Taking care of a pregnant bitch is quite a commitment, and we must take complete responsibility for their care and wellbeing during the pregnancy, birth and nurturing of puppies. They can’t exactly tell us if they are craving gherkins and ice cream like we do, or if they feel nauseous or are in pain, so monitor her carefully…
by Dr Zarina Motala /
Work as an emergency vet can be both stressful and exciting, often at the same time. Life and death can walk a tightrope together, and you never know what to expect from one minute to the next. One of my favourite experiences is concentrating on completing a Caesarean Section, not a sound to be heard in the theatre other than the beeping of the monitoring machinery, and the miniscule clink of operating instruments.
Suddenly, the silence is broken by a little squeak, followed by another, and another! They become louder and more insistent as the tiny pups protest the bright lights, cold, and vigorous rubbing as we welcome them to the world. New-borns always sound grumpy to me, and I suppose I can’t blame them. There is a palpable release in the air, as we all relax and start joking around while Mum’s abdomen is closed – everything is going to be ok. Not to worry little ones, we will soon have you warm and suckling with her.
Oopsies do happen, though, and people often come to me with a dog that is accidentally pregnant. What to do next?
If the pregnancy is unplanned and unwanted, there are two options for termination – sterilisation (spaying the dog after mating), or injection of a hormone that causes rejection of the pregnancy for a certain period after fertilisation. If this is something you are considering, you can discuss the risks and benefits of each option as applies to your individual dog with your vet.
Pregnancy – save the dates
Going ahead with the pregnancy, it is best to be prepared in all respects. Familiarise yourself with the needs of dogs during and after pregnancy, and keep in mind that unexpected costs can occur. The birth may not progress naturally, and emergency intervention may be required, so I always recommend that the mother is signed up for pet insurance long before she is even mated.
Dogs are pregnant for 63 days on average, but this can vary by a few days. Pregnancy can be confirmed via abdominal ultrasound from Day 25 onwards – this is useful for confirming pregnancy and checking foetal heart beats, but it is difficult to count the number of pups on ultrasound. It is a good idea to x-ray the abdomen in the last week of pregnancy (Day 55 onward), when the skeletons of the foetuses are well developed and can be easily counted – this provides us with an idea of how many puppies to expect and we can then tell when labour is over. We can perform both confirmatory tests at TAH and you are welcome to phone to make a booking.
It’s time! Don’t panic, we’re here for you
There are three stages of labour:
Stage One – this lasts 12 to 24 hours. The cervix begins to dilate, and the mother may become restless, hide, or show nesting behaviour by shuffling blankets around. There is a decrease in body temperature of the mother, indicating that labour should begin within 24 hours. It is thus helpful to start taking her temperature twice daily (12 hours apart at the same time each day) from a few days before the due date.
Stage Two – active labour. During this period, you will see the mother showing active contractions of the abdomen. She may pant, look uncomfortable, and urinate or defaecate during a contraction. She may take breaks of 1 to 3 hours between the birth of each puppy. This stage can go on for 24 hours but is usually shorter.
Stage Three – expulsion of the placentas. There should be one placenta for each puppy, and sometimes each puppy will be followed by a placenta, or sometimes there will be a few puppies followed by a few placentas. The mother may eat one or more of the placentas. This is natural behaviour, so do not try to stop her. However, do try to keep an eye on her so that you can keep track of how many are produced overall.
There are a few different types of discharge associated with the birth process. At the start, there may be a clear watery liquid. During the course of the birth there will be a thicker dark green/brown coloured discharge. After the birth there will be a brownish discharge called lochia produced as the uterus empties itself and starts to return to normal size.
Difficulty giving birth is called dystocia. The following signs may be a cause for concern, and it is advised that you contact a vet if these occur:
- 24 hours or more have passed since the drop in temperature, and labour has not started.
- Active labour begins, but there is more than 2 hours before the first puppy is born.
- There is a puppy stuck in the birth canal.
- Labour starts, then stops:
– If the mother is straining intermittently (i.e. pushing now and then, not continuously), for 3 to 4 hours without producing a puppy.
– If the mother is straining continuously (i.e. bearing down hard) and not producing a puppy after approximately 30 minutes.
- There is a green/red/brown discharge BEFORE the FIRST puppy is born. This is an indicator of distress and possible death of the foetus. AFTER the first pup is born, this green discharge is normal.
- Prolonged labour – e.g. you know from the x-rays that there are 5 puppies, but only 4 puppies are born over the course of 24 hours. This means there is one left behind and needs help.
- One or more of the puppies are born dead or very weak.
There are several reasons that a Caesarean Section may be required. On arrival at the hospital, the vet will do a physical examination of the mother, including palpating the vagina and cervix to assess if there are any puppies in the birth canal that may be manipulated out by hand (do not try this at home as the pup may be hurt), and to check if the mother is able to contract her uterus properly when stimulated to do so. Depending on the physical examination, an x-ray to assess the foetal sizes, numbers and positions, and ultrasound to assess the status of the foetus and to monitor their heart rates may be advised. The vet may on assessment urge immediate surgery, or may recommend medical treatment, or waiting for a certain period.
Indications for caesarean may include:
– Foetal distress: due to prolonged labour, decreased blood supply, severe contracting pressure of the uterus on a foetus that is stuck in position.
-Obstruction: Having too few foetuses can lead to them being provided with a larger amount of nutrients during pregnancy and these foetuses can become oversized and wedged in the birth canal. Genetic abnormalities such as deformed limbs or heads, or incorrect (breech or sideways) positioning may cause a blockage as they try to exit. There may also be an abnormality within the birth canal structure itself.
-Difficulty with producing contractions: Sometimes the hormonal stimulation initiating the birth process is not enough to cause active contractions. The mother may also not have enough glucose or calcium in her body to support the production and continuation of active contractions, or the muscles may become fatigued from a prolonged labour.
Take good care of both mum and pups
While the mother is lactating, it is important to feed her a good quality puppy food from just prior to the birth of the puppies until they are they are weaned. This will provide additional energy and calcium for milk production and is a good introduction for when weaning starts and the puppies begin to investigate the food that mum is eating. Please enquire regarding recommended food for lactating bitches – our friendly receptionists will be able to point you in the right direction.
The mother could suffer from milk fever if her calcium intake is too low or she has a large litter. Low blood calcium levels affect the muscles and cause twitching and tremors of the whole body. This may lead to fitting or her heart can be affected, resulting in death in severe cases. This is an EMERGENCY and it is best to go straight to the vet with your pet should this occur.
Some dogs haven’t a clue what they are doing, especially new mothers and highly stressed/sensitive individuals. Monitor both puppies and bitch to see that she shows good mothering skills that will ensure that the puppies thrive. Risks include ignoring the pups, lying on them, and overcleaning leading to injury of the puppies.
New-born puppies should gain 10% of their body weight each day, and so it is good practise to weigh them twice daily at the same time of day. They should be monitored for excessive crying which can indicate hunger, incorrect ambient temperature and/or sickness. They will start to begin investigating solid food around 4 weeks of age and are ideally fully weaned at the age of 8 weeks.
Taking care of a pregnant bitch is quite a commitment, and we must take complete responsibility for their care and wellbeing during the pregnancy, birth and nurturing of puppies. They can’t exactly tell us if they are craving gherkins and ice cream like we do, or if they feel nauseous or are in pain, so monitor her carefully and feel free to contact us with any questions. TAH Bellville provides a 24-hour emergency service, with reproductive emergencies a common occurrence – we would love to help!