You’d be exhausted if your babies had been keeping you up all day and all night for the past two weeks. Especially if there were 15 of them.
So forgive new mum Romy, a three-year-old pedigree Irish Setter, if she does not look her perkiest as she marshals her new troops into place at feeding time.
Suckling almost twice the number of puppies she might have reasonably expected when she became pregnant makes for a chaotic scene every time they get hungry.
When I meet Romy, at the Coventry home she shares with her owner Natasha White, she is feeding her new family. I find myself immersed in a scene of utter chaos.
The puppies are the sweetest little imps, with the floppiest and silkiest little ears and crinkly, squished old-man faces.
Using the cashpoint. Nipping to the shops. The heart-warming story of the pups giving hope to war heroes
Within a few seconds, the ten little girls and five little boys have stolen my heart.
They’re good at that. But picking up other skills will take time. Like seeing where they’re going — their eyes haven’t yet opened — and learning to take their turn.
Which means feeding time is mayhem. There are puppies pushing and shoving, rolling this way and that, nose-diving over their brothers and sisters in search of a teat.
Quite a handful: One of the puppies, named Red Boy, can take a nap anywhere
Poor old Romy. Even with some human help, it takes an hour and 20 minutes for her to feed them, and then, two hours later, the puppies are back for more.
Which is why the moment a feeding session ends, she immediately lays out flat on the floor, rests the whole length of her forlorn face on the ground and allows her eyelids to droop like autumn oak leaves. Dog-tired, you might say.
No wonder she’s eager to squeeze in a cat-nap when she can. (Not that any self-respecting Irish Setter would ever call it that, of course.)
With lunch over and the permission of breeder Natasha White and her housemate and co-owner Alicia Copping, I reach over and pick up one of the puppies. A little lad no larger than a guinea pig, he’s about 12in long from nose to the base of his tail.
When he was born, on November 24, the last of the puppies to emerge, he was the biggest, weighing 11oz. Now he’s 2.2lb. What’s his name?
‘Red Boy,’ says Natasha, 28, pointing to the colour of his collar.
She shows me a chart, listing the puppies’ sex, birth times and weights. Each of the 15 was assigned a coloured collar and hence a temporary name. ‘Except we ran out of coloured collars,’ says Natasha. ‘And some colours had to be doubled up.’
So, it’s Turquoise Boy, Turquoise Girl, Purple Boy, Purple Girl, Red Boy, Red Girl, White, Yellow, Green, Pink, Orange, Blue and Gold. That’s only 13? Like she said, they ran out of collars.
The other two are Gold Neck — courtesy of a small blob of nail varnish Natasha painted on the puppy’s collar — and No Mark, who has no collar or nail varnish.
‘Then we thought it wouldn’t be fair to call a puppy No Mark’, says Natasha’s mum Janice, 57, who has popped round to help out with the feeding (Romy hasn’t got enough milk to go round, so it is supplemented with formula). ‘So she’s the only one with a real name: Rosie.’
As I stroke Red Boy’s golden-brown fur, his little snout instinctively reaches for my finger. His toothless mouth starts sucking hard and contentedly.
I have two children — now five and two — and remember them sucking on my finger in just the same way, with the same contented enthusiasm.
If I’m worried that Romy might be jealous, I needn’t be. Of course, she clocks what I’m doing and walks over. But a quick glance at Natasha and Alicia assures mum that I’m not here to harm the puppies. She brushes past me and lies down again. More rest. ‘Irish Setters are very gentle and delicate,’ explains Natasha.
Within a few minutes, Red Boy is asleep in the palm of my hand. (I told you he was tiny.) I’m not sure who is happier at this point — him or me.
‘They’ll be fully grown in a year to 18 months,’ says Alicia, a 28-year-old police officer. By then, Red Boy’s shoulders will be more than 31in above the ground.
Natasha, a veterinary nurse, works for the breeding programme for Guide Dogs For The Blind Association, so she couldn’t be more at home with a dog pregnancy. But surely even she was a little taken aback by the extraordinary litter she has ended up with?
Her eyes widen as she recalls the night Romy gave birth.
‘We’d had a scan at four weeks — just less than half way through the pregnancy — and we could see seven puppies on the screen. But it’s very difficult to tell, and we just watched Romy grow and grow as the pregnancy progressed.
‘By the end, her belly was so distended she looked like a cow with udders. For the last week she didn’t want to do anything. She was lying on her back and couldn’t get comfy. So we knew there’d be more than the usual eight or nine puppies. But it was a shock when she’d given birth to ten and her belly was still huge — you could still feel the other ones still inside.’
The first, Turquoise Boy, was born at 7.40pm. They then arrived steadily every few minutes until number 13, Gold Neck, a female, was born at 1.18am.
Then Romy seemed to lose energy, despite the fact that she clearly had not finished.
Natasha was beginning to worry but then took her for a little walk in the garden to get her energy going. The contractions started again. Two hours after number 13 came Turquoise Girl, followed by the final arrival, Red Boy.
Natasha’s reaction when it was all over? ‘Joy and shock. One of the most amazing things is that none was stillborn. They were all delivered normally, there were no breech births and Romy severed all the umbilical cords herself.’
Remarkably, none of the animals was underweight — there was no obvious runt in this litter.
Of course, no one can keep 15 dogs. Natasha and Alicia are Kennel Club-certified breeders, and all the puppies, bar one, will be sold. But only after extensive telephone interviews with each potential owner in order to make sure they are properly capable of looking after their new pup.
The criteria are: they mustn’t work full-time; they must have owned a dog before (preferably a large breed and ideally a setter); and they must not to be too old to handle a naturally energetic dog.
Fourteen have already been placed — in homes in Coventry, Newark, Bognor Regis, Reading … and Florida (with a British expat). At £600 each, that’s £8,400. ‘It may sound a lot,’ says Natasha. ‘But it costs a fortune to get to this point.’
She points to a huge £50 bag of dog food which will last only three or four days when they get to six weeks old. Then there’s the cost of bedding, lighting and washing, not to mention vet’s bills.
The puppies were not meant as a money-making exercise, but simply because Natasha and Alicia wanted to see the offspring that Romy and the puppies’ dad, Ruben, their other beloved Irish setter, would produce.
Talking of dad, Ruben is out the back. He’s known Romy since she was a few weeks old. They sleep in the same bed, usually one on top of the other, though the puppies are, Alicia explains, the result of a holiday romance: ‘We were in Dorset in a caravan at the time!’
Next year, perhaps it would be wise to take the dogs on separate holidays — unless they want to try to supersede the Cambridgeshire Mastiff who broke the world record for the largest litter of puppies in 2005 when she gave birth to 24.