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Dog Pregnancy, Birth, and Postpartum Care: The Complete Guide

If you’re considering breeding your dog, it’s essential to consult your veterinarian for guidance on safe and healthy breeding practices. It’s crucial to ensure that your dog is up to date with vaccinations and heartworm/flea prevention before breeding, as pregnant female dogs ideally should not be vaccinated. Many veterinarians specialize in canine reproduction and can provide valuable advice and assistance.

Just as humans require medical attention during pregnancy, dogs also need veterinary care before, during, and after pregnancy. It’s important to establish a relationship with a reproductive veterinarian before breeding your dog to ensure the health of both the mother and her puppies. The Society for Theriogenology maintains a list of reproductive veterinarians and the services they offer.

During pregnancy, your dog will need proper care and attention. This includes preparing a comfortable whelping (birthing) area, providing appropriate nutrition for pregnant dogs, understanding what to expect during the whelping process, and knowing how to provide postpartum care. If your dog is pregnant, follow these guidelines to ensure her health and the well-being of her puppies.

Symptoms

During the initial weeks, it’s common not to observe significant changes in your dog’s behavior. However, some pregnant dogs might display signs of increased fatigue, occasional vomiting, or reduced appetite. You might also notice weight gain and a more pronounced development of mammary glands. As pregnancy progresses, many dogs exhibit nesting behavior, which includes activities like dragging blankets to create a cozy spot and rearranging pillows.

It’s essential to understand that mammary development and color changes can also occur in non-pregnant female dogs due to normal hormone fluctuations during this period.

How Do I Know if My Dog Is Pregnant?

To confirm pregnancy in your dog, various methods are available:

  • A dog pregnancy ultrasound is typically performed around days 25–28 of the pregnancy.
  • Abdominal X-rays can be conducted around day 45 of the pregnancy.
  • While there are blood tests available for pregnancy detection, they are often inaccurate and not reliable.
  • Some veterinarians may attempt to palpate (feel) a dog’s abdomen to determine pregnancy, but this method is unreliable and can pose risks to developing fetuses.

Consult your veterinarian to discuss which method is best suited for confirming your dog’s pregnancy.

Following a heat cycle, female dogs experience hormonal changes that can mimic pregnancy, leading to false pregnancy (or pseudopregnancy). During pseudopregnancy, non-pregnant dogs may exhibit symptoms like lactation and maternal behavior changes due to hormonal fluctuations. These symptoms usually resolve on their own with minimal or no medical intervention.

While medical treatment for pseudopregnancy is rarely necessary, it’s important to consult your veterinarian as complications or side effects may arise. If breeding isn’t planned, spaying your dog can prevent future episodes of pseudopregnancy.

How Long Does Dog Pregnancy Last?

The gestation period of a dog, or the length of pregnancy, typically spans around 63 days from ovulation, which is a little over two months. Ovulation is determined through monitoring the hormones progesterone and luteinizing hormone (LH), a process commonly conducted by reproductive veterinarians.

By pinpointing the day of ovulation, veterinarians can establish a highly precise due date within a three-day window. However, if ovulation timing isn’t monitored, the exact ovulation date remains uncertain, and the due date may vary from 58 to 68 days from breeding.

Before breeding, it’s essential for a veterinarian to assess the female dog’s physical health and suitability for pregnancy. Throughout pregnancy, the pregnant mother should undergo examinations by a veterinarian in the middle and toward the end of gestation for pregnancy confirmation, health assessments, and preparation for the whelping process.

What to Feed Pregnant Dogs

During the final weeks of pregnancy, many pregnant dogs benefit from transitioning to a higher-calorie diet, especially those expecting large litters. This diet should consist of commercial products specifically labeled for pregnancy and lactation or formulated for puppies.

Several high-quality, veterinarian-recommended diets suitable for pregnant dogs are available over the counter, such as Royal Canin Mother & Baby dry or canned food. To determine the most appropriate diet for your pregnant or lactating dog, consult your veterinarian. It’s important to maintain pregnant and lactating female dogs on this higher-calorie diet until weaning.

It’s worth noting that puppy foods intended for large breeds are generally not recommended for pregnant and lactating dogs due to differences in their vitamin, mineral, and caloric content. Additionally, raw diets are discouraged due to the elevated risk of infections that may lead to abortion or fetal compromise.

Health Considerations for Pregnant Dogs

Parasites:

It’s crucial to have a fresh stool sample examined by your veterinarian during pregnancy, as intestinal parasites can transmit to the puppies both in the womb and through nursing.

Avoid using over-the-counter dewormers for your pregnant or nursing dog, as some of these may pose risks. Instead, rely on your veterinarian to prescribe the appropriate medication if the stool sample indicates a parasitic infection.

Vaccinations:

Ideally, pregnant female dogs should not receive vaccinations. Therefore, ensure your dog is up to date on her shots and flea, tick, and heartworm prevention before pregnancy occurs.

However, there are specific circumstances where a female dog may require vaccination during pregnancy. Newborn puppies lack an immune system and depend on their first 24 hours of nursing to acquire protective antibodies from the mother’s colostrum. For optimal puppy protection, the mother should have elevated antibody levels to pass on. If the mother is not current on core vaccines, such as the combined distemper and parvovirus vaccine, veterinarians might consider vaccinating her during pregnancy if the benefits outweigh potential risks.

Discuss your dog’s vaccination status with your veterinarian during the pre-breeding examination to ensure the best approach.

How to Prepare for Dog Birth

While many dogs give birth naturally, certain breeds like English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and other short-nosed dogs often require planned caesarian sections for whelping. Therefore, close collaboration with your veterinarian is crucial in such cases.

For dogs whelping naturally, as the end of your dog’s pregnancy approaches, it’s important to establish a quiet nesting area conducive to the whelping process. This area should be warm, comfortable, and accessible for your dog to enter and exit while safely containing the puppies.

It’s essential to isolate the mother from other dogs three weeks before labor and three weeks after delivery to prevent herpesvirus infection. Although this virus seldom affects adult dogs, it can be fatal for puppies.

A pregnant dog’s temperature typically drops below 100°F within 24 hours of labor. Begin monitoring her temperature a few days before her expected due date, as rectal temperatures offer the most accurate readings.

While many dogs can give birth naturally, certain breeds may require planned caesarian sections for whelping.

How Long Does It Take for Dogs to Give Birth?

The process of dog labor consists of three stages. Contractions during the first stage can endure for up to 12 hours. Typically, puppies are born 30–60 minutes apart, although the mother dog may pause between delivering puppies, with breaks lasting up to two hours. Here’s an overview of each stage.

First Stage of Dog Labor: Start of Contractions

During the first stage of dog labor, the cervix begins to relax, and intermittent contractions commence. Although these contractions may not be visibly apparent during the birthing process.

Your dog will exhibit restlessness during this stage, often moving in and out of the nesting box, panting, digging, and occasionally vomiting. She will likely show a lack of interest in food. This initial stage can persist for up to 12 hours.

Second Stage of Dog Labor: Stronger Contractions and Birth

The second stage of dog labor commences with stronger and more frequent uterine contractions, leading to the birth of each puppy. Puppies typically arrive every 30–60 minutes, with the mother experiencing 10–15 minutes of intense straining during each birth. It’s common for some puppies to be born tail-first, which is considered normal for dogs.

While it’s normal for the mother to take breaks during the whelping process, it’s important to recognize signs that may warrant concern and prompt a call to your veterinarian. These signs include:

  • If your dog has been straining intensely for more than 30 minutes.
  • If she takes a break lasting longer than four hours.
  • If fetal membranes are present in the birth canal without a puppy being delivered within 30 minutes.
  • If all puppies haven’t been born within 24 hours.
  • If the mother appears to be experiencing extreme pain.

Third Stage of Dog Labor: Afterbirth

In the third stage of labor, the mother dog passes all the fetal membranes, also known as the placenta. These membranes, referred to as afterbirth, typically appear greenish-black and should not emit a foul odor. Each set of membranes should be expelled within 15 minutes of the birth of each puppy. Consequently, dogs will alternate between stages 2 and 3 with the delivery of each puppy.

How Many Puppies Can a Dog Have?

The average litter size can vary significantly depending on the breed of the dog. Larger dog breeds typically yield larger litters, with an average range of six to eight puppies. Some large breed dogs have been known to give birth to even more puppies. Conversely, smaller breeds may have litters ranging from one to five puppies.

In cases where a dog is expected to have only one or two puppies, there may be a need for intervention, such as a C-section, as these pregnancies may not initiate labor naturally. It’s crucial to discuss the possibility of a planned C-section with your veterinarian, especially for singleton pregnancies or dog breeds that commonly require assistance during childbirth.

To determine the expected litter size, veterinarians can perform an X-ray in the last week of pregnancy. This information helps pet parents prepare necessary supplies and set appropriate expectations.

What Should You Do After a Puppy Is Born?

After a puppy is born, it’s important to ensure proper care and assistance:

Puppies are typically born with a protective fetal membrane that the mother often removes shortly after birth. If the mother does not remove this sac, it is essential to manually remove it to facilitate the puppy’s breathing.

To do so, gently break the sac, wipe away any fluid from the puppy’s nostrils, and open the mouth with the head facing downward to clear any remaining fluids. Then, stimulate the puppy to breathe by firmly stroking its body with a towel.

If the umbilical cord has not been cut during birth or by the mother, you may need to cut it. However, exercise caution to avoid causing harm to the puppy’s organs. Instead of pulling on the cord, break it approximately 1–2 inches from the puppy’s body by gently tearing it with your first two fingers and thumb. It may be helpful to obtain medical instruments such as clamps and scissors beforehand to assist in the process. If you are uncertain about how to proceed or have any concerns, contact your veterinarian immediately.

Issues to Watch for After Your Dog Gives Birth

Following the birth of the puppies, it’s crucial to be aware of potential concerns and what to observe:

Vaginal Discharge:

  • Vaginal discharge may persist in small amounts for up to eight weeks post-birth. Typically, the discharge appears reddish-black due to the presence of old blood.
  • If the discharge becomes excessively bloody, emits an odor, or resembles pus, prompt examination by a veterinarian is necessary. If the discharge diminishes but suddenly worsens, it’s also a cause for concern.

Fever:

  • Continue monitoring your dog’s temperature after whelping, as post-birth infections are common. Contact your veterinarian if her temperature exceeds 102.5°F or if she displays signs of illness.

Metritis (Inflamed Uterus):

  • Metritis, characterized by uterine inflammation, may occur due to retained placenta or trauma during delivery. Immediate veterinary attention is required if signs such as fever, loss of appetite, foul-smelling vaginal discharge, lack of interest in the puppies, or decreased milk production are observed.

Eclampsia (Drop in Blood Calcium Levels):

  • Eclampsia, often seen in toy breeds, can occur during whelping and post-birth weeks due to calcium deficiency. Symptoms include restlessness, abnormal maternal behavior, facial itching, muscle spasms, a stiff gait, and seizures. Contact your veterinarian urgently if any of these signs are noticed, as eclampsia can be fatal.

Mastitis (Infected Breast Tissue):

  • Mastitis, an inflammation of mammary tissues, manifests as hard, red, and painful breasts due to infection. Prompt veterinary assessment is necessary if you suspect mastitis, as the mother dog may require treatment.

Agalactia (Inadequate Milk Production):

  • Agalactia, where the mother does not produce enough milk, necessitates veterinary intervention and supplementation of the puppies’ nutrition.

Postpartum Care

Here are the steps you should know for postpartum care, nutrition, and nursing.

Ensure Proper Nutrition for Your Dog

During the nursing period, your dog should maintain a high-calorie diet, ideally tailored for pregnancy or puppy requirements. It’s essential to ensure she has access to food and fresh water at all times to support her and her puppies’ needs.

Provide a Comfortable Environment

Designate a quiet, clean, and low-traffic area in your home for the mother dog and her puppies. Minimize disturbances as stress can affect her ability to care for her litter. Additionally, create a safe space where she can rest away from the puppies but still easily reach them.

Monitor Nursing Patterns

Newborn puppies typically need to nurse every one to two hours, so your dog will spend a significant amount of time with them initially. If you observe any signs of inadequate milk production or reluctance from your dog to nurse, seek advice from your veterinarian promptly.

Use Medications Cautiously

Avoid administering medications or vaccines to your dog while she is lactating unless specifically approved by your veterinarian. Always prioritize her and her puppies’ safety and consult with a professional if there are concerns about her health.

Seek Veterinary Assistance When Needed

If your dog shows signs of illness, such as decreased appetite, vomiting, lethargy, or any abnormality in her mammary glands, contact your veterinarian immediately. Inform them about her nursing status for appropriate guidance and treatment.

Consider Spaying and Neutering

It’s crucial to understand that there are no inherent benefits to allowing female dogs to have litters. Pregnancy, whelping, and nursing can pose significant risks to her health, and the financial burden of caring for a litter can be substantial.

Discuss spaying or neutering options with your veterinarian at the appropriate time. Spaying is the most effective method of birth control for dogs, and it can prevent various health issues, including pyometra and mammary cancer. The optimal timing for spaying depends on factors such as breed size and individual health considerations, so seek personalized advice from your veterinarian.

It’s essential to make informed decisions about your dog’s reproductive health to ensure her well-being and prevent avoidable medical complications.

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