What to Expect, What to Do, and When to Call the Vet
Part One: An Overview of Pregnancy and Whelping
By Arliss Paddock
The arrival of new puppies into the world is a much-anticipated event, the focus of all your study, planning, and hopes as a breeder. As each pup is born, you wonder if this will be the one—will he be a Best in Show winner? An agility star or field champion? A stellar service dog? For the breeder, the birth of a litter is charged with excitement and the promise of new possibilities.
But it is not a situation to be entered into lightly or with inadequate preparation. It should not be entered into at all, in fact, without there having first been sober, clear-eyed consideration of whether this female should be bred. Hopefully, you asked important questions beforehand: Is she a truly superior representative of her breed, free of major faults of conformation or temperament, and screened clear of physical and genetic defects? Have I found a mate for her of outstanding quality, also screened clear of health and genetic defects, whose traits complement hers?
Siberian Huskies. Photo by Mary Bloom.
Once you’ve confirmed that your bitch is worthy of breeding, it’s important to realize before proceeding the seriousness of potential risks that labor and delivery can pose for both her and the pups. Although most canine births occur without a hitch, life-threatening complications can arise, so it’s vital that as a breeder you have a thorough understanding of both the normal birth process and signs of possible trouble. Acquiring such knowledge requires more in-depth study than can be covered here, but here is a good starting place.
In this and the next issue of AKC Breeder, we will present an overview of what happens leading up to and during whelping, along with tips from experienced breeders to help you prepare for the big day.
Can I calculate my bitch’s due date?
Gestation in the dog lasts from 62 to 64 days, counted from the exact date of ovulation—which could have occurred during a wide range of days during the breeding period, difficult to pinpoint without specific testing. Many bitches will stand to be bred for a large window of time around ovulation, and the stud dog’s sperm can survive in the reproductive tract for more than a week. What this adds up to is that a normal, “full term” whelping date can be anywhere from about 58 to 71 days after the breeding occurred.
For this reason, you should ensure that your contingency plans for the whelping, such as scheduling time off from work, cover the entire period during which labor could begin. (“I take vacation time when my girls are due,” notes Collie breeder Michelle McKim, of Indiana.) And you should try to have all your preparations—whelping box, whelping kit, and so on—in place well before the earliest-possible whelping date.
Your pregnant female
Before the breeding, you will have addressed with your vet your bitch’s pre-pregnancy health care, such as nutritional recommendations, making sure that her heartworm preventative and all vaccinations are up to date, and having her dewormed.
Once your female has been bred, physical and even behavioral changes will soon be under way. By about the fourth week, your bitch’s appetite will begin to increase. At about 25–28 days of gestation, an experienced person can confirm pregnancy by palpating the bitch’s abdomen—but don’t try this yourself without the careful guidance of an expert, as improper technique could endanger the fetuses. Ultrasound imaging can also confirm pregnancy now.
By the fifth week some distension of her abdomen will probably become apparent, although this may occur later with larger breeds. A clear or light opaque discharge from her vulva is also likely at this time. (Any blood-tinged, dark, or foul-smelling discharge is reason to call the vet.)
The most dramatic changes, however, will occur during the seventh, eighth, and ninth weeks. During this period the fetuses grow rapidly, greatly stepping up the demands on the dam’s body. Her daily food ration should be increased gradually but significantly. Any strenuous physical activity such as herding or agility work should have been curtailed by the seventh week, but gentle exercise to keep her fit should be continued. As the ninth week approaches, milk production in her mammary glands may be apparent, but this varies widely among females—some will have no milk discernable at the time of whelping. With others, milk may drip from the teats several days before labor begins.
Nesting behavior, which may begin at any time during the pregnancy, will gradually become more intense as the whelping date approaches. (The timeframe for this varies, however, and it is not a sure sign of labor in itself.) Several days before the onset of labor, the bitch’s belly may “drop” somewhat so that her abdomen will appear more pendulous and distended, and her backbone may become more prominent.
The stages of labor
Labor in the dog is generally described in three stages: Stage 1, which refers to the period when the cervix dilates and involuntary uterine contractions begin; Stage 2, when contractions greatly intensify, and a pup is delivered; and Stage 3, when the placenta is expelled. Stages 2 and 3 alternate as consecutive puppies are born. There are certain characteristics associated with each stage.
The onset of the labor sequence is signaled by a marked drop of a degree or more in temperature, 12 to 24 hours beforehand. For this reason, it is especially helpful to routinely take the bitch’s temperature several times a day during the last week of pregnancy so as to identify this drop and thus know when labor is imminent.
During Stage 1 the bitch will pant, be very restless, and be disinterested in food. Though she may sleep intermittently, when awake she is likely to dig and scratch in the nesting area and shred any newspaper within her reach. She may pace, turn around several times and lie down, get up again, and repeat the behavior.
As Stage 1 progresses, her panting will become heavier and more constant. At this time a sudden clear, stringy, odorless discharge from the vulva may be noticed. This indicates that the mucus plug that sealed the cervix throughout the pregnancy has dissolved, and it means that the first pup will probably soon be delivered.
Sometimes a bitch will move from Stage 1 to Stage 2 very quickly, and sometimes not. “If Stage 1 labor goes on for more than 12 hours without progressing to Stage 2 labor, with obvious contractions, intervention is recommended,” Dr. Margaret Root Kustritz, of the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine, says. “Prolonged Stage 1 labor has been associated with increased incidence of stillbirths and neonatal death.”
Coordinated abdominal contractions mark the onset of Stage 2. The bitch now focuses on making these very strong pushes toward her hind end. She may stand, crouch, or lie down in attempting to deliver the puppy. The first tangible sign of the delivery should be a dark, fluid-filled bag protruding from the vulva. This is protrusion of the amniotic sac that surrounds the pup. The sac may rupture as the pup passes through the birth canal.
If the puppy’s head emerges still covered by the membrane, and the bitch does not tear it away, you must do this—using clean fingers or a soft towel—so that the pup can begin to breathe. (In Part Two of this article, breeders will share advice regarding how to handle various situations as the puppy delivers.)
Stage 3 of labor is expulsion of the placenta. The placenta may come out immediately after the puppy, or it may come with the next one. It is common for two puppies to deliver in succession, followed by two placentas. It is important to count the placentas to make sure that all are expelled, as placentas retained for more than a few hours can lead to uterine infection.
Bitches will normally want to eat the placenta in an instinctive attempt to keep their “den” clean. Many breeders feel that eating it is beneficial for the dam, although this has not been proven. Kustritz notes that ingestion of placentas can cause gastroenteritis in some bitches.
The bitch may rest from 10 minutes to an hour between deliveries, but will resume her whelping position when more abdominal contractions begin. With a small litter, all the pups may be delivered within an hour of the onset of Stage 1; delivery of a larger litter can take much longer.
How can you know when all the puppies have been whelped? “Determination of whether or not the bitch has finished whelping can sometimes be difficult,” Kustritz says. “Palpation of the abdomen can be confusing, because the contracting uterus often feels like a round, firm puppy. Radiographs are definitive.”
In the next issue, we’ll look at how to determine when labor is not progressing normally, and what to do if so.
Next Issue: Whelping Tips From Experienced Breeders
Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels and is former managing editor of the AKC Gazette.