What to Expect, What to Do, and When to Call the Vet
Part Two: Whelping Tips From Experienced Breeders
By Arliss Paddock
In Part One, we presented an overview of some of the physical changes in the pregnant female leading up to and during whelping. We continue our look at some important aspects of pregnancy and whelping, with several experienced breeders sharing their tips and insights.
Before the Big Event
Pre-planning can be a significant factor leading to a successful whelping. Breeder Jill Warren, of Esthete English Setters, notes that progesterone testing during the female's heat cycle provides a very important reference point—the expected whelping date. “Progesterone testing is invaluable in predicting when the puppies should be born,” she explains, “and in therefore allowing you to determine if you have preemies or if the bitch is so long past her due date that you should take her to the vet.”
Also important beforehand are an understanding of your bitch’s personality and a good relationship with your veterinarian. “It is vital to know your bitch and what’s normal for her,” she says. “Knowing your bitch will help you determine whether she’s in trouble or just taking her time. It is also very important to have great rapport with your vet and to select one who will listen to and trust the breeder.”
It's important to confirm as much as possible in advance. “It’s a good idea to have an ultrasound at 4 or 5 weeks or an X-ray one week before anticipated delivery,” she notes, “to check out the normalcy of the pregnancy and to give you an estimate of the number of puppies. During this visit, discuss with your vet what you should do, even if it’s 2 a.m., if you think your bitch is in trouble. Find out if she will be willing to come to your assistance at any time of the day or night.”
Whelping: A Helping Hand, If Needed
Most breeders are prepared to offer some assistance to the bitch during whelping to relieve her workload and help ensure a good start for the pups. Marianne Sullivan, of Millknock Collies, stresses the need to be alert and proactive. “The most important element regarding whelping and newborns,” she says, “is time. There just isn’t much time to ‘wait and see’ what will happen—too much can go wrong very quickly. I help get the puppies out if they get hung up in the birth canal. I open the sac; clamp, tie, and cut the umbilical cord; and dry the puppy. I let the bitch lick and stimulate the pup, and this helps with the bonding and nursing. I get puppies dry and warm as fast as possible.”
Sullivan is ready to jump in with further intervention if indicated. “If things slow down to the point where I become concerned,” she says, “I use CalSorb first and oxytocin second. I’ve learned that if puppies sit in the birth canal too long, they usually do poorly. I use my gut instincts and experience to tell me when it's time to give the bitch some help.
“In the old days, I used to give a half or even a whole cc of oxytocin, but based on recommendations by Dr. Robert Hutchison and others, I now only give .02 or .03 cc at a time—and only after the first pup is born. I also have used a homeopathic remedy, the herb Urtica urens. I have seen it visibly help with contractions and with milk let-down.”
One must act quickly when the situation is urgent. “If a puppy seems to be stuck in the birth canal,” Warren says, “I will put on rubber gloves and use K-Y Jelly and try to gently pull him out. Time is of the essence, because a puppy can suffocate if stuck inside the birth canal for too long.”
Like Sullivan, Warren is alert to signs of trouble and ready to take appropriate measures. “If the mother seems to be straining to have a puppy but cannot seem to get him birthed after more than two hours of hard labor, I will give a shot of oxytocin to try to help her get that puppy out. If that doesn’t work, then I contact my vet and discuss the possibility of a C-section. Once you give the oxytocin, my experience is that the bitch is only going to be able to have one or two more puppies without further assistance, so you hope this is not necessary until you are down to your last puppy or two to come out.”
Warren follows a typical whelping routine with the birth of each pup. “After a puppy is born, I assist the mother by clamping and cutting the umbilical cord with sterile instruments and disinfecting the end of the umbilical cord with a dab of Betadine on a Q-Tip. I leave about three-quarters of an inch of cord; cutting it too short can cause the puppy to have an umbilical hernia. I dry the puppy for the mother, check that he is breathing, and make sure that he can nurse.”
Breeder Doris Hodges, of Summerwind Curly Coated Retrievers, explains how assisting an inexperienced dam can help the dam shift into doing the job herself. “For a new dam,” she says, “I do everything possible to get the sac off, clear the breathing passage, and start rubbing the puppy. All this I do right under the dam’s nose, hoping she’ll get the idea and take over. Usually she will start to help clean the pup and get him dry. I keep rubbing the puppy, though, to speed up the drying process. Usually my help isn’t necessary by the third or fourth pup, or with a second litter. I am always right there to assist if needed, though.”
Know the Danger Signs
Experienced breeders stress that it’s vital to recognize signs of possible trouble—situations that signal a need to call or visit the vet immediately.
Difficult or non-progressing labor is a serious problem that can affect the dam. “Short, fast, hard panting and trembling with no outward signs of contractions or progress for more than 30 minutes makes me worry,” Sullivan says.
“If the bitch is in hard labor for two or three hours and no pups are born, you need to go to the vet’s office,” Hodges warns.
“I discuss this possibility with my vet ahead of time and have him tell me the best way to reach him, especially in the middle of the night. I always X-ray my bitches five to six days before whelping, so I usually have some idea of the number of pups. If the bitch seems to have stopped labor and you know there are more puppies in there, you need to get her to the vet.”
“The main danger sign is the mother straining too hard and too long to deliver a puppy,” Warren says. “I also don’t like to see a blackish-greenish discharge, as that can indicate there is a dead puppy, detached placenta, or some other problem inside the mother.”
Other urgent situations are those where puppies’ lives are at risk. “Chilling, dehydration, and lack of nutrition are the biggies,” Sullivan says. “The most common problem I see with novice breeders, or any breeders who just don’t want to ‘interfere,’ is that if the puppies get chilled or are dehydrated, they go downhill very fast.
“The way to tell if a pup is dehydrated is not the skin-pinch, but to take a warm, wet cotton ball and stimulate him to pee, and if the urine is bright yellow, you must hydrate him until it is pale yellow or colorless.
“So if a pup is born looking a little ‘flat’ to me,” she continues, “I automatically tube-feed him once with a 1-to-5 Karo Syrup– Pedialyte mixture and keep an eye on him. I’ll tube-feed again with Pedialyte until I see him nurse vigorously.
“I do not understand the fear of tubing when it is so easy and saves puppies’ lives. You have to have someone show you the proper way to do it, and you must not wait too long to tube-feed a puppy in distress.
“I think that some who have tried and failed at tubing did not succeed because they waited too long to help the puppy, or they did it when the pup was chilled.
“Be positive that pups are not chilled before tubing, and don’t overfeed them-ideally they will still nurse, and this will stimulate the bitch to drop milk.”
An often-heartbreaking situation is the pup that appears lifeless at birth. Happily, however, these can sometimes be saved. “If pups come out pale and not breathing, I use a hair-dryer to dry them off and rub simultaneously to stimulate them,” says Sullivan. “You can work on them longer than you think, and they can still revive. I make sure they stay dry, and I warm them up so they don’t backslide.”
Warren offers a similar approach. “To try to resuscitate a puppy, you can take a syringe and squirt air into his nostrils to start the breathing process, while rubbing him vigorously with a towel. You can squirt air and rub up to about 10 minutes after birth and get the puppy going.”
Breeder Olga Baker, of Jeribeth Pomeranians, expresses the persistence the situation requires as well as its emotional impact. “In my experience, this situation is sometimes successful and sometimes a heartbreaking failure. That lifeless little guy must have your instant focus! Rub him hard with a washcloth over your fingers, from head to back end. Don’t be afraid, as little babies are much more durable than you might think. Incredibly, the unresponsive baby may suddenly gasp, wiggle, and cry out. It feels so wonderful.
“I recall a couple of times when I have sadly given up, and then suddenly and unexpectedly, after the little ‘dead’ puppy has been laid aside as totally gone, it makes a feeble little gasp. You are seeing a miracle, and with lots more hard rubbing, the little guy begins breathing!
“Don’t expect this to always be the case, but it can happen.”
Understanding the intricacies of pregnancy and whelping can entail lifelong study, but it is not possible without the mentoring of experienced breeders. We are grateful to these dedicated fanciers for sharing their expertise.
Arliss Paddock breeds and shows English Cocker Spaniels and is former managing editor of the AKC Gazette.