Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.
Dystocia: Difficulty Giving Birth in Dogs
Dystocia in dogs may be a breeder's worst nightmare, but it doesn't have to be if you are prepared. A good place to start is by predicting the mom dog's whelping date. It is estimated that 99 percent of dogs give birth 63 days following ovulation, which takes place when the dam's serum progesterone concentration level increases above 5 ng/dl, explains Dr. Scott P. Shaw, a veterinarian Diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Emergency and Critical Care. Of course, determining when this happens is just guesswork unless you have your vet conduct a quantitative assay through cytology to determine the first day of diestrus, which takes place six days after ovulation.
Many breeders determine the approximate whelping date by simply counting 63 days from the day of mating. However, this is a mistake considering that, as Dr. Scott Shaw explained, 63 days should be counted following ovulation (not the actual day of mating). If counting from the day of mating, it would be more accurate to predict the whelping day to occur anywhere between day 57 and day 72 following the breeding.
The reason for this wider range is because a female dog may have been bred before or after ovulation and may have successfully become pregnant. Dogs bred after ovulation will seem to have a shorter pregnancy compared to dogs bred prior to ovulation.
As whelping day gets closer, responsible breeders can prepare in advance in case their dog experiences birthing difficulties. Owners of breeds known for having difficulties whelping naturally (apple head Chihuahuas, Boston terriers, bulldogs, etc.) should make arrangements for an elective cesarean section.
Difficulties in giving birth in dogs may stem for a variety of reasons. Here is some information about dystocia in dogs from veterinarian Dr. Ivana Vukasinovic.
Types of Dystocia in Dogs
Dystocia is a professional medical term used to describe a diagnosis of a difficult or abnormal birth. The term derives from the Greek words dys (difficult) and tokos (birth).
Difficulty giving birth in dogs may occur due to many factors and may take place during all stages of labor, but the factors can be divided into two main groups based on their origin: maternal dystocia and fetal dystocia. A special subtype would be placental dystocia or difficulty in the delivery of the placenta.
Maternal dystocia is more common type occurring in 60% of all cases. Uterine inertia (inactivity) is an inability to expel a fetus although there is no obstruction. Uterine inertia may be primary or secondary.
- Primary Uterine Inertia: Primary uterine inertia is basically a failure to initiate uterine contractions. Causes for primary uterine inertia are a litter that is too small or a litter that is too large, hereditary predisposition (some breeds are more predisposed to dystocia, like Boston terriers), age, systemic conditions (like gestational diabetes), inflammation of the uterus, nutritional imbalance or neuroendocrine problems. A previous history of dystocia is also very important for diagnosis.
- Secondary Uterine Inertia: Secondary uterine inertia is the interruption or complete stop of uterine contractions which are caused by the uterine's inability itself to contract. Secondary inertia mostly occurs during long labors when the muscles of the uterus are exhausted after contracting. The usual reasons include the size of the birth canal (too narrow pelvis), previous pelvic trauma or abnormal/immature pelvis, tumors, malformations, stricture of birth passage, torsion, uterine or vaginal prolapse, lack of proper cervical dilatation, and vaginal hyperplasia.
- Fetal Dystocia: The primary reason for fetal dystocia, on the other hand, is malpresentation of the fetus (abnormal presentation during birth), and this wrong orientation amounts to 40% of fetal dystocia cases. Other reasons include an oversized fetus, malformation of the fetus, and fetal death.
The Three Stages of Dog Labor
- Stage 1 of labor starts with uterine contractions, water breaking, and cervix dilatation. Start of this stage is marked by a drop in rectal temperature (<37.7 °C).
- Stage 2 of labor is the stage in which the fetuses are pushed out. From the start of stage 2 until the delivery of the first pup, the average time is around 4 hours. After that, the time between two deliveries is usually from 30 minutes to an hour, but it should not be longer than 4 hours.
- Stage 3 of labor is the delivery of fetal membranes. Membranes usually come right after the fetus, but sometimes one or two fetuses are followed by appropriate numbers of membranes.
When Is Dystocia Suspected in Dogs?
Dystocia in dogs should be suspected in the following circumstances:
- The dog has a previous history of dystocia.
- There is a prolonged due date.
- About 12 to 24 hours after the drop in temperature, the birthing process does not start.
- Presence of increased temperature (39,2C) for 12 to 24 hours.
- Presence of vaginal discharge lasting a few hours.
- No progression to stage II of labor after 8 hours.
- Strong contractions lasting one hour without producing any puppies (active labor lasting more than one hour).
- A resting period between two puppies lasting 4 to 6 hours.
- Stage two of labor lasting longer than 12 hours, or the whole labor lasting more than 24 hours.
- The dam is in pain/cries.
- Presence of abnormal discharge (greenish-black, bloody, smelly).
- Retention of placenta.
Dogs owners should therefore seek immediate veterinary help in the following situations:
- Passed due date.
- Bloody or black discharge.
- Obvious pain and cries of the dam.
- Strong abdominal contractions without expulsion of a pup that lasts longer than 30 minutes.
- More than four hours from the start of stage II of the labor to the first delivery.
- More than three hours between two deliveries.
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Addressing Canine Dystocia at the Veterinarian's Office
If you notice any signs of dystocia in your dog, consult with your vet promptly. You may have to see your vet so that your vet can take quick action and ensure a successful delivery.
It is very important for the vet to determine the proper cause of dystocia, which may be non-obstructive or obstructive. Diagnostic methods for proper diagnosis should take into account proper anamnesis and case history—past pregnancies, breeding dates, health condition, signs of systemic illness, analysis of vaginal discharge, palpation and vaginal examination (cervical examination is usually impossible).
X-rays may be needed to determine the size, number, and location of fetuses. An ultrasound, which may check for fetal viability, can be crucial for diagnosis.
If the vet has determined a dog is having difficulties in giving birth, what happens next? If a fetus is logged in the birth canal, the veterinarian may attempt to extract it (fetal extraction). If obstruction or anatomical difficulties have been ruled out, stimulation of uterine contractions is the next step in the process.
Sometimes, contractions can be stimulated by walking the dog and massage of the dog, but that is very unlikely. When there is no obstruction and the dam and the fetuses are stable, and the fetuses are in proper position; medical management is the next course of action.
- Oxytocin is a drug that is commonly used in veterinary medicine to stimulate labor in dogs. Oxytocin is actually a hormone produced normally during labor. The vet may administer 0.5 to 1 milliunits through IV infusion per hour. At 30 to 60 minute intervals the dose should be gradually increased in increments of 1 to 2 milliunits until the desired contraction pattern has been established, accompanied with or without 10% calcium gluconate.
A cesarean section is needed in almost 60% of dams presenting dystocia. Indications for a Cesarean section include:
- Systemic illness
- Obstructive dystocia
- Fetal distress
- Oversized fetus
- Uterine inertia (not responding to oxytocin)
- Prolonged active labor
- Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc.
- DVM360:Diagnosing and managing canine dystocia (Proceedings)
- Dr. Ivana Vukasinovic, DVM
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2018 Adrienne Farricelli
Nell Rose from England on May 29, 2018:
Our dog an Alsation cross, gave birth to 6 puppies. One of them was not responding, so my husband placed it in a towel and rubbed its little body. The pup was fine after five minutes, phew! great advice, luckily we didn't need it back then, but great for people who do.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on May 27, 2018:
Same here. Our dogs were always spayed and neutered and so were our cats and horses. Several dog breeds with large heads and narrow hips are prone to birthing problems. Many are brachicephalic dog breeds. The apple head Chihuahua is more prone to dystocia compared to the deer head.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 27, 2018:
All of my parents dogs were spayed or neutered and so have ours been so we have never needed this type of information. It is good to know however for those who breed dogs. It is a shame that certain breeds seem to have birthing problems.