Common Questions About Canine Pregnancies
How do you give the best care to a pregnant dog? If you are a first-time pet parent with a soon-to-be momma dog, you may have lots of questions and concerns.
For instance, you may be wondering what you should feed your dog or how long the pregnancy will last.
Dr. Cathy Alinovi answers these and other questions you may have about giving your pregnant fur baby the best of care.
Donna Cosmato (DC): What should be done before breeding females?
Dr. Cathy: The momma dog needs to be:
- Old enough
- On a healthy diet
- Have a good mate selected
Old enough means waiting to breed until at least after the first heat cycle. It is best to let the future mom finish growing before she is bred. For most breeds, this is at least the second heat cycle; it may be longer in larger breed dogs.
While over-vaccinating the mom is a concern, so is under-vaccinating. Under-vaccination puts the puppies at risk of controllable diseases like parvovirus or distemper.
For the most part, if the momma dog has received normal vaccines, the puppies will be protected. Vaccination needs to be completed 30 days prior to breeding as one component of the vaccine may cause inflammation in the ovary and interfere with pregnancy.
Furnishing the proper nutrition is the most important thing we do for our pets. High quality food, which is based on meat and vegetables, not corn or by-products, will help her be in her best condition to conceive the healthiest litter.
There is a lot of controversy about food. Some things to think about are:
- The less the food is processed, the easier it is to digest and the more available the nutrients.
- Dry foods are that—dry, so she needs even more to drink to make all the body fluids necessary for the puppies and later, milk.
- Finally, would you eat it?
Select a good mate. While breeding to your best friend’s dog is a “nice” thing to do, you should look at the breeding. Some important questions to consider are:
- Are these purebred dogs?
- Do they have American Kennel Club (AKC) registration papers? (Most other “certifying” agencies only certify this is a dog.)
- Are these dogs related? Line breeding is not encouraged as it’s really no different than inbreeding.
- Is the male significantly larger than the female?
- Do these dogs have personalities that we want in other dogs like them?
DC: Are there ever any reasons not to breed a dog?
Dr. Cathy: If either parent has a health issue, even food allergies, this can be transmitted to the puppies. Parents with health, conformation or personality weaknesses can transfer these deficiencies to the puppies and really should not be bred.
If the female is bred on her first heat cycle, she is not done growing so the pregnancy may prevent her from reaching her best potential. On the other hand, an obese mom will have quite a bit of difficulty breeding and delivering pups.
There is an “old wives’ tale” that having a litter makes a better dog. Over four million animals are euthanized in the US alone each year due to pet overpopulation. Humans have a societal responsibility to consider when breeding their dog.
DC: How is canine pregnancy diagnosed?
Dr. Cathy: There are four common methods to diagnose pregnancy:
- Blood test
- Radiography (x-rays)
Manual palpation works when the time window is just right, which is around 30 days. Some veterinarians are very accurate and can count pups this way. However, if the dog has a uterine infection or false pregnancy, the uterus my feel full in palpation when it really is not.
Ultrasound can detect heartbeats as early as 25 days of pregnancy. The puppies’ bones start to develop after 35 days of pregnancy, so the pups are much easier to detect by ultrasound or radiographs after that stage.
The blood test also works after 35 days of gestation, but it does not tell how many puppies may be present.
Why the Number of Puppies Matters
The valuable information of how many puppies are present helps to know (1) all the pups are out and (2) indicates whether there will be a problem. Fewer puppies suggest they will be larger; in smaller momma dogs, this may be a problem, as she may not have enough pelvic size to birth the puppies.
More puppies usually mean they will be a bit smaller, so the mom will have less trouble birthing. These are rules of thumb, of course. In addition, singleton pregnancies (just one pup) usually need a c-section – (1) the puppy is too big, and (2) there are not enough uterine signals to organize delivery.
DC: What is the average length of a canine pregnancy?
Dr. Cathy: For the most part, a canine pregnancy lasts 63 days. It may be a few days less for little dogs, a few more for big dogs, but 63 days from first breeding is the time to expect puppies.
DC: Should I change my dog’s diet because she is pregnant?
Dr. Cathy: She should always eat good food (focus on meat and vegetables; avoid corn or by-products), but she needs twice as many calories in the second half of her pregnancy as she would normally consume. By the time the pups are three weeks old and nursing up a storm, she will eat three times as much food as she did before she was pregnant.
DC: Can my dog continue normal activities while pregnant? What if she is a show or working dog?
Dr. Cathy: Just like pregnant humans, the pregnant dog can do her normal activities until the third trimester, which is the last three to four weeks of canine pregnancy.
At that time, she should have her own space and not spend time with other dogs. The last three to four weeks gives her time to get comfortable with her whelping conditions and to avoid other dogs who may have minor viral infections that could be a problem for the puppies (like canine herpes virus).
Symptoms of Pregnancy
DC: What signs should I be on alert for during the pregnancy?
Dr. Cathy: If any of these signs occurs during pregnancy, you have a medical emergency and really should call your vet: the mom goes off food, vomits, has diarrhea, trembles, develops a fever or just plain seems “not right.”
DC: What is false pregnancy?
Dr. Cathy: In false pregnancy, or pseudo-pregnancy, the dog’s hormones are out of balance and her body thinks it is pregnant but is not. False pregnancy often occurs 6 to 12 weeks after a heat cycle. A blood test will show she is not pregnant.
However, she may build a nest with pillows or toys, she may develop mammary glands, may even leak milk, and she may have signs of going into labor. Spaying her after the false pregnancy is done prevents future occurrences of pseudo-pregnancy.
DC: Will my dog require any special care before she delivers the puppies?
Dr. Cathy: As mentioned above, she needs increasing amounts of food and water in the last four weeks. She needs a warm and quiet place to deliver her pups, and lots of love.
When to Expect the Puppies
- Write the first day she bred with the male on the calendar and day 63 on the calendar.
- One week before the due date, on day 57, start taking her rectal temperature at the same time every day (101-102.5 Fahrenheit is normal).
- One to two days before she delivers the pups, her temperature will drop one degree.
- If her temperature goes back up and she hasn’t started labor, call the vet.
DC: What will happen when she goes into labor? How many stages of labor are there?
Dr. Cathy: There are three stages of labor. Some signs to watch for are:
These signs are not abnormal and as long as she is not vomiting, pet parents can offer water. Remove the water if she vomits.
Stage 1 is long, sometimes lasting from 6 to 12 hours and ends with full dilation of the cervix as she prepares to deliver a puppy. Stages 2 and 3 proceed much more quickly.
Stage 2 is hard labor, where she pushes very hard and the puppy should pop out after 10-20 minutes of hard pushing.
Stage 3 occurs when the placenta (afterbirth) is expelled. Each pup may not be followed by afterbirth; the mother may pass two pups and then two placentas. This is normal. Expect some puppies (probably half of them) to be born tail first. This is also normal.
Expect one pup every 45 to 60 minutes with 10 to 20 minutes of hard straining. It is normal for females to take a rest partway through delivery, and she may not strain at all for up to four hours between pups. If she is seen straining hard for over one hour or if she takes longer than a four hour break, a veterinarian should be consulted.
DC: What can I do to help her?
Dr. Cathy: Usually, it’s best to leave her alone – when she starts to push, a pup should be out in 10-20 minutes.
If not, call your vet. If the pup is stuck half in, half out and the mom has been pushing for 20 minutes, better grab the pup and pull as you won’t get to the vet in time to save that pup. Nevertheless, still call once that has happened as it may be a sign that there will be more problems.
Removing the Membranes
As you can see in the video above, puppies are often born covered in membranes that must be cleaned away or the pup will suffocate.
Most females instinctively remove these by licking or biting them, but if she does not attempt to do this almost immediately after the puppy is delivered (within one to two minutes), you must do it for her. Use a towel to rub and remove the slippery placenta, then continue to rub the pup until it cries. If the mom doesn’t cut the umbilical cord with her teeth, tie a knot one inch away from the puppy’s belly, and cut the extra tissue away from the knot. Be gentle.
Should She Eat the Placenta?
There is controversy about whether the mom should eat the placenta. Some dogs vomit the placenta later, but most dogs eat it before humans can interfere. There is a lot of good nutrition (iron and protein) in there so it might not be such a problem to let her eat some of the placentas.
DC: Will I need a whelping box?
Dr. Cathy: A whelping box is a nice safety zone as it keeps the puppies from getting out but gives the mom easy in and out access to go potty and have some personal time.
I find a kiddy pool and clean towels works great. Some people build or buy a fancy whelping box with a door that can be closed when the pups get bigger.
DC: What other supplies will I need?
Dr. Cathy: You should have clean towels on hand and your veterinarian’s phone number. Otherwise, supply plenty of quiet and warmth – temperatures around 70 degrees are ideal for the whelping box.
DC: What should I avoid doing?
Dr. Cathy: It’s human nature to want to help. However, most times, puppy delivery goes well on its own and it is best not to interfere. Try not to be nervous as it may make the mom nervous. She needs to relax and let things happen.
DC: What happens if she is unable to give birth to the puppies?
Dr. Cathy: If the mom pushes hard for an hour and nothing comes out – call your vet. Alternatively, if she has two pups and takes a break for more than four hours, and you know there are more pups in there, call. If she doesn’t get help, the remaining puppies will die in there and the mom may also.
DC: What kinds of special care will she require after the puppies are born?
Dr. Cathy: Good food and good hygiene are most important after puppy delivery.
By the time the pups are three weeks old, the mom will need to eat three times more food than she ate when she was not pregnant.
Her water needs will be huge as well. So, mountains of food, lakes of water, and lots of clean towels and blankets for the pups and the mom are the normal care requirements.
DC: How do I take care of the puppies after they are born?
Dr. Cathy: For the most part, the mom should take care of the pups. However, new moms sometimes need to be shown how to remove the placenta from the head of the pup, while others must be shown where to chew the umbilical cord. Some females need it all done for them.
DC: When will the puppies be weaned?
Dr. Cathy: Most moms have had enough by six weeks and wean the puppies themselves. The human caregivers need to start offering small amounts of easy to chew, always fresh food by three to four weeks of age so the pups can start to explore the food.
For a while, the puppies wear more food than they eat. Then, they figure it out. By three to four weeks, the puppies are growing very fast and the mom will be at “peak milk” so she may not be able to keep up.
DC: What other questions might pet owners have?
Dr. Cathy: Even if the mom isn’t making milk, it’s best to keep the puppies with her until they are seven or eight weeks old. The mom teaches them many important dog/life skills and socialization behaviors. Some people think if the pup is eating food, it’s ready to be weaned, but the socialization period really needs to occur at home with the mom before they are sent to a new home.
Even the best-dewormed moms pass intestinal worms to puppies. These worms migrate through the body in young dogs, some will encyst in the mammary tissue, and wait years until the female has puppies to hatch. Therefore, pups are exposed to worms through momma’s milk. It is common to use a gentle dewormer, like pyrantel, every two weeks until the pups are weaned. Then, the pups should have two negative fecal exams a month apart to be declared dewormed. There are also protocols for daily deworming to keep the pups worm free. Consult your vet to do these things safely.
Vaccination is the other question people frequently ask about their new litter of pups. Over-vaccination of puppies can be very dangerous for them. Vaccines are labeled to begin at six to eight weeks of age and be given every four weeks until the pup is over 17 weeks old. Please consult with your vet for the best protocol, but in my opinion, vaccinating every two weeks does not make a healthier puppy, it may make a less healthy puppy.
This veterinary medical information is based on information provided during a telephone interview with a professional, qualified, retired veterinarian. However, it is provided for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace the advice of your own veterinarian. Always seek your veterinarian’s advice about your pet’s health.
While this information is periodically researched and updated (under the guidance of veterinary input) in the attempt to be timely and factual, no guarantee is given the information is correct, complete, and/or up-to-date.
Recommendations as to therapeutics, diagnostics and best standards of practice in the veterinary industry and/or opinions between professionals may differ or change as technologies and information changes. You should not use this article as your sole source of information on any matter of veterinary health or attempt to self-diagnose or treat your pets as the information herein may not be appropriate for your pet. The safest option for you and your pet is to rely on the advice of your veterinarian to diagnose and recommend the best treatment options.
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.
Questions & Answers
My dog is nesting and has clear discharge when could she give birth?
Your vet can give you an estimate time of whelping as he or she is familiar with your pet and its health.
© 2012 Donna Cosmato