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Whelping the Pregnant Dog

Whelping the Pregnant Dog

by Mark Hale, DVM

Bolivar, MO


            So, you want your dog to have puppies? Witnessing the birth and early growth of a litter of puppies can be an amazing and exciting experience. But first you must answer some important questions to yourself. Do I have the time, space, and financial resources necessary to properly care for them? Are there enough good homes that want to take the puppies after weaning? What if there are health problems that require veterinary care, can my family handle that emotionally and financially? Also you must realize that thousands of dogs are euthanized each year in shelters due to abandonment and lack of adoptions. You should carefully consider the pros and cons of your decision before proceeding recklessly.

            Preparations for the birth should begin early in gestation. Be sure to keep track of the breeding date so you know what to expect and when. The gestation period of a dog is about 63 days, but can range between 58-68 days. During the first month of gestation you will not notice much change. No alterations in diet or exercise are required during this time, as long as the female is in good body condition and is up to date on vaccinations and parasite control.

            After about 35 days of pregnancy, the females' calorie requirements start to increase. You should gradually increase to about twice as much food as normal. A good quality food approved for growth is best. Do not over supplement with vitamins or calcium, as a good growth food is already balanced for these.

            Sometime after 45 days, the female should be examined by your veterinarian. Any questions about what to expect can be addressed. Radiographs can show the mineralized fetal skeletons so you know how many pups to expect. An idea of the size of the pups and the pelvic canal can also be seen. Decisions concerning a planned caesarian can be made depending on the results of the x-rays, the breed of your dog, and any previous history.

            A comfortable area should be set aside for whelping and raising the puppies. The female should feel comfortable here and any climate control that may be necessary for the pups can be arranged. When your dog's due date is approaching, you should begin monitoring her rectal temperature. When her temperature drops below 100F, labor may begin within 24 hours.

            During the first stage of labor uterine contractions begin. The bitch will appear restless and may pace, dig, shiver, pant, or vomit. These are normal signs so don't become alarmed too quickly.

            The second stage is the hard labor stage in which the puppy is expelled. Puppies are born covered in a clear membrane that must be cleaned away from the face or it will suffocate. The mother usually bites and licks this away. If she has not done this within a couple of minutes after birth, then you must clean the membrane away for her and rub the pup with a towel. The umbilical cord can be tied off if necessary with string (fishing line or dental floss work great). Expect about half of the puppies to be born tail first. This is not abnormal for dogs. Although every litter is different, you should expect one pup every 45-60 minutes with 10-30 minutes of hard straining. It is normal for them to take a rest partway through delivery, and she may not strain at all for up to 4 hours between pups. Call your veterinarian if any of the following occur: 1) 30-60 minutes of strong contractions occur with no puppy produced. 2) Greater than 4 hours pass between pups and you know there are more inside. 3) She fails to go into labor within 24 hours of a persistent temperature drop, or if 70 days have passed since breeding. 4) She is in obvious extreme pain.

            After whelping it is normal for her to spike a fever for 24-48 hours, but this should not be accompanied by signs of illness. Normal vaginal discharge should be odorless and dark green, turning to a dark red-brown later. This may persist in small amounts for a month but should never have an odor.

            Newborn puppies should spend their time feeding and sleeping. Puppies that nurse poorly, cry constantly, or do not sleep with the rest of the litter are in trouble and should be examined by your veterinarian. Weight gain should occur at 5-10% of body weight daily, so daily weight monitoring can alert you to a problem early. Intervention for young puppies must be done early and aggressively or the prognosis is very poor. Mothers should consume about three times their normal amount of a growth food during lactation.

            Most dogs are excellent mothers and problems are few. The basic rule is to seek veterinary care if she seems to feel sick or if she fails to care for her young. Puppies nurse until they are about 6 weeks old. After they are eating puppy food good they may then be adopted to their new homes. Routine deworming of puppies is recommended starting at 3-4 weeks of age (worms can be passed to the puppies at birth). Vaccinations and a physical exam by your veterinarian are routinely started at 6 weeks of age. If you have any questions about this or other animal health subjects, please make an appointment to see your veterinarian.