It is important you know what to expect during the birth process in dogs. While many dogs will give birth with no trouble at all, it is essential you are able to recognise if your dog is having trouble as early assistance will increase the likelihood of a healthy litter being delivered safely. In some breeds, such as bulldogs, who have a large head relative to body size, an elective caesarean is the safest means of giving birth.
It is useful to know how many pups are expected to be born. This can be determined by doing an x-ray once the pregnancy has reached day 45 or greater.
Health and Safety for Owners: a quick note
At the time of whelping there is an increased risk to owners of contracting Q Fever from infected placenta and birthing fluids. Q Fever is a debilitating bacterial disease that can cause severe flu-like symptoms and lead to chronic fatigue. Vaccination against Q Fever is available and is recommended for regular breeders. Good hygiene (washing thoroughly with warm soapy water) is important but it is also recommended to wear gloves and a properly fitted P2 mask when present during whelping. P2 masks are available from pharmacies and hardware stores.
There are 3 stages of labour in the female dog.
- Your dog will usually be restless, they may pant, shiver, dig holes, pace and may vomit
- She may stop eating but ensure she has plenty of water available
- She will generally display nesting behaviour
- Her temperature may drop however this varies between dogs and is not always a reliable indicator
- The uterus will start to contract and the cervix will dilate, although you will not be able to see this externally
- This stage usually lasts 6-12 hours
- The birth of the pups
- You will see active abdominal contractions
- Puppies are usually born head first, although posterior presentation (with hindlegs and tail coming first) is also normal and generally doesn’t cause a problem. Breech presentation, where the rump is coming first and the hindlegs are tucked forward, is more likely to cause difficulty
- Generally each puppy will be born after a short period of contractions, 10-30 minutes of straining should result in a puppy
- There may be a short rest period after each puppy is born, generally a pup will be delivered every 45-60 minutes
- Some mums will have a longer rest period during birth, particularly with large litters, but usually this will not last more than 4 hours. There will be no active contractions during a rest period.
- When the pups are born, the mum should remove the membranes from around the pup and lick them to stimulate breathing. She will also sever the umbilical cord and continue to lick the pups to dry them off.
- Expulsion of the placentas
- It is normal for the mother to eat the placentas, you may wish to remove the placentas to avoid the possibility of her vomiting them up later
Recognising when your dog is having difficulty whelping
You should contact the veterinarian if you see the following:
- Dark green discharge from the vulva with no pups being delivered
- More than 30 minutes of active abdominal contractions or straining with no pups being delivered
- A pup or fluid sac being visible and isn’t delivered within 10 minutes
- Intermittent contractions for up to 2 hours with no pups being delivered
- More than 4 hours between pups (when it is known there are more pups present)
- If mum appears in pain, is depressed or lethargic or is constantly licking her vulva
- If there is fresh bloody discharge persisting for more than 10 minutes
Assisting the New Mum
Some new mums will be uncertain what they need to do with the pups and may need assistance. If you notice that mum is not removing the birthing sac within a couple minutes of birth of the pup, you will need to do this for her and should stimulate the puppy by rubbing it firmly with a warm towel. Hold the pup with its head pointed downward during rubbing to assist removal of any fluid in its airways. It is also helpful to have a small syringe to suck any excess fluid away from the pups nose and mouth. Continue rubbing until the pup is breathing (should happen within 30-60 seconds), moving and crying. The umbilical cord should be tied off using some thread or dental floss about 1 ½ cm from the abdomen and can then be cut with clean scissors. If the pup does not breathe on its own, it is NOT recommended to attempt mouth to mouth resuscitation due to the risk of contracting Q fever from birthing fluids.
Once the pup is doing well, place with mum or into a small box lined with towels. The ideal environmental temperature for newborn pups is 30-32˚C. A heat lamp is ideal if extra warmth is needed as it warms the air rather than just the space under the pup, but a hot water bottle can be used if a heat lamp is not available. If using hot water bottles, ensure they are covered with towels to prevent pups becoming too hot underneath.
After the birth
If all has gone well during birth there are a few things to keep an eye on post-birth.
Pups should feed well from mum without assistance. In the early days, they will feed very frequently and then sleep. They should make very little noise if they are getting adequate food. The best way to check they are getting what they need is to weigh them when they are born and then weigh them daily. Pups should gain approximately 5-10% of their birth weight daily (but may lose a little weight in the first 24-48 hours) and should have approximately doubled their birth weight in the first 10 days.
Ideally, pups should be checked for birth defects such as cleft palate and atresia ani (lack of an anus) within the first 24 hours as intervention will be required if these are present.
As mentioned above, temperature is really important. One of the most common causes of failure to feed properly is puppies becoming too cold and cold puppies will often be rejected by their mother. Environmental temperature should be 30-32˚C in the first week, then 26-29˚C in weeks 2 and 3 and 21-24˚C in week 4.
If you have any concerns about the pups, ask your veterinarian for advice.
It can be normal for your dog to develop a fever in the first 24-48 hours after birth but they should not be unwell and it will return to normal on its own. It is also normal for them to have discharge from the vulva – this may be bloody, dark red-brown or green but should not be smelly. The discharge may persist in small amounts for up to 8 weeks.
You should continue to feed a good quality puppy food while the mother is feeding the puppies. Occasionally an oral calcium supplement may be needed once the mother is feeding puppies (not prior to birth as this can alter the ability of the body’s hormones to respond to low calcium levels) – generally this is only required for large litters and should be given after advice from your veterinarian.
Eclampsia or Milk Fever
This occurs most often in small breed dogs with large litters around 3-4 weeks post birth but can occur in any dog at any time. It occurs when the mother’s blood calcium level becomes low due to the large amount of calcium needed for milk production. The signs you see are:
- Muscle tremors
Emergency veterinary attention must be sought if this occurs.
Metritis – Inflammation of the Uterus
This may occur if there have been retained placenta or some damage to the uterus during birthing. Signs include:
- Foul smelling discharge
- Depression and loss of appetite
- Decreased milk production
- Lack of interest in the puppies
Veterinary attention should be sought.
Mastitis – Inflammation of the Mammaries
Normally the mammaries will be large and soft, if they are red, hard or painful it is an indicator of mastitis. Mastitis does not necessarily occur due to infection but will be more likely if there has been trauma to the teats or if the mother is in an unclean environment. You may notice the pups are crying for food or are failing to gain weight as the mother may prevent them from feeding due to pain. Mastitis can range from a relatively mild disease to a severe disease with gangrenous changes in the teats and septic shock. It will depend on the severity as to whether the pups will be able to continue to feed from mum. Again, your veterinarian should be consulted for the appropriate treatment.