Normal Labor and Delivery in Dogs
The key to a safe and successful birthing experience for a dog is for the owner to be prepared and know what to expect ahead of time. There is a range of what is normal labor and delivery in dogs—understanding that range and being prepared can help you and your dog to stay calm, and will help you know whether or not you need the assistance of a veterinarian.
Gestation lasts 63 days for dogs, but knowing the actual delivery day can be difficult since a bitch can become pregnant a few days before or after ovulation. Therefore, we are usually able to narrow it down to between 58 and 70 days. A pregnant dog may show few other signs of pregnancy early on, but it is possible for her to have morning sickness with occasional vomiting and fatigue that last only a few days. By around day 40, you should notice her belly swelling and nipples enlarging. Keep in mind that sometimes simply going through heat, whether it produced a pregnancy or not, will lead to nipple enlargement and other pregnancy symptoms. This is called pseudocyesis or false pregnancy. It is therefore very important to bring your dog in for testing if you suspect a pregnancy so we can gauge, as closely as possible, what the potential delivery window may be. This involves taking a cell test from the vaginal wall, and ultrasound testing. Ultrasound is also very important as this will give you an idea of how many puppies to expect (critical information to have during the whelping process).
Feeding a Pregnant Dog
During the first 4-5 weeks of a pregnancy, there is usually no reason to change your dog’s diet or to add any kind of supplements. Somewhere around 5 weeks, however, the puppies inside the womb go through a growth spurt that continues until birth. This constitutes a significant nutrient and energy drain on the pregnant dog. You will probably need to switch (gradually) to a specially-formulated food designed for pregnant and lactating dogs at this point (we can make suggestions), which she should keep eating until after the puppies are weaned. Generally speaking, the mother does not need any extra nutritional supplements or calories during the last trimester either, other than what she receives in this special food—in fact, excess nutrients or calories beyond that can lead to everything from birth defects to miscarriages, so talk with our Woodbridge veterinarian about your mama dog’s diet and stick strictly to these suggestions.
Preparing Your Dog and Home for Delivery
Since the gestation period for a pregnant dog is fairly short, you will want to build or acquire a whelping box and get your dog used to it as quickly as possible. If you build it yourself, choose a material such as Formica or wood for the walls—something that is easy to clean is especially important. The sides should be high enough to keep the puppies in, yet low enough for the mother to comfortably step in and out without injury to her mammary glands. The whelping box should also be large enough for the mother to stretch out comfortably, and should be placed in a quiet, secluded, warm, dry area away from drafts. It is important to get your dog used to the whelping box far enough in advance that she sees it as the natural place to go when she gets ready to deliver. If not, she will choose another place she likes, possibly your closet, your bed or a pile of laundry. When delivery is close, line the bottom of the box with layers of newspaper for quick clean up. Once all the puppies are born and cleaned off, switch over to blankets. “Chux” pads (the absorbent pads used in hospitals) are also a good idea for quick and easy clean up as they absorb fluids very well.
Normal Labor and Delivery in Dogs
When the mother is getting close to her delivery day window, her body temperature will drop slightly about 24 hours ahead of delivery time. The normal temperature for a healthy dog is 101F-102.5F—a normal pre-delivery temperature for a bitch is 98F-99F.
Stage I of Delivery
This temperature drop, along with anxious behaviors such as pacing, loss of appetite, and sometimes vomiting, signal the start of Stage 1 of the delivery process. At this time, place your dog into the whelping box. She may want to drag blankets or clothing into the box with her. Remove anything you don’t want permanently stained. This is the preparation stage of delivery and it may last anywhere from 6 to 12 hours. During this time, the dog’s cervix will dilate completely and she should start whelping (delivering puppies) within 24 hours after the start of Stage I. If there are no puppies by this time, call our veterinarian (703-897-5665) for help as there may be complications.
Stage II of Delivery
This is the stage when puppies begin to emerge from the womb. You will notice visible contractions and the dog will strain as if trying to have a bowel movement during Stage II. The first puppy should emerge within 1 to 2 hours after contractions and straining begin. If not, you will need help from our veterinarian. Between the births of each puppy, there may be a resting phase lasting up to 4 hours. Sometimes puppies are born quickly, one right after the other; this is also considered normal labor and delivery in dogs. This is why preliminary ultrasounds are important: then you know how many puppies to expect and what the general timeframe for delivery may be. If any resting phases go on longer than 4 hours and no other puppies are born, veterinary assistance is needed.
Stage III Labor
Somewhere between 5 and 10 minutes after a puppy is born, the bitch should expel the placenta. If several puppies are born rapidly, in succession, the placentas will also probably come out just as quickly. There should be the same number of placentas expelled as there are puppies, so be sure to keep count. If a placenta is not expelled after a puppy is born, this can be dangerous for the mother. Throughout the whelping (birthing) process, the mother will cycle between Stage II and Stage III until all of the puppies are born.
Normally, as soon as a puppy is born, the mother should start vigorously licking and cleaning the puppy. This behavior should free the puppy from the amniotic sac and she will also chew through the umbilical cord. Try to remove the placentas as soon as they appear so that the mother does not try to ingest them, as this can cause diarrhea and vomiting. It will also help you keep track of the number of puppies and placentas.
If, for some reason, the mother cannot or will not start cleaning the puppy, you will need to help free it from its amniotic sack. If this is the case, have clean, dry towels ready to start vigorously rubbing the puppies. Use a string to tie off the umbilical cords about an inch from the belly, and then cut off the excess umbilical cord on the other side. Keep rubbing and cleaning the puppy until it starts to cry, and then place it down with the mother and encourage her to nurse.