10 Best Practices for Whelping Puppy Litters
Having everything ready for the whelping box a week before the litter is due, will help you and your girl feel prepared for the big day, or evening, as it often turns out.
These best practices are based on my personal experiences as an AKC Breeder of Merit, as well as tips and videos shared with me by friends in the dog breeding community. Using these tools and techniques will ensure a successful puppy whelping!
Puppy Whelping Supplies
Here is the checklist of items you will need for whelping your litter. We will discuss the uses of each of them in depth throughout this article series.
- A quiet area away from other dogs and family activities
- Whelping Box
- Digital Thermometer
- Sterile stainless steel scissors
- Styptic powder
- Lots of old towels
- Yogurt or vanilla ice cream in the fridge
- Small Kitchen scale that can weigh up to 10 pounds
- Heat lamp
- Oxytocin syringes
- KY Jelly and a syringe
- Bulb Syringe Aspirator
The items listed under optional, such as KY Jelly and the aspirator bulb, are frequently recommended for whelping. I have them on hand, but I have never found a use for them. We will discuss the benefits and dangers of oxytocin in depth, in the Whelping Problems article.
Step By Step Guide to Building a Whelping Box
Swimming Pool Whelping Box
Selecting Your Whelping Box
There are many plans online for building your own whelping box. If you choose to build your own whelping box, make it out of corrugated plastic or plywood that can be purchased at Home Depot.
Plastic is easy to clean, sterilize and move around, while wooden boxes can be extremely heavy, and are more absorbent and more likely to harbor germs and parasite spores from one litter to the next.
If you choose to make it out of wood, then line it with vinyl flooring for quick cleaning.
However, if you are not handy, there are a variety of solutions to choose from:
The plastic swimming pool is a favorite for those with limited funds, and is my personal option. They are easy to clean, and have raised areas, often shaped like little fish, that help the puppies get a grip as they motor around the whelping pool. Plastic swimming pools four feet in diameter can be found at Lowes or Walmart in the summer for less than five dollars.
The problem I have with the swimming pool is puppies climbing up on the mothers side and then escaping over the edge of the pool by accident. I therefore need an exercise pen to keep them from ending up somewhere where I can't reach them.
The Dura-Whelp Whelping box versus the Plaza MagnaBox
If you are looking at a high-end, professional solution and are planning on future litters, you may want to consider a professionally made whelping box. They offer several advantages that the swimming pool lacks.
The Dura-Whelp is made from corrugated plastic, which is somewhat flexible and not as durable as the solid plastic of the MagnaBox. When Dura-Whelp was initially marketing their whelping boxes, they estimated that they would be good for whelping up to 3 litters.
I know many breeders who have used them on 15+ litters, so Dura-Whelp is now marketing them as “durable.” Prices for the Dura-whelp range from $149 for the small to $229.00 for the extra large. However, Dura-Whelp has many little add-ons you will need, such as the half-height door to let mom out and keep puppies in. These add-ons and shipping costs increase the price approximately an additional $100, depending on the size box you order.
The Plaza MagnaBox is built to last, and will stand up to puppy teeth better that the Dura-Whelp. However it has no bottom, so you will need to put in whelping pads or use the Home Depot rubber-backed, carpeted garage mats to protect your floors. These garage mats are about $19.00 for a 3x6' mat and are easy to hose off.
Both whelping boxes are equipped with "pig rails" to prevent the mother from crushing or suffocating her puppies against the side of the box wall. Swimming pools cannot be equipped with this feature.
Additionally, each manufacturer offers expansion boxes as additions to the whelping box. My friends who have added on the expansion units tell me that it speeds puppy potty training. The puppies sleep and play in one box, and eliminate in the other box, often puppies have the hang of potty training by 5 weeks, using this configuration.
Both are tool-free assembly and easily breakdown for storage.
Setting Up The Whelping Area
Choose a quiet room that can be closed off from the rest of the household. Typically the mother will be very protective of her puppies for the first 2-3 weeks. She will not want strangers to visit the puppies, and usually will not want other animals from the household to peek in on her pups. In fact with some overprotective mothers, visits from rival females can provoke fights. Better safe than sorry, you don't want the mother to be injured, and unable to care for her pups.
As I mentioned above, if the room is carpeted, you can purchase inexpensive, carpeted rubber-backed garage mats at Home Depot to protect the carpet. Frequently, mothers will not have their first puppy in the whelping box. First time mothers may feel panicky and try to hide under furniture or may even begin labor in your lap.
Once she has had her first puppy, and you place it in the whelping box, she will have the rest of her puppies in the designated whelping area.
Bring your girl with you as you setup her room. She will be curious about your activities and the new items, and it will help her to bond with her special space.
Puppy Count by X-ray One Week Prior to Due Date
Early Signs of Going Into Labor - Timing the Delivery
A week before your dog is ready to give birth, you should have an x-ray done to get an accurate count of the puppies she is expecting. This will let you know if there is trouble, should she stop labor when there are puppies still to be born.
This is a good time to discuss with your vet your options should you need an emergency C-section after hours. Your vet may be willing to come in, or may suggest that you go to an emergency clinic. You will need to shop around for pricing at various emergency clinics in your area. In my area a scheduled C-section runs about $900.00, while an emergency after hours C-section can run up to $3000.00.
If you are expecting a small litter, and the puppies are already quite large, you may opt to schedule a C-section to avoid a difficult labor.
By day 57, you will want to start taking her temperature in the mornings and evenings to get a baseline for her normal temperatures at different times of the day. Her temperature should range between 101 and 103 degrees. Anything higher than 103 degrees could indicate an infection, and merits a call to the vet.
First Signs Your Dog Is Going Into Labor
- The earliest sign begins twelve to twenty-four hours before labor actually begins. As labor approaches, her temperature should begin to drop from 101 gradually down to 98 degrees Fahrenheit. With some girls it will drop and rise for a day before delivery. Some never experience a temperature drop, so keep an eye on her behavior. Once her temperature drops and stays down around 98 degrees Fahrenheit, it is time to keep her in her whelping area.
- 12 to 18 hours prior to labor, the expecting mother will stop eating.
- Nesting behavior begins with her wanting to find soft materials to keep her puppies warm and dry. She could pull the stuffing out of a chair, or if she is outside, she may start gathering leaves. A whelping box well stocked with soft hand towels, will give her an appropriate outlet for her nesting instincts. Expect her to paw at the towels and rearrange them every 20 minutes.
- Panting and restlessness will signal that she is preparing for next phase, hard labor. She may pant heavily and then breath normally for several hours prior to the next stage of delivery. This restless cycle of revving up and calming down can go on for up to 24-30 hours.
Second Stage - Hard Labor
The Mother's Water Breaks
The second stage is marked by her water breaking and active contractions. When the water breaks depending on the size of your dog, you can expect about 1/2-1 cup of pale tea colored liquid in the whelping box. (With double coated dogs, this first sign is easily missed, especially if there are many towels in the whelping area to absorb the liquid. Check the towels occasionally for excess dampness). Check the time when you see her water break or first contractions begin. If she has not delivered after 1.5-2 hours, you will want to begin making arrangements to see your vet.
Signs of contractions
You will see her sides heaving as she clamps down on contractions and then releases. Some girls will also grunt with each contraction, often they will stiffen and extend their hind legs. Typically within 30-40 minutes she will produce the first puppy. Puppies will tend to come in pairs 20-30 minutes apart. Then she will rest for 45 minutes to 1.5 hours while the next pair lines up the the birth canal from each horn of the uterus. During the rest time she will clean her puppies and let them nurse. Nursing stimulates the contractions for the next pair of puppies.
Puppy Delivered with Amniotic Sac Intact
The First Puppy's Delivery
As the puppy is being delivered, the mother will frequently lick her vulva. Normally the puppy will arrive with the amniotic sac intact followed by the placenta attached via the umbilical cord. The sac is a thin semi-transparent film covering the puppy.
My girls begin by consuming the placenta and umbilical cord, then they work on the puppy. Often, they have already removed the sac as the puppy was coming out of the birth canal. You can sit back, and see if she can do it all on her own. I tend to be very hands-on. I prefer to cut the umbilical cord myself, and if the sac is intact, I will want to get the puppy breathing as soon as possible. I prefer to leave the umbilical cord intact, while I clear the puppies airway and then remove the sac. The umbilical cord will continue to supply oxygen and nutrients for several minutes after birth.
Not all mothers know instinctively what to do when delivering their first litter. Luna hid in fright under an end table after she delivered her first puppy, leaving it up to us to remove the sac and umbilical cord. As the litter continued to arrive, she caught on, and was able to handle the last couple of puppies herself.
Assisting Delivery - Removing the Amniotic Sac and Umbilical Cord
Can You Touch A Newborn Puppy?
Yes, if you are one of the primary caregivers of the mother, then she should have no problems with you touching her puppy. There is no fear of a mother rejecting her puppies because they smell of human touch. Taking the puppy from the whelping area, however will give her cause for concern.
Some first time mothers are frightened by their new arrival. As I mentioned, I have had one leave the whelping box and hide under an end table. In this instance, you will need to handle all of the mother's duties: removing the amniotic sac, jump starting the puppies breathing and cutting the umbilical cord.
She will not like having strangers or other dogs entering her whelping room, so to keep her calm, and prevent fights, keep her and her puppies to themselves for the first 4 weeks.
Opening the Amniotic Sac
If the puppy has delivered normally, and the mother is munching on the placenta, but has not begun tending to the puppy, begin by opening the amniotic sac at the head and clearing any mucus away from the puppy's nostrils and mouth. Some people use the bulb aspirator to try to suck mucus out of the airways. I find it clumsy, and that my finger and a soft towel work well to clear them. If the puppy is not breathing yet, use your finger to gently clear the back of the throat.
The puppy will gasp when he takes his first breath. Don't panic about them not breathing immediately, if the umbilical cord is still attached he will be continuing to receive nutrients and oxygen through it for another minute or so.
If the puppy still does not breath, rub him gently but vigorously with a hand towel. You are trying to simulate a mother's vigorous licking, which normally starts the puppy breathing. If the puppy still does not breath, then you will need to remove the umbilical cord, and begin more aggressive measures, such as gently slinging the puppy clear the lungs. We discuss that a little further down in this article.
Do You Have to Cut the Umbilical Cord?
Typically, mothers will gnaw off the umbilical cord themselves. Sometimes it happens while the puppy is being born, before you can even get your hands on the puppy. I prefer to cut it myself to avoid either of the following umbilical cord problems.
- Some mothers are overly aggressive or chew too close to the puppies stomach. Overly aggressive mothers can toss the puppy around the whelping box while trying to gnaw through the tough cord. This can result in an umbilical hernia, which presents as a dime sized bulge where the umbilical cord attaches. This can be corrected when the puppy is old enough for surgery with two stitches. Often this is done at the time of spay or neutering.
- Chewing too close to the stomach will cause blood to spurt out several feet from the puppy. It is very alarming when it happens, but don't panic, press a dry towel to the wound for 2 minutes to stop the bleeding. Styptic powder can then be used to prevent further bleeding.
To cut the umbilical cord, take the hemostats and clamp them 3/4 of an inch from the stomach of the puppy. The hemostats simulate the action of the mother's gnawing teeth, and will prevent the umbilical cord from bleeding after you cut the cord. Cut the cord next to the hemostats on the side opposite of the puppy. You can apply styptic powder to the cut end, but it is not necessary. Remove the hemostats.
Do You Need to Tie Off the Umbilical Cord?
No, it is not necessary. Some people recommend tying it off with dental floss or thread, but I have never had any negative consequences from not tying it off. If it was necessary to tie a string to a puppy's umbilical cord, dogs would not have survived as a species.
The remaining 3/4 inch long umbilical cord will dry up quickly, and fall off sometime the following day.
Cutting the Umbilical Cord Using Hemostats and Scissors
Your Job as Delivery Progresses
You can dry the puppy with a towel, however mom will want to make sure her puppy is properly cleaned and dry with seemingly endless licking. Let her do her job.
Once mom is satisfied that her puppy is clean, you want to be sure it nurses shortly after arrival. The colostrum in the mother's first milk will provide many of the antibodies your puppy will need to stay healthy in its new environment.
Place the puppy near a teat, holding its head gently between your thumb and index finger. Then gently but firmly press the puppy's mouth against the teat, supporting the head with your hand. Some puppies take to it immediately, other struggle to get away. I am somewhat aggressive, and if they don't take to it, I will try to express some milk to encourage them to have their first meal. Nursing will stimulate contractions for the next puppy's delivery.
This is also a good time to give the mother some yogurt or ice cream. The calcium in these dairy products will help stimulate milk production.
As she goes into hard labor on subsequent deliveries, you will want to keep the puppies warm and dry. You can remove the puppies to a corner of the whelping box and place them under a heat lamp or just cover them loosely with a dry towel. A broken placenta can make the whelping box a very wet and bloody looking place.
Deliveries of litters can be accomplished in as short as 90 minutes, more typically it takes 3-6 hours, depending on the size of the litter. I have had one girl wait 7 hours between births, before delivering her last puppy.
While she is in labor, she will continue panting and breathing heavily. Once she has completed delivery, breathing will return to normal.
Following the Litter's Delivery
Once all of the puppies are born, clean up the whelping box and add fresh towels to it. You want to keep the room warm, to prevent chilled puppies. Puppies cannot regulate their temperatures at this age, and rely on warmth from each other and their mother as well as the ambient temperature. I try to keep the room temperature between 82 and 85 degrees with a space heater. Some people use heat lamps over one area of the whelping box, so that puppies can warm under the lamp as they require.
How to Know if a Puppy is in Danger of Failing
Once all of the puppies have enjoyed their first meal, you should weigh each puppy and keep a log of their weights. You want to weigh them once a day at least to be sure they are gaining weight. A puppy who does not gain weight everyday is in trouble. This is your best way to get an early clue to a distressed puppy.
Healthy puppies have activated sleep, meaning they twitch every five to fifteen seconds. This is normal and a good sign. Puppies who are still and tucked up with their with their chins close to the chest, are not in good health. Contact your vet if you have some puppies that are breathing slower than the others or are not twitching like the others.
Oxytocin to Clean Out the Uterus
If you have oxytocin on hand (which your vet can supply to you in preloaded syringes), a shot given after the last puppies arrival will help stimulate additional contractions to clear the uterus of any retained placentas. Once the puppies have all eaten, take her for a walk to potty and expel any remaining fluids or placentas. If your girl has fluffy pants, you may want to wash them off and towel dry her before returning her to the whelping box.
Walk her again 3 hours later, as the richness of placentas can give them upset stomachs. You can expect discharge for the next 2-3 weeks. This is normal. However if it is accompanied by a foul odor, its time to make a trip to the vet, as this indicates an infection. See a vet as soon as possible to get it under control quickly. A sick mother will mean a lot of work for you.
Now you can sit back and watch your puppies grow! Be sure the mother has plenty of fresh clean water, as this is essential to her milk supply. She will do most of the work for the next 3 weeks, you will just need to change bedding and handle the puppies to socialize them.
Problems With Whelping the Puppies
There are two common problems when whelping a litter of puppies: puppies sometimes get stuck in the birth canal or they refuse to start breathing. We will address each of these issues.
Puppy Stuck in the Birth Canal
Sometimes a puppy gets stuck; the mother may be straining hard with her contractions, but no puppy presents or the puppy might be hanging part way out of the vulva, but is large and stuck. The first recourse is to get the mother up and walking around. This allows an internally stuck puppy to readjust and represent itself. I have seen a puppy that was stuck halfway out get pulled back into the birth canal, and then delivery normally 2 minutes later.
For a puppy stuck halfway out, you can try to assist by gently pulling the puppy in a downward arc from the vulva. KY jelly can also be used to help break any suction that is holding the puppy in place. Be sure your hands are sterile first (with Betadine) smear a liberal amount of KY jelly around the pup, and gentle slide some in between the wall of the birth canal and the puppy. Do not break the amniotic sac before the puppy is delivered.
Oxytocin can be used to help stimulate contractions in the event of uterine fatigue. However, oxytocin is not without considerable risk. It can cause the placentas to detach prematurely, killing those puppies which have not lined up yet in the birth canal. It is to be used sparingly, and only after the first two puppies are born.
If two hours have passed since the last puppy was delivered and she has been straining for 40 minutes, contact your vet; a c-section may be in order.
Puppy Not Breathing After Vigorous Rubbing and Clearing of the Airway
Sometimes a puppy will be slow to start breathing, especially if it had difficulty in the birth canal. If after a minute of rubbing there has been no gasp, you will need to gently sling the puppy to try to get any mucus up out of its lungs. Be sure to cut the umbilical cord before doing this.
Cradle the puppy in both hands, supporting the head and back in your hands, head pointed towards your finger tips. Bend over and hold the puppy up about 2 feet above your knees then sling down towards your knees, taking care not to lose or drop him. You can also put your mouth over his nose and gently blow air in to open up the lungs. Once he starts to breath, continue to rub him gently but firmly until breathing becomes regular.
Signs You Have Lost A Puppy
Unfortunately, it is not unusual for one or more puppies to not survive the delivery process. Dogs and cats have litters for this reason. If you are struggling to resuscitate a puppy for over 5 minutes, and it has not begun regular breathing, then it is not likely to make it. Puppies that are born with limp necks and extremely low muscle tone are not likely to be able to be resuscitated. Healthy puppies will be firm when born, puppies who are not going to make it will feel lax and floppy in your hands. They may gasp once or twice, but if you have spent five minutes working on the puppy with no regular breathing, it is time to let it go.
Unhealthy puppies will have compromised immune systems that can bring danger of an infection to the entire litter.
Questions & Answers
How can one keep the mom from laying on her pups?
Some mothers do tend to be less conscious of their puppies, and have been known to lie on and in some cases kill their puppies. Most often this is a danger when the puppy is caught between the mother and the sides of the whelping box. Puppies caught directly under the mother tend to cause her to shift and release the puppy.
While the swimming pool used as a whelping box has no mechanism to prevent mothers from lying on their pups or suffocating them against the sides, the premanufactured whelping boxes do have guard rails, sometimes called pig rails, that keep the mother three inches away from the sides of the box. These rails allow the puppies a safe clearance space from their mother on all four sides. So while these manufactured boxes seem expensive, they are relatively inexpensive, if they save the life of even one puppy.
Another concern in the whelping box is puppies getting caught up in the sheets or towels in the nest, that are intended to help keep the area sanitary. Puppies can become tangled up in long sheets or heavy towels, preventing them from eating when necessary (every two hours) and possibly allowing them to chill, as they are not able to gather warmth from their mother or littermates. A chilled pup is not likely to survive long without intervention.
Many breeders use un-printed on "newsprint" to line the whelping box, or whelping mats that are not easy lifted from the bottom, to prevent puppies from tunneling under the mat.