AKC eNewsletter

Not Too Hot, Not Too Cold
Keeping the temperature just right in the whelping room

By Darlene Arden
Darlene Arden is an award-winning writer, lecturer and author who specializes in Toy dogs and their care.

Keep your new litter's whelping area a safe and comfortable temperature.
(Australian Shepherd; C C Photography)

Monitoring the temperature of the dam and whelping box, avoiding unnecessary changes in temperature and watching for signals from the pups and bitch can help ensure you keep your new litter and their mother’s whelping area a safe and comfortable temperature.

“The heat in and around the puppies must be carefully monitored,” said breeder and Oxford, Mass., veterinarian Betty Trainor, whose clientele consists primarily of purebred dog breeders.

“There must be adequate heat for the puppies themselves but with sufficient variation in different areas for the pups to choose what is most comfortable for them, particularly when they are some distance away from the mother,” said Trainor, who also pointed out that a portion of the whelping area should be away from the heat, so the dam can be comfortable and supply her own body heat to the puppies when nursing.

“They will readily respond to temperature fluctuations, going to warmer or cooler areas of the whelping box on their own,” added Trainor. “As they get a little older, they will indicate their preferences so that heat can be reduced when not needed. Too much heat is as bad, if not worse, than not enough.”

Trainor recommends a steady normal room temperature of approximately 70 degrees F. for the comfort of the dam.

“I definitely want a thermostat for the environmental temperature of the room itself, as well as a thermometer kept very close to the whelping box,” Trainor said.

Dee Hutchinson, a second-generation Dachshund breeder who has been breeding for 47 years, keeps the room temperature where her bitches whelp constant.

“If it’s really cold and they need extra heat, I will use a heating pad at a low temperature,” Hutchinson said. “I have found that if you keep the room and pups too warm, they don’t do as well. They want the warmth of the mom. Common sense is really the best way to check the heat that they need. If mom is happy; the room is warm; and the pups are warm to the touch, eating and getting fat and comfortably snuggled with mom and each other, let common sense say everything is OK.”

If the pups are cold to the touch, then they need more warmth. To add warmth, Hutchinson uses hot pads or a heating pad under the bedding.

“I have used the heating lamp, but only on rare occasions. If the room is cold, if the mother feels cold and the pups are thin and feel cold (then) I make sure the lamp is high and not close to the mom and pups,” she said. “This is where one has to be very careful, if the lamp is too close, that’s the time for dehydration. They will leave the mom and try and find a cooler spot.”

Steve and Alice Lawrence of Stafford Springs, Conn., have bred Komondorok, Pulik and Havanese. They keep the temperature of the whelping area at 85 degrees for the first two days after the puppies have been whelped then drop it to 72 degrees. They have found that if the room is at a comfortable temperature and the puppies are staying with the dam, then it is more important to keep the dam comfortable. If the bitches get too hot (their bitches keep their full corded coats when they whelp litters), then they don’t want to stay with the puppies. So the Lawrences work to keep the bitch comfortable, and she in turn will keep the puppies safe and warm. The Lawrences have a separate thermostat for the whelping room. When determining its prime temperature, they take into consideration drafts, the season, safety, the interest of the dam in caring for the puppies, and the amount of coat the dam has to insulate the puppies when they nurse. Since both the Havanese and Puli bitches have a good deal of coat to keep the puppies warm, they have found little difference between the temperature requirements of the two breeds.

In their early years as breeders, the Lawrences shined a heat lamp into the whelping box, placed so that the dam could choose to stay under it or move away when she was too warm. Later they switched to a heating pad designed for puppies. It is about 12 x 24 inches and has just enough room for the puppies to crowd together on top. It reaches only about 95 degrees, so nobody gets excessively hot; and, of course, it has an armored, chew-proof electrical cord.

“In recent years we simply have used a rubber-backed fleece pad for the whelping box floor and have draped the top of the whelping box with a blanket, which is secured in place with heavy clamps to keep the heat in and create a 'cave-like' atmosphere for mommy and babies,” Alice Lawrence said. “The latter method has worked the best so far. The washable fleece pads, which are the dimension of the whelping box, are an incredibly important part of our successful whelping process.”

The Lawrences look for signs from the pups — any kind of discomfort (hot or cold), burrowing, caving, undue nesting, etc. as well as panting to determine the right whelping box temperature.

“If Mom wants to transport the pups someplace other than her whelping box, we take note, too,” said Lawrence. “We try to keep a calmness about the whelping box so Mom is extremely comfortable and secure.”

Longtime purebred dog fancier Lilian Barber has been breeding Italian Greyhounds for more than 30 years.

“I use a heating pad if the litter is born in what passes for winter here (California) but only for the first week or so. I have a metal McKee whelping box with a top that closes. The mother can still get out through the front door when she needs to,” Barber explained. “Body heat from the mother stays in quite nicely.”

Breed makes a difference.

If puppies are cold to the touch, they need more warmth.
(Cavalier King Charles Spaniel; Isabelle Francais ©AKC)

“Toys have little resistance to excessive heat or cold,” Trainor noted. “The environmental temperature should be warm enough for the dam, but I have used a heat lamp suspended with varying height adjustments above a portion of the whelping box with a thermometer available to frequently monitor the area being warmed. The heat from the lamp must never fall directly upon the dam, the box itself being of adequate size for the dam to keep away from the heated area. At one time, I had an adjustable poultry heater that I could put under one half the bottom of the box, which I raised off the floor and well above the heating unit. I found this to be ideal but, unfortunately, when it outlived its usefulness, I could never find a replacement.

“I do not recommend a heating pad within the box itself unless it is totally chew-proof and waterproof, including the cord connecting it to the electric source,” Trainor added.
When cleaning the box or when the mother is away from the pups, Trainor puts the puppies in a small, partially towel-covered box under which she places a heating pad, well insulated from the bottom of the box with towels and pre-heats it to a comfortable temperature before she places the puppies in it.

“If the puppies must travel, a towel-covered warm water bottle inside will suffice,” she said.

Trainor monitors the bitch's temperature twice daily for the first few days postpartum and once a day for the next week or so.

“Perhaps the first day or so she (the bitch) might be 102.5 F, but it should soon settle back to 102 or below. Any temperature over 103 F should be considered a sign of trouble brewing. There is no reason for it varying with different litters.”

For newer, or less experienced breeders, having a mentor to discuss the intricacies of temperature and other topics can prove invaluable. While the breeder from whom the bitch was purchased is often the first choice for a mentor, other options are available.
“I think that every breed club could and would refer a new breeder to some experienced person in their geographic area,” said Lawrence. “Attending a local dog show or local all-breed or breed club to meet experienced breeders is also helpful. Most breeders are happy to help by sharing their knowledge and experience if they are asked.”

Find a national breed club (the parent club for a particular breed) or any local AKC-affiliated club in your area here.

  Ronald N. Rella, director, Breeder Services
Theresa Shea, editor | Email: AKCbreeder@akc.org
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© The American Kennel Club 2006