AKC eNewsletter



First-Litter Rehearsal

By Catherine B. Nelson, The American Kennel Club's 2004 Breeder of the Year

Catherine B. Nelson
No Broadway director would raise the curtain without rehearsals, but an astounding number of owners face their first litter without ever having witnessed a whelping. Granted, nature is wonderful, and the majority of new mothers instinctively know what to do, needing only the owner’s comforting presence. However, statistically 30 percent of puppies delivered do not survive to 3 weeks of age. While this statistic may seem daunting, take heart. There are some extra steps each owner can take to maximize the chances that their first litter will be in the living 70 percent.

Becoming knowledgeable about the delivery process; arranging for veterinary help, if it should be needed; and understanding the correct care for the neonates are as important to a first-time breeder as memorizing the script is to an actor.

Many excellent books deal with reproduction and whelping. Most have detailed illustrations, timetables and checklists. Get several and read them cover to cover. Discuss any questions with your vet and with experienced breeders. Nothing beats firsthand experience. In the months leading up to the big event, try to witness a whelping, perhaps with the breeder of your own bitch or with another experienced breeder in your area. The books say to stroke newborns briskly but gently with a rough cloth until the puppies take a breath. It’s very comforting to have seen how fast is “brisk” and how firm a stroke qualifies as “gentle,” particularly at 2 a.m. For the event itself, cultivate a good (emphasis on good) friend who has whelped puppies and is willing to drop everything and come to keep you company and assist, if necessary.

When planning the breeding, talk with your veterinarian about her availability after regular clinic hours, should you need professional help. If she is willing to attend in case of emergency, thank your lucky stars, and provide her with a written note of the due dates as soon as you know the bitch is in whelp. Remind your veterinarian again the week before the due date, especially if a weekend may be involved. Notify her when the temperature drops, and reconfirm telephone numbers. If an emergency clinic will be your only option, locate the clinic, and drive there ahead of time, planning the route and timing the drive. Go in and ask about their procedures for whelping problems and C-sections. Such advance preparation saves much undue anxiety.

Caring for the newborns starts with building or buying the whelping box and planning temperature control. Every breeder will be happy to detail her “ideal” whelping setup, and most books contain excellent suggestions and diagrams. To thrive, neonates need warmth (since they cannot regulate their own body temperature for several weeks), food and the physical stimulation of the mother’s licking.

As far as whelping boxes are concerned, bigger does not equal better. A box long enough for the bitch to stretch out in one direction and slightly longer than shoulder to rump in the other will give her space to get relief from a heat source at one end and will be small enough to keep a wandering pup from getting hopelessly “lost.”

With good preparation, your first whelping can realize your dreams.
When using a lamp above or a heating pad below, do a trial run with a thermometer on the floor of the box. Pups instinctively seek their mother’s body, the key heat source for the pups. Conveniently enough, this comfort zone is also the breakfast bar, so with minimum effort expended, pups can eat and sleep and eat and sleep. Too hot of a setup makes the dam restless, and the pups scatter rather than pile up next to their mother. During their first weeks of life, puppies stop nursing when they are tired rather than when they are sated so their staying next to the bitch for both energy conservation and warmth is very important. (For more information on whelping boxes, see article on page 8.)

Even with a normal, healthy litter, a small or weak puppy may need supplemental nutrition. Every breeder needs to know how to tube feed. Intubation involves inserting a catheter down the esophagus into the stomach and administering the formula with a syringe. This is a scary prospect for the novice, but a foolproof procedure when instructions are carefully followed. Again, watching an experienced breeder is a big confidence-builder. At the very least, keep the necessary supplies and directions on-hand prior to the whelping. Time is of the essence when trying to save a weak or sick puppy.

And, finally, consider getting a baby monitor, an indispensable, little-mentioned item that helps you care for a new litter. A baby monitor allows one to occasionally step away from the puppy room but still listen to every little sound.

With good preparation and common sense, your first whelping can realize your dreams, raising the curtain on a batch of happy, healthy puppies.

Catherine B. Nelson, the 2004 AKC Breeder of the Year, whelped her first Pennywise Dandie Dinmont Terriers litter in 1975. To date, Nelson has bred or owned seven Register of Merit titled dogs; 70 champions, including five all-breed Best In Show winners; and eight Best of Breed winners at eleven National Specialties. She has bred, owned and handled the number-one Dandie in breed standings for 12 of the last 14 years.


  Ronald N. Rella, director, Breeder Services
Theresa Shea, editor | Email: AKCbreeder@akc.org
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© The American Kennel Club 2005