Pregnancy in Dogs

June 6, 2010

The other day, my receptionist was pointing out that many pet owners don’t seem to understand the importance of seeing a veterinarian while their pet is pregnant and immediately after the pet gives birth. Case-in-point: A large black lab had 9 puppies without incident last week. Fortunately, the owners knew that their bitch needed to be seen within 24 hours of giving birth. And, lo-and -behold, Dr. Cone palpated what felt like another large puppy still in abdomen. An X-ray confirmed a large dead puppy was still in the uterus. Because this puppy was dead, it did not release the hormones necessary to tell the uterus to continue contractions. An emergency C-section was necessary to remove this pup. If the puppy had not been found, a nasty infection in the uterus could have led to sepsis and even death of the mother dog.

To avoid a problem like the above, lets go back to the beginning and talk about the steps needed to keep your female happy and healthy throughout her preganancy. The first step is to determine if your pet is even pregnant. We can tell if your pet is pregnant with ultrasound around 21 days after a successful breeding. By 25 or 26 days we can see fetal heartbeats, which is always a thrill. Counting puppies with ultrasound is not accurate, so we prefer to do this with x- rays around 45 days, when the puppies are getting calcified bones that we can see. An x-ray like this might have alerted the owners of this labrador to the fact that they should expect 9 puppies and that there was one that was abnormally large, so close observation of labor would be important.

A pregnancy test is available for dogs and can identify successful conception at about 24 days, however this test does not tell you if the fetuses are growing and viable. It simply tells you if there was a conception 24 or more days ago. Therefore, I prefer ultrasounds to pregnancy testing in dogs. Dogs carry puppies for 63-65 days, but since it is hard to tell exactly when egg and sperm actually meet (which can be several days after breeding) you can expect puppies anywhere from 58-72 days after breeding.

The next question is, “How can I tell when she is going to give birth?”. Here are some guidelines to follow. Dogs have three stages of labor. The first stage has several things you may notice. First, the milk drops. This can happen a week or more before she actually whelps. About 24 hours before the puppies begin to arrive, the bitch begins to nest. She’ll seek out a comfy, private place to have the puppies. If you have done your job, she will choose her nesting box rather than a place under the house or under the bed. Typically, she will want to be near a food source and somewhere very quiet and secluded. She will begin to pace and pant and spin in circles. Also about 24 hours before she begins contractions, her body temperature will drop a degree or two. Typically it will go under 100F. I recommend that you begin taking your pregnant dog’s rectal temperature twice a day around day 55. When it drops, you’ll know to be ready within in 24 hours. If the bitch is a breed that requires a c-section, like an English Bulldog, then this is a good time to schedule her c-section.

Then we get stage two of labor. This is when actual contractions begin and puppies arrive. Typically a bitch does not need your help here, but I cannot help myself when puppies are born in my presence. I am ready with towels and dry washcloths to clean off the placental sac, especially around the mouth and nose so that the new pup can breath easily. Mom will lick this stuff away and eat it if you don’t help her out. I also tie off the umbilical cords and cut off the excess, but Mom may do this with her teeth if you don’t intervene.

Everyone with a dog in labor needs to know when to worry. Indications that a c-section is necessary are: Normal contractions but no puppy delivered within 30 minutes. Weak contractions for 4 hours and no puppies or more than 2 hours between puppies. You can actually monitor your dog’s unborn puppies and contractions with a device made by a company called Whelp Wise. Go to whelpwise.org to find out how to rent a unit. It can save puppies’ lives by notifying you that heartbeats are getting weak, which would mean an emergency c-section is necessary.

The third and final stage of labor is the passing of placentas. Each puppy is associated with a green glob of placenta that had been the nutritional support for the puppy. So, if there are six puppies, then you can expect 6 placentas to pass, but they may not pass in any order. Sometimes a few puppies are born before their placentas come out. In other cases a placenta will follow each pup. The only thing you need to worry about is that there are the same number of placentas as puppies. If not, then there may be a retained placenta that your veterinarian will help the bitch pass with oxytocin. The bitch will eat these if you don’t discard them. I usually discard them before she gets a chance to eat them.

Within 24 hours of birth of the final puppy, it is important that you go see your veterinarian with the mom and pups. The vet will look for any deformities in the puppies, help tidy up any umbilical cords that were left too long and make sure they are nursing well. For the mother, he or she will make sure that all placenta and puppies have passed and will give oxytocin to help expel any leftover material and encourage milk to drop. At this point, NOT BEFORE, the bitch should be started on a calcium supplement. This will help prevent deadly hypocalcemia as huge demands are put on the mother to produce massive quantities of milk.

Now the fun begins as you watch the babies grow and learn. But, that is another topic we can discuss later.

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