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The 12 Signs of Imminent Labor in Dogs

Adrienne is a certified dog trainer and former veterinarian assistant who partners with some of the best veterinarians worldwide.

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Knowing the signs of imminent labor in dogs is very important. Whether you have purposely bred your dog or the mating happened to occur as an accident, it is paramount to know what to expect so that you can be best prepared.

While most whelping processes go well, some cases are prone to complications and some dog breeds are even unable to whelp naturally often requiring Cesarean section to successfully whelp.

Another important factor to consider is that most dog owners expect puppies to be born in 63 days. However, this ingrained belief may lead to miscalculations.

The problem is that in order to count down the days with accuracy, one must count the day from when ovulation has occurred, rather than from the actual day of mating.

When pregnancy length is timed from ovulation it normally takes 62 to 64 days for the dog to give birth, whereas, when pregnancy length is timed from the day of breeding it can vary widely from 58 to 71 days, points out board-certified veterinary theriogenologist Dr. Margareth Root Kustritz in her book The Dog Breeder's Guide to Successful Breeding and Health Management.

On top of counting down the days, there are several other signs of imminent labor in dogs. Dr. Ivana Crnec, a graduate of the University Sv. Kliment Ohridski’s Faculty of Veterinary Medicine in Bitola, Republic of Macedonia, shares several of these signs below.

Understanding Labor in Dogs

Expecting babies from your beloved dog is a wonderful feeling. However, it also comes with many responsibilities.

In this article, we will talk about the signs of imminent labor in dogs – this is a tricky topic many pet owners would like to learn more about.

We will cover the different signs and explain why they occur and what they mean.

Plus, we will give a thorough explanation of how contractions work and what pet owners need to do to prepare for the babies once the signs of labor become apparent.

What Is Labor in Dogs?

Labor is the term used to describe the period before your dog gives birth. The same term is used in humans.

Labor is a confusing time, especially for first-time dog owners unaware of what to expect and how to recognize labor is starting.

One important question asked is: "How long does labor in dogs last?"

The exact timeframe on labor length varies. The accepted period is between three and 12 hours.

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Read More From Pethelpful

Labor in dogs occurs in three different stages. However, not all stages are visible.
For example, labor starts with the cervix and uterus contracting. These contractions are subtle and not visible on the outside.

As labor progresses, the dog’s private area will swell and enlarge – this is when the signs of labor become easier to notice.

How to Know if My Dog Is in Imminent Labor?

For pet owners, the expectation of a new litter is a challenging time – both exciting and packed with new responsibilities. In such times, knowing as much as possible about the birth-giving process is vital.

For starters, it is important to know the imminent signs of labor in dogs. That way, you will know what to expect and be able to differentiate between the normal birthing process and troublesome situations.

If you feel like something wrong is going on—your dog is showing imminent signs of labor but still fails to give birth—it's strongly advised to call your trusted veterinarian and seek professional help.

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12 Signs of Imminent Labor in Dogs

When labor becomes imminent, it gets easier to notice the signs. However, this can be tricky too, especially if lacking previous experience. To help pet parents be prepared, the following are twelve signs of imminent labor in dogs.

1. Temperature Drop

You should start taking your dog’s rectal temperature one week before her due date and keep records. Normally, the dog’s body temperature should be between 100 and 101 degrees Fahrenheit.

Before labor beings, the dog’s body temperature will drop to 98 degrees.

Such temperature drops can happen at any point of the pregnancy. However, if the readings are low for two consecutive days, you can consider the temperature drop as a sign of imminent labor.

2. Panting (Fast Breathing)

Panting or fast breathing in dogs giving birth occurs due to various reasons. Some of the most common ones are physical exertion and temperature regulation.

Panting is a sure sign of imminent labor in dogs. If a dog is in active labor, it will show a unique breathing pattern—a panting cycle followed by a very short pause.

This is similar to what we see on TV when humans are giving birth, and the nurse is guiding them on how to breathe properly.

3. Restlessness and Anxiety

Restlessness and anxiety are common in dogs that are about to give birth. However, not all dogs manifest these issues the same way. Every dog is different, and it is up to the owner to distinguish their dog's behavior.

You need to be able to read the body language of your dog. That way, you will notice if and when it is feeling anxious and in distress. Restlessness is easier to spot.

4. Seeking Solitude

Once your dog senses her puppies are on their way, she will start to seek solitude. In other words, your dog will avoid your company and keep looking for a secluded place where she can be alone.

At this point, it is important to let your dog rest alone. However, you should be able to keep an eye on her in case she needs help with the process.

So, basically, let your dog be alone but be nearby and ready to step up if your dog needs you.

5. Milk Let-down

Interestingly, many dogs start producing milk before giving birth. At first, you will be able to notice your dog's nipples and breasts getting larger and swollen.

As the birth-giving time approaches, milk drops are likely to start leaking. Milk let-down is a sign of labor, but it does not help predict when labor starts.

We should note that milk let-down is not present in all dogs that are about to give birth.

6. Loss of Appetite

Who can think about eating when there are babies coming out? Loss of appetite is one of the signs of imminent labor in dogs.

7. Nausea and Vomiting

Is nausea a sign of labor in dogs? Yes, it is possible for dogs to get nauseous before giving birth and vomit. However, this is not always the case – some dogs get nauseous, and others do not.

Appetite loss, nausea and vomiting though can be signs of many other health issues – therefore, it is important to analyze the entire situation and make sure they are due to labor and not something else.

8. Nesting Behavior

Nesting behavior describes the dog's attempts to build a nest (maternity den) for the upcoming litter. This sign is not exhibited by all dogs.

For example, if you have provided your dog with a nesting box, there is no reason for her to show nesting behavior. However, if there is no whelping box or your dog dislikes it, the nesting behavior will be a sign of imminent labor.

9. Shivering

Shivering is another sign of imminent labor in dogs. As noted, the dog’s temperature falls around 48 hours before the birth-giving process. However, as labor begins, the body temperature will increase abruptly.

As a result, your dog will feel cold and is likely to start shivering. If you notice shivering, you can expect puppies very soon. Shivering can also be caused by other issues – so be careful and consider the overall scenario.

10. Contractions

Contractions are a normal and sure way of knowing labor is imminent. Just like in humans, dogs undergoing contractions will show visible stomach movements – the belly muscles will tense up to prepare for the pushing part.

In dogs with excess fat tissue, the contractions are not easily visible. It will help if you put your arms on the dog's stomach – that way, you will sense the muscle rippling.

In general, contractions are easier to spot in slimmer and smaller dogs with short coats.

11. Release of Discharge

The pregnant dog may pass a fair volume of clear discharge before a puppy is passed.

Greenish discharge usually indicates separation of the placenta. Call your vet immediately if green discharge is present and the birth of a pup is not impending.

12. Protrusion of Amniotic Sac

You can miss all previously described signs, but if the amniotic sacs emerge, there is no place for mistakes—the dog is giving birth, and you need to be prepared for the puppies!

This part can be a bit squeamish to witness, especially if you have a sensitive stomach. The amniotic sac will be visible on the dog's rear end and in the form of a fluid-filled sac. As the puppy travels through the birth canal, the sac will get larger.

Puppies should be weighed with a baby scale to keep track of their growth.

Puppies should be weighed with a baby scale to keep track of their growth.

How to Prepare Once You See the Signs

If your dog is expecting puppies, you need to be prepared long before the actual birth-giving process begins! The preparation is tricky, especially for first-time owners.

To keep things simple, below is a checklist of the things you need to prepare for when your dog starts giving birth. Here is the list:

Whelping Box

This is a must and ideally should be crafted based on your dog’s individual needs – breed and size. Choosing the right position for the box is also important.

Blankets and Heat Lamp

Newborn puppies are incapable of regulating their body temperatures and need an external source of heat. The blankets can also be used to soak the birth-giving fluids.

Baby Scale

It is important to keep track of the puppies’ body weight. Using their birth weight is an important reference – it allows you to monitor their progress and development.

Milk Replacer and Bottle Feeder

It is always better to be safe than sorry—you need to be prepared in case the mother is not producing enough milk. Have a high-quality milk replacement and a bottle feeder on hand.

Your Vet’s Phone Number

Once again, you are hoping for the best but preparing for the worst – have your trusted veterinarian's phone number on speed dial, as things can get complicated easily.

When to Call the Vet

In dogs, giving birth is far less dramatic than it is in humans. Statistics show that 98 percent of all birthing processes in dogs occur without complications (there are of course exceptions such as bulldogs needing C-sections)

However, being familiar with the imminent signs of labor and knowing when to call the vet for assistance is fundamental. Generally, a vet should be contacted in the following scenarios:

  • The first stage of labor (pacing, nesting, refusing food) lasts longer than 36 hours
  • There is no pup 30 minutes after the second stage of whelping (contractions) has begun
  • Green fluid is being passed and no pup is delivered
  • A pup is not expelled after 20 minutes of contractions
  • The contractions are weak or intermittent and pups are still retained and not expelled after 2 hours since the last delivery
  • The mother dog is lethargic has pale gums, is shivering and there is a foul-smelling bloody or black discharge or greenish-yellow purulent discharge.

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.

© 2022 Adrienne Farricelli

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