Providing small enteral feedings for parenterally fed preterm infants during the first few weeks of life improves feeding tolerance. However, it is not known whether these feedings achieve this result via stimulation of gut growth and/or maturation of function. The minimal level needed to attain these responses is also critical to identify, because neonatologists often limit feeding volumes to minimize the risk of necrotizing enterocolitis. Thus, we determined the dose-response relationships between enteral feeding volume and gastrointestinal growth and small intestine motor function. Newborn canine pups (n = 51) received 0, 2.5, 5.0, 7.5, 10, 30 or 100% of their daily fluid intake enterally with the remainder given parenterally for 4-5 d. Motor activity was recorded, blood drawn for determination of gastrin and motilin, and intestinal tissue harvested for determination of DNA and protein content and morphology. Feeding volumes that provided 30% or more of daily fluid intake significantly increased small intestinal mucosal growth above that of unfed pups, but feeding volumes that provided as little as 10% of daily fluid intake significantly induced maturation of motor patterns beyond that of unfed pups. Plasma concentrations of gastrin and motilin did not differ among groups. We conclude that small enteral feedings typically used for minimal enteral feeding strategies improve feeding tolerance by triggering maturation of motor function but not gut growth in neonatal dogs. Small feeding volumes trigger this maturation as well as large volumes.