submitted with permission by Marj Brooks
Understanding the normal mechanisms of whelping, or parturition, can help you weigh your options and determine whether veterinary intervention is necessary and at what stage you should intervene. Each bitch is different and you will need to know and understand your bitch to be able to detect early warning signs that all is not as it should be.
Initiation of Birth:
Initiation of birth is stimulated by the puppies and not a response by the dam. As the fetuses grow, they receive less nutrition from the placenta. This causes stress-related hormones (adreno-corticosteroid or cortisol) to be released from each puppy’s brain. These hormones in turn cause the placenta to release prostaglandin, a chemical that initiates the destruction of the corpus luteum or “yellow body” on the ovary that forms after eggs are ovulated. The corpus luteum plays an important role throughout a dog’s pregnancy by secreting progesterone, the hormone that maintains the pregnancy. Destruction of the corpus luteum results in a sharp drop of progesterone levels one to two days before whelping, slowing the metabolic rate in the bitch and triggering the decline in temperature we see prior to whelping.
Without the inhibiting effect of progesterone, the uterus can contract and the cervix can open for birth. Cervical dilation and uterine contractions themselves are primarily caused by the secretion of oxytocin from the brain stem, or pituitary gland, of the bitch. The injectable form of oxytocin is known to many breeders as the “pit” shot. Early labor contractions allow a puppy to enter the pelvic canal of the bitch, which triggers the release of oxytocin by the dam and more strenuous contractions. This process of stimulation by the pup, which is necessary for its own birth, is called the Ferguson’s reflex.
Stages of Labour:
The natural progression of labor is broken down into three stages:
- Stage 1: is preparation for actual labor. It includes nesting, vomiting, panting, shivering and a temperature drop of 1 to 2 degrees to less than 99 degrees F. Stage 1 usually lasts 6 to 12 hours, but can range between 0 and 48 hours.
- Stage 2: is active labor. The fetal membranes rupture (often called the “water breaking”) and the first fetus enters the pelvic canal, triggering Ferguson’s reflex and strong labor contractions. Normally the birth of a puppy should be seen within one to two hours of these strong contractions. The bitch may then rest several hours between pups.
- Stage 3: is delivery of the placenta or fetal membranes. This usually occurs within 45 minutes after the birth of each pup.
Disturbance of this natural progression results in a difficult birth or dystocia. Dystocias are usually classified as to whether they are due to inadequacies of the bitch or to complications with the puppies. Birthing problems that primarily involve the bitch include:
- Physical abnormalities of the birth canal. This includes problems such as a malformed vagina or an old pelvic fracture.
- Primary uterine inertia or failure to go into Stage 2 labour. In these animals, separation of the placenta from the uterus occurs, but no puppies are delivered. A greenish black vaginal discharge is observed before the birth of any puppies. The puppies inside the uterus will die without surgical intervention.
- Secondary uterine inertia or exhaustion of the uterine muscles. These animals stop labor during Stage 2 and require assistance to continue.
Problems due to the puppies include:
- A pup that is too large.
- Improper positioning of the puppy in the birth canal.
- Dead puppies, which fail to trigger whelping because there is no increase in cortisol.
Combinations of problems due to the dam and the pups also occur. For example, a bitch with only one or two pups may not be able to trigger whelping in a normal manner, resulting in primary uterine inertia. Small litters can also grow too big in the uterus and may cause a fetal oversize dystocia.
CALL THE VETERINARIAN WHEN
1) There is any abnormal vaginal discharge including:
- green / black discharge with no sign of straining before a pup is born
- constant dripping of pure blood
- foul smelling pus
2) The bitch has a prolonged gestation, especially if no fetal movement can be seen.
3) Signs of toxemia are developing in the bitch including:
- rigid gait or seizures
4) There are signs of an obstruction, including:
- severe pain or crying out during contractions
- visualization of a pup and/or its membranes which cannot be delivered by careful assistance
5) No progress has been made towards the delivery of a pup after:
- initial labor over 3 hours
- hard straining over 30 minutes between pups
- weak intermittent labor of over 2 hours between pups
- no labor over 4 hours between pups
Determining whether or not you have a dystocia, and whether or not it is time to intervene, is rarely a clear-cut decision. Aside from the exceptions listed when veterinary assistance should always be sought, how you decide to proceed will be based in part on the value of the litter and the bitch to you. Some breeders are comfortable monitoring the dystocia themselves, realizing their “wait and see” attitude may result in the loss of a pup or two. However, if this is the first and only litter of an 8-year-old bitch whose pregnancy cost you $350 in progesterone tests and vaginal cytology smears, you probably won’t want to risk losing any puppies, and will rather err on the side of early intervention.
In addition to the emergency situations described a dystocia should be suspected if:
- one to two hours have passed after beginning Stage 2 labor without a puppy
- more than three hours of rest have occurred between puppies
- if the bitch has been in hard labor for 30 minutes with no progression toward birthing a pup.
If you only have breeding dates to go on and you are considering an elective C-section, progesterone testing can help confirm the bitch is truly term before the pups are delivered. Progesterone levels less than 2 ng/ml are seen in the full term bitch. If progesterone has not dropped, the pups may not be ready to thrive outside of the uterus. Ultrasound can be used to make sure the pups are not distressed in the uterus while you wait for the bitch’s progesterone to drop.
IS MY BITCH OVERDUE ?
Normal deliveries should occur:
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Knowing approximate litter size as determined by ultrasound examination or radiographs can also be helpful. If a bitch stops contracting after two pups, but you saw eight on the ultrasound, you will need to seek help for a possible secondary uterine inertia. This is also important in older bitches and those breeds that tend to whelp small litters. These animals will be prone to having both oversized pups and primary uterine inertia. Knowing you have a small litter beforehand allows you to be more watchful rather than being caught off guard by a possible dystocia.
Diet and exercise are critical. Keep your bitch physically fit by moderate exercise during pregnancy. This helps her have good muscle tone to push during the whelping. Also, avoid diets high in calcium before whelping. This is especially important in Toy breeds, and in bitches with large litters, where eclampsia or low calcium is a problem after whelping. Eclampsia can cause seizures and death of the bitch if not dealt with immediately. There is good evidence in cattle, which have been studied extensively for this problem, that feeding high levels of calcium before calving actually makes the female prone to suffering from low calcium while nursing. Save the high-calcium diet and supplements for after whelping when the bitch is actually nursing the pups.
Diets too low in carbohydrates can lead to low birth weights and death of pups during delivery. This is most commonly seen in bitches with several pups, who are unwilling to eat during the last part of pregnancy because of discomfort. Offer these bitches small frequent feedings of soft foods; however, stay away from high fat foods which may cause pancreatitis.
Finally, be sure to have a complete breeding soundness examination performed by a reproductive specialist on any bitch you plan to keep for breeding. This exam will detect anatomical defects such as a persistent hymen in the vaginal vault that may interfere with whelping, and the presence of low-grade infections in the vagina that could lead to complications.
WHELPING THE LITTER
Well, it’s show time! Your bitch is ready and, hopefully, so are you!
On day 58 after the first breeding, you’ll want to start taking your bitch’s temperature three times a day. A bitch’s temperature will drop from around 101.4 to 99 degrees Fahrenheit or below a few hours before she is ready to whelp. A fluctuation in temperature is very normal, what you are looking for is a dramatic drop to below 99F. The temperature drop is the best indicator of imminent whelping. Other signs of imminent whelping are restlessness, discomfort, licking and looking at vulva. The bitch may refuse food prior to whelping as well. She will probably pant heavily.
These are all signs that whelping is imminent. Call your veterinarian and let them know that the whelping is beginning so that they will be ready to answer any questions or give advice if you have any problems. The bitch will start pushing and straining at some point and may start digging at the bedding. She’ll pant heavily between contractions. The contractions should be visible in the muscles along her back. You’ll see them start at the top of her body and move down.
If labor continues an hour or so without producing a puppy, let the bitch go outside and walk around. This can help the labour progress. Also, the urge to push can feel, to the bitch, as if she has to defecate. A well trained bitch will not want to break housetraining and will fight the urge to push, delaying labour. If the bitch is willing to go outdoors, keep a close eye on her. A maiden bitch, in particular, may not know what to do with a new puppy and may abandon it.
If labour continues for more than three hours without producing a puppy, call your vet! You will probably need to take the bitch into the vet.
Assuming labour continues normally, the contractions will come faster and the bitch will start pushing seriously. The water sac will appear, probably break, and then the puppy will be delivered shortly. The placenta may or may not be ready to be delivered at this point. You can gently pull on the cord to see if it will come but you should never pull on the puppy to check. You may pull the cord off the puppy and risk an umbilical hernia.
The bitch may want to eat the placentas. Opinions vary about whether or not this is a good idea. Some people think it’s good nutrition for the bitch when she’s exerting great effort. Others feel that the bitch will get diarrhea from eating them. Some breeders compromise by letting the bitch eat one and then keeping them away from her. Whatever you do, you want to make sure that you have a placenta for each puppy born. If the bitch should retain a placenta, she is at risk of having a serious uterine infection.
If you want to do this, you’ll need to clear the water sac away from the puppy’s nose and mouth first. Hold the puppy upside down to help drain fluid and mucus from its nose and throat. Rub the puppy very vigorously, even roughly, with a dry, clean towel until the puppy squeaks. This rubbing will both clean the puppy and stimulate it to start breathing.
Many people allow the bitch to clean the puppy and chew off the umbilical cord. Others worry that the bitch may chew the cord off too close to the puppy resulting in an umbilical hernia and choose to deal with this themselves just to be safe. If you choose to do the task yourself, you’ll want to cut the cord about 1″ away from the body and tie it with plain dental floss. Dip the tip and the floss in Betadine solution (or another disinfectant such as iodine). It will dry up and drop off in a day or so.
Once the pup is breathing and clean, whether you did it or the dam did it, you’ll want to check the puppy out carefully, weigh and measure the pup, check for abnormalities such as cleft palate, and identify the puppy in some way. Rickrack ribbon works very well. Measure and cut a piece large enough to tie loosely around the puppy’s neck. This is only necessary if you’re puppies are very similar. Other ways to mark the puppies include clipping bits of fur on different parts of their bodies or marking them with nail polish.
If the bitch is having a break between puppies, you should let the puppy nurse. The colostrom (first milk) that the puppies get is extremely important. It carries immunities that protect the puppies from infection. The puppy’s nursing will also stimulate the bitch’s contractions allowing her labor to progress. Take a chance to rest and relax while you can. Don’t worry, however, if you can’t get the puppies on the dam right away. They can go several hours without getting milk with no problem. Once labour starts up again, move the puppies into to the incubator box for safety while the dam is distracted.
Very often their will be a longish break between puppies about half way through. You can take the bitch outside, although she may not want to leave the puppies (you should encourage her!). Again, you’ll want to keep a close eye on her to make sure she doesn’t deliver a puppy out there and not know what to do with it.
The puppies can come as quickly as 15 minutes apart or as long as an hour apart. If the bitch goes more than an hour and you are think there are more puppies, call your vet! There may be a puppy stuck and you’ll want to ensure that you get it out as soon as possible.
When your bitch is finished whelping, you’ll notice her calm down. Her br
eathing will slow and the contractions will stop. You should take the bitch and her puppies to the vet within the next four or five hours if at all possible. Don’t go more than 24 hours without having them checked out. If the bitch has a retained puppy or placenta, she is risking serious infection. If any of the puppies have cleft palates or other deformities, you need to know as soon as possible. Such puppies are usually humanely euthanized by your vet as they are generally not likely to live.
There are a variety of problems you may run into. Again, keep your vet and/or emergency vet’s phone number handy in case you run into a situation you aren’t prepared for. If you have any question about what is happening or what you should do next, don’t hesitate to call the vet. You really are dealing with life or death situations and it’s much better to be safe than sorry.
Some breeders suggest keeping some drugs on hand to help the bitch should she have trouble delivering. You can discuss this with your vet but I don’t recommend this practice. This drug is very strong and can cause serious complications if the problem is a large puppy blocking the birth canal. A better option is to keep in contact with your vet and take your bitch in if necessary.
There are some alternative medications that many breeders are using and recommending now that have similar results without the risk of injury. For a bitch whose labour is slowing down, there is a homeopathic treatment called Caulophyllum. This should be administered when the bitch is in a non-productive labour. Do not use it unless the bitch is clearly in labor. For puppies-in-distress, you can try a product called Bach’s Rescue Remedy. It is a good gentle “kick start” for pups in trouble. You would just put a couple of drops on the puppies tongue. The nice thing about these remedies is that they can’t be overused. They are extremely gentle. Detractors from homeopathic or alternative measures will tell you that these treatments won’t do anything, good or bad.
The first problem you might see is a bitch that starts labor but doesn’t proceed to delivering. First you should try walking her around outside to see if that helps her relax enough to start pushing. If that doesn’t work in about 15 minutes, you can try a technique called “feathering.” Put on surgical gloves and apply a small amount of lubricant such as KY Jelly. Gently, gently, gently insert one finger into the bitch’s vulva and gently tickle or feather her along the top of her vagina. This can help stimulate stronger contractions. If this doesn’t produce a quick result or the bitch is getting tired at all, call your vet. You will probably be making a trip in to get some expert care.
The vet will probably x-ray your bitch to determine how many puppies are waiting to be born and whether or not you are dealing with a malpresentation (puppy trying to go out the wrong way). If all looks well, the vet will probably give your bitch injections of calcium and/or pituitary oxytocin. These injections often stimulate strong contractions and get the labour moving along. If they don’t work, or if you are dealing with an overly large puppy or a malpresentation, the vet will probably recommend a caesarean section. C-sections should not be taken lightly but they are often unavoidable. They are very expensive and put the life of the mother and puppies at great risk. You should decide at this time whether or not you want the vet to spay your bitch during the C-section. Sometimes, there won’t be any choice. If the uterus is badly damaged or infected, they will have to spay your bitch at this time. Once you reach the point of a c-section, many of the decisions will be taken out of your hands.
Discussing this possibility with your vet ahead of time is a good idea so you can find out what procedures they use and how amenable they are to your helping to revive the puppies as they are delivered. Many vets will not allow you into their examination area, however, some are grateful for the additional hands in reviving puppies. One of the biggest problems with a C-section is the anesthesia given the bitch. Because the puppies are still attached to her system, they will, inevitably, be anesthetized as well. It is really important that your vet take this into consideration when anesthetising the bitch. Many vets will mask her down and this is the recommended procedure. This means that the vet administers isoflourene gas to start her off, rather than administering a drug like Valium-Ketamine to put her to sleep before starting the gas. If your bitch is high-strung and/or aggressive, the vet will probably insist on doing the Valium-Ketamine option, but if your bitch is placid and biddable, you should ask that they mask her down. The gas is much easier on the puppies systems and they will be much easier to revive. The recovery of your bitch will be difficult after a c-section. It is major abdominal surgery and puts a huge strain on her system. However, if all goes well, she should still be able to care for and nurse her litter. Your vet will give you detailed instructions for her care. They will often prescribe antibiotics to help her avoid infection. You should be careful administering any antibiotics as they will generally cause both the dam and the pups to have diarrhea.
A case when you won’t have time to get to the vet is when you can’t get a puppy breathing. Every puppy should be rubbed vigorously until they squeak and start moving around. Some of them are born with a squeak and don’t need any additional help but more often than we’d like, puppies need extra help. If the vigorous rubbing doesn’t work, you’ll want to act quickly. The fastest way to get fluid out of the puppy’s throat and nose is to hold the puppy firmly and raise it above your head and swing it quickly down between your legs. The centrifugal force can clear the nose and throat. If this doesn’t work, you can try using a bulb syringe to aspirate any possible fluid. While you are working on the pup, keep rubbing it vigorously and make sure it stays warm. Hopefully you’ll be rewarded with that gasp of life and a healthy puppy.
At some point, however, you may have to give up on a puppy. This is an extremely difficult decision but if you’ve worked on the puppy for 15 minutes without response, you are unlikely to revive the puppy. Consult with your veterinarian about what to do with the dead puppy. Sadly, this isn’t an uncommon event in a whelping.
Again, there is no shame in calling your vet for help. If you are unsure what to do or are presented with a situation you or your bitch don’t understand. Get professional help!
Once the whelping is over, you’ll be ready to let the new family settle down and get some well-deserved rest. And you’ll need that rest yourself. Make sure the bitch has relieved herself and gotten some fluids. Give her a sponge bath so she is clean and fresh. Feeding her chicken broth with rice is a good first meal after whelping as it will be gentle on her stomach but give her plenty of fluid and nutrition.
A first-time mother may have some serious doubts about these puppies, particularly if the delivery was painful for her. This is another time where obedience training comes in handy. It is extremely important that you get the puppies nursing both for their sake and hers. Put the bitch on a down-stay, get in the whelping box with her to reassure her, and put the puppies on her. If she growls or complains, just keep her head away from the puppies. She’s going to be tired and won’t fight you too much — besides, she’s used to obeying your commands, right? The obvious benefit here is that the pups will get that necessary colostrum which will provide them with their mother’s immunities. The added benefit, however, is that the nursing triggers the release of hormones into her bloodstream. These hormones help promote the bitch’s mothering instincts. The more the puppies nurse, the more loving the mother will feel towards them. It’s tr
ue of humans as well. Hopefully, the bitch will settle down and feel content as the puppies nurse. You should still supervise her with the puppies until you are sure she has fully accepted them and her new role.