What to Expect, What to Do, and When to Call the Vet
Part Three: Countdown to the Big Day
By Arliss Paddock
The sight of beautiful, healthy newborn pups nestled against their contented dam is at the heart of every dedicated breeder’s hopes and dreams. Doing what we can to ensure a safe, successful whelping that goes as smoothly as possible entails much education beforehand. In this series of articles we have aimed to provide an introduction to the learning process that will surely continue for the breeder-with every litter, with ongoing study, and with the guidance of experienced breeder-mentors.
In Part One (Fall 2009 AKC Breeder) we presented an overview of some of the physical changes in the pregnant female leading up to and during whelping, and in Part Two (Winter 2009) several knowledgeable breeders shared their tips and insights. To conclude our look at the whelping process and how to prepare for it, in this issue two more experienced breeders provide advice from a chronological perspective.
One Week Before the Due Date
Longtime Basset Hound breeder Sanda Launey, of Texas, is a firm believer in good planning. She has progesterone testing of her bitches performed during the breeding period to identify the time of ovulation, which allows pinpointing of the due date within a day or so. With a clear sense of the likely whelping date in mind, preparations can be made in a timely and thorough manner.
One week before whelping, Launey makes sure that all supplies have been assembled and that the room and the whelping box prepared for the big day.
“By the week before the due date all necessary changes to the room have been made,” she says, “including lighting and redirection of air vents to prevent drafts near the whelping box. My whelping box has been put up and dressed with linens. My bitch has been introduced to it and spent time in it for successively longer periods of time. All other canine housemates are restricted from the whelping box and the area around it.
“A week before, the weight scale and whelping supplies are laid out at the ready next to the whelping box, along with stacks of freshly laundered linens and a heating pad. My cell phone and charger are placed in the room. Two boxes have been lined with linens in case puppies need to be transported to the clinic along with their mother. A hot-water bottle is with the boxes — ready to be filled and used if necessary.”
Launey also makes sure at this time to prepare for any possible contingencies, such as a trip to the vet:
“My car is made ready a week before whelping with necessary linens and supplies should an emergency trip to the veterinarian be indicated. I usually put an emergency driver on notice — if a trip is necessary, it is best to have a friend at the wheel while you are in the back attending to your bitch and puppies.”
Other preparations that Launey is sure to make include having ready nutrition for the dam during labor and supplies for supplementing or tube-feeding the puppies.
“In my kitchen I have stocked up on cans of chicken broth that I can heat and offer to my bitch during her whelping rest-periods, as well as any delicacies that will entice her to eat after whelping,” she says. “I also have laid in a supply of formula, with bottles and nipples for supplementing puppies that will nurse, and tubes and syringes for tube-feeding puppies unable to nurse.”
Keep a Whelping Diary
Launey has found it extremely helpful to keep a journal of observations and data during the late pregnancy and the whelping. She begins making notes one week before the due date.
“The week before whelping I begin an observational diary and keep it next to the whelping box,” she says. “Several pages are reserved for observations about the bitch several days prior to, during, and several days after whelping. The diary begins with the recording of the mother-to-be’s baseline morning and evening temperature and also includes behavioral observations, such as what she has eaten, how much, and when.
“The diary also includes one prepared page for each of the expected puppies, plus two extra. On each ‘puppy page’ is a basic outline of a generic puppy body so that significant markings can be noted. Each also has a place to indicate sex, time of birth, whether the placenta was delivered with the puppy, and birth weight, as well as space to note subsequent weights. This diary is invaluable if there is a need for veterinary intervention for either dam or puppies.”
The Pre-whelping Vet Visit
One week before whelping is a good time to touch base with your veterinarian regarding the pregnancy and also to clarify what medical supplies he recommends you have on hand for the delivery.
Like many breeders, Launey usually has the bitch X-rayed at this time.
“At the beginning of the last week of pregnancy, I have my bitch X-rayed so that we know how many puppies to expect and whether the whelps are uniform in size. The visit strengthens the bond between you and your veterinarian for the upcoming event. At this time you can discuss whether or not you can expect to manage the whelping at home, and you can confirm what phone number to call if there is an emergency, what symptoms would indicate the need for emergency care, and which vet or emergency clinic to contact if emergency services are needed.
“All information is kept next to the whelping box along with cell phone, diary, and supplies. If you have to make a trip to the emergency clinic, the diary goes with you. It is a valuable record that is not as tired or stressed as you are.”
Launey tries to give her vet a heads-up during the day if she suspects whelping is likely that night. “Usually litters are born at night,” she says. “I make it a practice to call the clinic before it closes and let them know whether or not I suspect I will be whelping middle-of-the-night puppies. My vet returns the call at the end of the day. The dam’s chart has been reviewed, and we discuss my afternoon observations.”
Lhasa Apso breeder Cassandra de la Rosa, of Olympia, Washington, likewise advises making notes before and during the whelping. “Always take notes on what is happening during labor,” she says. “Knowing the time a bitch starts having contractions, their spacing and strength, what time you see the ‘bubble’ appear, and any other observations — all are important information in case you need to call your vet. If the bitch is having a series of hard, pushing contractions every couple of minutes, I don’t let this go for more than an hour before calling my vet, whereas a few contractions every 10 minutes is no cause for alarm. When you call your vet, you can read from your notes so he knows exactly what the situation is and can give advice.”
Assisting Normal Delivery
De la Rosa routinely assists with aspects of the delivery to help ensure that all goes smoothly. “When a puppy presents,” she says, “I immediately break the sac and wipe the face of fluid, even when the pup is not completely out. I clamp the cord and let the bitch tear it up to the clamp to avoid having her cut it too short. If the placenta has not delivered, I use two clamps — one close to the pup and one to hold the cord — so the placenta can be drawn out after the pup is cleaned off.
“I place clean, dry puppies in a warm box as new puppies arrive. I try to get the puppies nursing as soon as possible, as this stimulates hormones in the bitch that keep labor moving along.”
Launey likewise offers some basic support at every whelping. “The more litters you have whelped, the more experienced an observer you become and are less tempted to interfere. I routinely protect the newborn’s belly from the possibility of being herniated by the mother while I allow her to sever the umbilical cord and then consume the first few placentas. I routinely suction newborn noses and throats with a bulb syringe. If the puppy is somewhat subdued upon presentation, I may support him between both hands and swing him from overhead to my knees in a gentle downward arc, then suction again.
“It is important to quickly dry and stimulate puppies by rubbing them with clean towels. I tie the umbilical cord close to the body with dental floss, and then I paint the severed end of the umbilical cord with iodine. This must all be done quickly so that puppies are never allowed to chill. The puppy is then given to the dam and allowed to nurse, as nursing of the first puppies helps stimulate the birthing process.”
When Problems Arise
Although most deliveries go normally for both breeders, they each are sure to have necessary emergency supplies on hand and to be alert for any signs of a problem.
“I keep sterile gloves at hand yet try not to have to use them,” Launey says. “It’s not uncommon in our long-backed Basset Hounds, which have long uterine horns, to take a rest for as long as a few hours mid-whelping. This is one example of how having the diary with exact observations and times is very helpful. When I know I have more puppies due, and contractions are coming close together yet are milder and weaker than before and nonproductive, I make a phone call to describe to my vet the history of the whelping thus far.
“To determine whether the bitch is experiencing secondary uterine inertia, he’ll need information such as how long since the presentation of the last whelp, the contraction history of this particular whelp, whether this puppy’s water has broken, and whether the puppy has passed into the birth canal or presents with a contraction but at the end of the contraction retreats out of reach again. At this point the bitch may need an injection of post-pituitary hormone to help her deliver the remaining whelps.”
Other situations can be cause for concern as well, as De la Rosa explains: “Other sure danger signs are a foul, smelly discharge or one with fresh blood. If a placenta arrives before a puppy, there is trouble if the puppy does not follow quickly.”
In cases where the bitch is having a problem delivering a pup because of poor positioning in the birth canal, sometimes de la Rosa will carefully intervene to try to alleviate the situation. “A breech presentation — when the puppy is coming tail-first — can be harder to deliver. I try not to pull a leg, but if you can get hold of the puppy’s body [using sterile gloves], you can very gently pull or rock it back and forth in a downward direction toward the bitch’s hocks, only with a contraction. To help deliver a stubborn pup that is protruding from the vaginal opening, you also can stand the bitch on her hind legs, reach low onto the outside of her abdomen with your free hand, and push gently downward — again, with a contraction.”
Conservative measures taken by the breeder can sometimes help less-than-ideal positioning of the pup to resolve on its own.
“If a bitch is straining and you do a vaginal check and feel a shoulder, back of the head, or nothing, there is difficulty with the puppy presenting properly,” de la Rosa explains. “Before you call your vet, you can try this old trick: Stand the bitch on her front legs and walk her around the room a couple of times. This usually draws the puppy back up the canal enough to allow it to reposition normally. The bitch’s labor will slow down, as she has to move the puppy back down the canal, but hopefully it will then be in a better position for normal delivery.”
If the difficulty is not resolved quickly, however, a trip to the vet is advised. “Puppies that present ‘upside down’ — that is, face-up rather than face-down — are difficult and painful for the bitch to deliver, though not impossible. This presentation frequently signals the need for help from your vet.”
On the day after whelping, both Launey and de la Rosa take the bitch and her puppies to the clinic for a health check. “We always take the bitch in for an exam 24 hours after whelping,” says de la Rosa, “particularly if we have lost any placentas. We monitor weight daily to ensure that everyone is nursing adequately and gaining weight. We rarely supplement.”
Last But Not Least
With preparation, study, and the guidance of your veterinarian and experienced breeder-mentors, you’ll help to ensure a safe, successful whelping. Your next step, of course, will be to nurture these contented newborns into becoming the beautiful, healthy, wonderful companions they’re meant to be.
Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels, is former managing editor of the AKC Gazette, and is editor of the magazine's Breed Columns.