begins to 'fade,' showing signs of weakness, weight loss, and a lack of interest in feeding within the first couple weeks of life.

FPS is often caused by a combination of issues that impair a puppy's ability to grow and develop normally. It can stem from factors such as genetic predispositions, environmental stressors, and maternal health issues. Detecting FPS early in a puppy’s life—a time when breeders are typically more involved*—can be key to providing the necessary intervention and support.

Understanding Fading Puppy Syndrome is the first step in combating it. The condition requires immediate attention, as the window for saving these fragile lives is often very narrow.

newborn puppy

When does fading puppy syndrome typically occur?

Fading Puppy Syndrome most commonly occurs within the first two weeks of life, a critical period for a puppy's development. However, it's important to remain vigilant during the first six weeks, as puppies are still highly vulnerable during this time.

The risk is actually highest during the first three to five days. Newborn puppies are extremely fragile and require constant care and monitoring.

During the initial week, puppies are entirely dependent on their mother for nutrition and warmth. Any disruption in care can lead to FPS. From the second week onwards, the risk decreases as puppies grow and develop. You should continue to monitor their health and development during this period.

Causes of fading puppy syndrome

Fading Puppy Syndrome can stem from a variety of causes, making it a complex issue for pet owners and breeders* to navigate. Without an understanding of the causes, prevention and treatment are impossible.

  • Genetic factors: Some puppies are born with congenital defects that may not be immediately apparent. These genetic anomalies can affect a puppy's ability to thrive, leading to symptoms associated with FPS.

  • Infections: Puppies have immature immune systems, making them susceptible to infections. Bacterial, viral, or parasitic infections can be particularly devastating in the first weeks of life. Neonates are particularly susceptible to sepsis.

  • Environmental stressors: The environment plays a significant role in a puppy's development. Factors like temperature extremes, unsanitary conditions, or overhandling can stress a young puppy, leading to FPS. Neonatal puppies need to be kept at very specific temperatures to stay warm enough during the first few weeks of life, when they are unable to effectively regulate their own body temperature.

  • Maternal factors: The health and behavior of the mother dog are crucial. Poor maternal care, insufficient milk production, or maternal illness can directly impact the puppies' chances of survival. Malnutrition, either due to the poor quality of the mother's milk or the inability of the puppy to nurse effectively, can lead to fading.

Recognizing these causes helps create a safer, healthier environment for puppies to grow and thrive. With proper care, many of the risks associated with Fading Puppy Syndrome can be mitigated, offering a better start to these young lives.

Symptoms of fading puppy syndrome

Early detection of Fading Puppy Syndrome is crucial for successful intervention. Breeders and early adopters should be vigilant for signs in the first few weeks after birth, including:

  • Lack of interest in nursing: One of the earliest signs of FPS is a puppy's disinterest in nursing. Puppies should be eager to feed; reluctance or inability to latch onto the mother can be a red flag.

  • Weight loss or lack of weight gain: Regular weight checks are essential. Puppies should steadily gain weight each day. A puppy that isn’t gaining weight—or, worse, is losing weight—may be experiencing FPS.

  • Weakness and lethargy: Puppies with FPS often display a general lack of energy. They may be less active than their littermates, and they show little interest in their surroundings.

  • Crying or whining: Excessive crying can be a sign of discomfort or illness in puppies. While some vocalization is normal, continual crying, especially when accompanied by other symptoms, should be taken seriously.

  • Cold to the touch: Puppies struggling with FPS may have difficulty regulating their body temperature. A puppy that feels cooler than its littermates might be in distress.

  • Decreased or irregular breathing: Respiratory issues can be a symptom of FPS. Watch for any signs of labored, shallow, or irregular breathing.

Remember that these signs can indicate a variety of health issues, not just Fading Puppy Syndrome. However, any of these symptoms should prompt immediate consultation with a veterinarian. Early and proactive care can make a significant difference in outcomes for these vulnerable puppies.

newborn puppy on scale

How to prevent fading puppy syndrome

Tragically, it’s not always possible to prevent puppies from succumbing to FPS. But early intervention can play an essential role in boosting the survival odds of puppies who begin to show symptoms.  

Good breeding practices, including genetic screening and health checks for breeding dogs, can reduce the risk of FPS caused by congenital issues. If you’re a prospective pet parent, it’s absolutely crucial to seek out a responsible breeder.

For breeders, the whelping area should be clean, warm, and quiet. Avoiding extreme temperatures and disturbances helps reduce environmental stressors that can contribute to FPS.

Keeping a close eye on the puppies’ weight gain, feeding habits, and overall behavior is very important. Early detection of any irregularities can lead to prompt veterinary intervention.

The health of the mother dog is also directly related to the well-being of the puppies. Proper nutrition, veterinary care, and monitoring of the mother during pregnancy and lactation are vital. Meanwhile, regular veterinary check-ups can help identify and address potential health issues in puppies. If your vet suspects FPS, they can offer guidance or administer immediate treatment. 

Speaking of which...

Treatment options for fading puppies

When a puppy shows signs of Fading Puppy Syndrome, time is of the essence. Immediate and appropriate treatment can increase their chances of survival. If you are concerned about the wellbeing of a neonate, please contact your veterinarian immediately. Here are some key steps and treatment options:

  • Immediate warmth: Puppies with FPS often struggle with maintaining body temperature. In these cases, providing a warm (not hot) environment is crucial. A heating pad or a warm water bottle wrapped in a towel can be used to gently warm the puppy.

  • Assisted feeding: If a puppy is unable or unwilling to nurse, assisted feeding may be necessary. This can include bottle feeding with a suitable puppy milk replacer or tube feeding for very weak puppies, under the guidance of a veterinarian.

  • Hydration and nutrition: Make sure the puppy receives adequate hydration and nutrition. Dehydration can worsen the condition of a fading puppy. A veterinarian can advise on the best course of action, which may include subcutaneous fluids.

  • Monitoring and supportive care: Continuous monitoring is essential. This includes keeping track of the puppy’s weight, temperature, and general condition. Supportive care, like keeping the puppy clean and ensuring it's resting comfortably, is also important.

  • Veterinary care: Veterinary intervention is absolutely crucial. A vet can diagnose underlying causes, such as infections, and prescribe appropriate therapies.

Remember, every puppy is unique, and the treatment that works for one may not work for another. Close collaboration with a veterinarian is the best way to ensure that the right treatment plan is in place for each individual puppy experiencing FPS.

newborn puppy

Prognosis and recovery

The prognosis for puppies with Fading Puppy Syndrome varies greatly, largely depending on the severity of their symptoms and the timeliness of treatment.

For some puppies, the response to treatment is positive, leading to a full recovery. But this isn't always the case, especially when FPS stems from severe genetic defects or is exacerbated by extreme environmental factors. In such instances, the prognosis may be less optimistic.

The first few weeks of a puppy's life are especially crucial in determining the outcome of FPS. Puppies that manage to survive this critical period and show positive signs like weight gain and increased activity levels often stand a good chance of normal development. This improvement is a hopeful indicator, but it doesn’t guarantee an entirely smooth path ahead.

Just be sure to set realistic expectations and commit to providing the best possible care.

Supporting your puppy’s health beyond FPS

Recovery from Fading Puppy Syndrome only marks the first step toward a healthy canine life. After your pup overcomes FPS, they’ll need continual support to stay in good health. Regular veterinary check-ups play a key role in helping the puppy grow and develop normally while aiding in the early detection of any new health concerns.

Nutrition is another cornerstone of a puppy's recovery and continued health. Feeding them a high-quality diet that suits their specific breed and size is essential for their overall development.

They’ll also need a clean, safe, and stress-free environment, which will bolster their immune system and their overall well-being.

As the puppy grows, regular exercise and healthy socialization become increasingly important. These activities should be tailored to the puppy’s stage of recovery and overall health, facilitating both physical and mental development.

All the while, continuous monitoring remains vital. Keeping track of the puppy's weight gain, eating habits, behavior, and energy levels can provide early indications of any issues that need attention.

Finally, emotional support is just as important as anything else. Puppies thrive in a loving and supportive environment, much like humans. Positive interactions, like general playtime and positive reinforcement training, are vital to their emotional development.

How dog insurance can help

Regular vet check-ups, balanced nutrition, a nurturing environment, and emotional support are crucial for all puppies—not just those who have faced challenges like Fading Puppy Syndrome but for all pets.

Meanwhile, though most insurance companies won’t insure dogs before 8 weeks of age, puppy insurance* can serve as a great safety net when your dog is past the neonatal phase, preparing you financially for unforeseen health issues and helping you afford needed care.

*ManyPets pet insurance does not cover pets owned for commercial purposes (including those currently owned by breeders), pets younger than 8 weeks old, or pre-existing conditions.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.