Pregnancy and Labor in Dogs
Pregnancy can usually be detected in dogs by palpation (a veterinarian carefully feeling the dog's belly) 20 to 30 days after breeding, by ultrasound 24 or more days after breeding, and by radiographs (x-rays) 40 to 45 days after breeding. The gestation period varies from one dog to the next, and even from one breeding to the next in the same dog. The range is 63 days, give or take seven days, counting from the first mating.
For those who are new to this, dogs have to "tie" to have a successful mating. That means that the male and female are actually stuck together for anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. This keeps the semen inside the female long enough for eggs to be fertilized. If a tie does not occur, there probably will not be any pups.
Monitoring your dog’s body temperature using a rectal thermometer is an easy way to predict when she will go into labor. Normal body temperature for a dog is between 99 and 102.5 degrees; it typically drops by 2 to 3 degrees 18 hours or less before whelping starts. Start taking your dog’s temperature during what you believe to be the last 2 weeks of her pregnancy, so you find out what a normal body temperature is for her. Monitor her temperature twice a day. If her temperature falls and she hasn’t gone into active labor within 24 hours, she may need to be examined by a veterinarian.
Dogs go through three stages of labor. The first stage is the longest and can last up to 24 hours. Behaviors seen in the first stage of labor include loss of appetite, panting, restlessness, and nesting behaviors.
Active labor (the second stage) begins anywhere from one to 24 hours after the onset of stage one, and the first pup should be delivered after no more than 2 hours of active straining. There is generally less than an hour between the birth of each pup, and the dam may stop straining for a while between pups.
A placenta should be delivered after each pup; it is normal for the dam to eat the placenta, although it may make her vomit. She should also clean the pups up herself but may need help removing the sacs from the puppies’ faces. There is usually no need for you to do anything at all with the umbilical cords—they break with minimal bleeding on their own or are bitten in half by the dam. Excessive bleeding can be controlled with cornstarch (helps a blood clot form) or by applying steady pressure using a piece of sterile gauze. Many breeders will paint the umbilicus with iodine solution to prevent infection, as well.
During the third stage, the dam expels blood, fluid, and remnants of placenta from her uterus. This stage is important for preventing uterine infection, and is stimulated by oxytocin that is release when the pups nurse. If the pups are born dead, or are unable to nurse for any reason, use a warm, damp cloth to massage the dam's mammary glands (nipples) to help with this process.
When to call the veterinarian
Signs that may indicate a problem with the birthing process include:
- Any illness in the dam (although vomiting and diarrhea are common during labor)
- History of problems delivering pups in the past
- More than 24 hours between drop in body temperature and onset of active labor
- More than 3 hours of active straining with no pups produced
- More than one hour of active straining between pups
- Constant, unrelenting straining for 1 hour with no pup produced
- Labor stops before all pups are delivered (this, of course, means you knew how many pups to expect! A vet can help determine this with x-rays or ultrasound this).
Lochia: Normal Vaginal Discharge
It is completely normal and healthy to see a colored discharge with very little odor coming from the dam's vagina for several weeks after the pups are born. It will be dark green for the first 12 hours or so, then reddish-brown. It should gradually decrease in volume and is usually completely gone two months after the pups are born. If the discharge is any color other than dark green, red-brown, or black; if it has a foul odor; or if the pups or dam are acting ill, the dam and litter should be examined by your veterinarian.
Possible Post-Pregnancy Complications
Also called puerperal hypocalcemia or tetany, it is caused by low blood calcium levels in the dam. This occurs most often when small dogs are nursing large litters of pups that are less than one month old. Signs include panting, trembling, muscle spasms, weakness, and stumbling. It can progress to seizures and can be deadly if not treated in time. Feeding puppy food to the dam while she is pregnant and nursing may help prevent this problem. Calcium supplements should NOT be given during pregnancy, because it changes the body’s calcium-control mechanisms, and can actually cause eclampsia. However, supplements can be helpful while the pups are nursing.
Although it doesn’t happen very often, uterine infection is a potential complication of even normal deliveries. Fever, loss of appetite, increased thirst, and a foul-smelling vaginal discharge are common signs, although the first symptom may be crying, neglected puppies. Surgical removal of the uterus is the most reliable cure, although antibiotics alone may be attempted in certain situations.
It is possible for dams to develop infections in their mammary glands while they are nursing pups. Symptoms include red, painful, hot, hard areas; loss of appetite (possibly with vomiting or diarrhea) in the mother; crying pups (they may not be getting enough milk); discolored milk; rejection of the pups; reluctance to move around; fever. If you suspect mastitis, call your vet immediately. Mild cases can be cured with antibiotics, but occasionally these infections become severe, and infected tissue may need to be surgically removed.
Some dams, especially first-time mothers, will reject their puppies initially or even appear to be afraid of them. Sitting with the dam and comforting her may help, although some dogs have to be medicated for a few days to get them past this stage. They do usually overcome it within less than five days. In the meantime, the dam should be supervised and pups bottle-fed if need be. Dams have been known to kill and even eat their own pups, so all dams should be observed closely for the first hour or two after the pups are born to see how they are responding. Try to observe without disturbing her, however, as too much stress or disruption can lead to hysteria.
Good luck, and happy whelping!
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.