Kolkata, March 9 (IANS) Indian researchers have for the first time reported milk theft in pups from surrogate mother dogs, a finding that could aid in responsible training and breeding programmes.
“Milk theft has never been reported in any canid (dog family), and for that matter, in any carnivore. So this is a novel finding. We find that the pups try to take advantage of any available lactating female to get nutrition, which obviously is a good strategy for them, especially at the time when they are being refused by their own mothers,” Anindita Bhadra, Behavioural Biologist from the Department of Biological Sciences at IISER Kolkata, told IANS.
In a competitive and disturbed environment with limited resources and high mortality, this ability to snatch milk would be highly adaptive for the pups in stray communities, Bhadra explained.
Shedding light on crucial developmental stages in the parent-offspring interaction in stray dogs, Bhadra and research scholar Manabi Paul tracked as many as 22 mother-litter units (having 22 mothers and 78 pups) from the 15 dog groups they studied over a span of five years in West Bengal.
The study identified the 7th – 13th week period of pup age as the zone of conflict between the mother and her pups.
“Weaning conflict, which was first proposed for humans, occurs when the mother wishes to stop nursing but the infant wishes to continue. This is the first study that identifies weaning conflict and the exact period of pup development in which it occurs for dogs,” Bhadra said.
Before the 7th week, the mother encourages suckling solicitations and also initiates nursing, and beyond the 13th week, neither the mother nor the pups are interested in nursing/suckling, leading to the resolution of conflict, the researchers said in the study published in February in PLOS ONE.
While it is a common practice among breeders to disallow puppies to nurse after the third or fourth week, Bhadra says it is advisable to leave the pups with their mothers a little longer (till the onset of the seventh week) for better growth and development.
The study also notes that allonursing, the nursing of another female’s offspring, though “apparently maladaptive” for the mothers, might indeed be an evolutionarily stable strategy if related females tend to den close to each other.
“Our observations provide support for this idea, as most of the observed allomothers (surrogate mothers) were related to the pups,” she said, adding that this nursing behaviour is more common in primates and ungulates than in carnivores.