Breeding for Pet Owners: Whelping

a mother dog with her puppies in the whelping boxAre there any changes in the behaviour of the bitch once pregnant?

From the time of mating many bitches show behavioural changes, often becoming more affectionate. However some bitches become uncharacteristically irritable.

Does morning sickness occur in the bitch?

Some bitches do experience a few days of vomiting (morning sickness) usually followed by the development of a good appetite which will persist throughout pregnancy. However it does not occur in all bitches. 

My bitch appears to want to hide in strange places.  Is this normal?

During the last week of pregnancy the bitch often starts to look for a secure place for her confinement. Some pet bitches appear to become confused, wanting to be with their owners and at the same time wanting to prepare their nest. It is a good idea to get the bitch used to the place where you want her to have her puppies well in advance of whelping. Even so, there are a number of bitches that insist on having their puppies in close proximity to the owner. This may be in the middle of the night, on your bed. Be warned! 

If she does start whelping in my bedroom, what shall I do?

It will be far less stressful for all concerned to allow her to continue in her chosen place. Make sure you spread lots of old newspaper and if possible cover the carpet with a polythene sheet which is then covered by the newspaper. Remember it is normal for foetal fluids in the bitch to be coloured green. They are plentiful and their stains are difficult to remove.

Once the bitch has finished whelping, try gently moving her and family to your chosen place. She should be well acquainted with this prior to whelping.

If she is determined she wants to share your living space, endeavour to compromise. A whelping box in a quiet corner of the living room which has been covered with polythene sheets and newspapers is preferable to an anxious bitch constantly leaving her puppies.

Should I be present during the whelping?

Some bitches like the owner to be with them the whole time they are in labour. Others prefer to get on with it in seclusion. Decisions can only be made at the time.

clean newspapers and towels for whelpingWhat should I prepare in advance?

1.  Make sure you have copious stocks of clean newspaper and enlist the help of friends and neighbours if necessary.

2.  Select the place where you would like her to have her puppies. Ensure that a suitable whelping box has been selected and placed there. This depends on the size of the bitch but should be large enough for her to move around freely and have low enough sides so that she can move in and out easily. A large cardboard packing case with an open top and a piece cut out at the side so she can get in and out easily is useful depending on the size of the bitch. We will be happy to advise if you are unsure.

3.  Line the bottom of the whelping box with plenty of paper. There is a lot of fluid at the time of whelping. If sufficient layers of newspaper are laid at the outset, soiled layers may be removed with minimum interruption to the mother and her newborn puppies.

4.  Acrylic bedding which is easily washed, can be used to cover the newspaper. During the whelping plain newspaper is probably less hazardous and the puppies are less likely to get hidden beneath it.

How will I know when my bitch is going to start?

Some bitches stop eating during the last 24 hours before labour although this is by no means universal. All the textbooks tell you the rectal temperature will drop below 37.8oC but this may only occur an hour or two before she starts in labour.

If she does appear restless and starts bed making it is worthwhile contacting us just to let us know you think she is starting.

These signs may last for up to 24 hours and are part of first stage labour.

Second stage labour is the stage of delivery. Your bitch will start to strain and if straining continues almost continuously for two hours and no puppy is delivered, nor any sign of a water bag, you should contact us. Although most dogs experience no complications during delivery, if she is a primagravida (first time having puppies) make sure that she delivers the first two puppies without problems. 

Your further presence will then depend upon the bitch. As mentioned previously, some prefer you to be there.

My bitch has not had puppies before. Do you think she will be alright left?

Prima gravidas should be kept under surveillance until you think they have finished, even though it may not be necessary for you to be there all the time. Make sure the puppies are being cared for by the bitch, particularly if she is still in labour. Some bitches are more concerned with straining to produce the next puppy than to be bothered with those that have already been delivered. If that is the case, a small cardboard box with a bottle filled with warm, (not hot), water, wrapped in a towel on to which the puppies are placed and then covered with another towel is a useful method of ensuring they do not chill while the bitch finishes her delivery.

"Prima gravidas should be kept under surveillance until you think they have finished, even though it may not be necessary for you to be there all the time. Make sure the puppies are being cared for by the bitch, particularly if she is still in labour."

How long will whelping take?

Delivery times vary. Dogs with fairly slim heads such as Shelties, Collies and Dobermanns may complete delivery of all the puppies within 2-3 hours. Brachycephalic breeds, i.e. those with large, round heads such as Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Pekingese, tend to have more difficult deliveries and sometimes will produce one or two relatively quickly and then rest for a while before labour starts again.

If your bitch has produced at least one puppy and then does not strain again within two hours, we should be contacted. If the bitch has been straining continuously for a couple of hours and not produced a puppy it is important that she receives veterinary help.

How are puppies normally born? Do they usually come backwards?

Puppies are usually born head first with the forelegs extended. This is called anterior presentation. Posterior presentation is also normal in the bitch. Here the puppy is born with tail and hind legs coming first. This is not a breech presentation. A breech presentation is one in which the hind legs are forward and the tail and bottom are presented. This is abnormal.

Some breech presentations can result in a normal delivery but usually complications occur. If a puppy’s tail is seen hanging from the vulva or alternatively there is a lump just behind the vulval lips and your bitch is straining, contact us without delay.

Should my bitch pass an afterbirth after each puppy?

Each puppy is enclosed in a sac that is part of the placenta or afterbirth. This sac is usually broken at birth and passed after each puppy is born. This often is unnoticed since it is normal for the bitch to eat them and the hormones they contain help with milk production. Sometimes a bitch will have two or three puppies and then pass several of the afterbirths together.

a makeshift whelping boxIs it important that I count the afterbirths?

From the foregoing you will realise this can be difficult since a bitch may have passed the correct number but eaten some. If the afterbirth is not passed, it usually disintegrates and passes unnoticed within 24-48 hours after delivery. This usually happens when the bitch relieves herself.

If the bitch has a blood stained or smelly discharge, 24-48 hours after delivery, please telephone us without delay.

How soon should a puppy be born after it is seen emerging from the birth canal?

In a normal delivery a few contractions will produce the puppy. Ten minutes is reasonable. Following delivery the bitch will lick and chew at the puppy and often appears to be treating it quite roughly. However in most cases this is normal behaviour and stimulates the puppy to start breathing. During the chewing and licking she tears the sac and exposes the mouth and nose so that it can breathe. You will realise all is well if the puppy starts to whimper or cry. 

Sometimes the placenta is delivered immediately after the puppy and is attached to it by the umbilical cord. The bitch normally chews at this and breaks it about an inch from the puppy, consuming the placenta at the same time. However in some breeds the mother seems to become over enthusiastic and may lick and chew at the puppy until she injures it. This is why it is wise to watch your bitch.

I have heard that some bitches will have a puppy still attached to the afterbirth and ignore it.

This can sometimes happen particularly in prima gravida bitches. It is important that you ensure the puppy’s mouth and nostrils are clear of any afterbirth or membranes. The puppy is born in a fluid filled sac that usually breaks during birth. If the puppy is still in the sac break it as quickly as possible. Clean the puppy’s face and nostrils and then gently blow into the mouth and nostrils to try to get it to breathe. If the afterbirth is still intact hold the puppy in the palm of your hand and with the finger and thumb of the same hand pinch the cord and cut it just above your fingers 2–3 cm from the puppy. Pinching the cord for a minute or two should stop any bleeding otherwise tie it with clean thread.

Then, holding the puppy in a towel covered hand gently rub it with the towel until the hair coat starts to dry. The puppy should then start to whimper and be breathing normally. The tongue should be pink. You can then offer it to the bitch. If she is more interested in delivering further puppies, place it in a box with a warm water bottle covered by a towel. Cover the puppy to keep it warm.

What happens if the puppy is visible but the bitch does not produce it?

Speed is essential particularly if it is a posterior presentation. If the puppy is coming head first make sure that the membranes are removed from the visible part of the mouth and face. Then at least when the bitch contracts the lungs will be stimulated and the puppy will get some oxygen. If the puppy is coming backwards, it is important it is born quickly otherwise it will suffocate.

What should I do?

Irrespective of presentation, with a piece of clean tissue or towel, gently take hold of the puppy and pull gently at approximately 45o to the ground. Do not pull only when the bitch strains. Gentle traction will stimulate her to keep straining. Once the puppy is born, clear the membranes and cut the cord. If the afterbirth is still inside the bitch, do not worry. It is important to stimulate the puppy by blowing gently down the nostrils and mouth and clearing any discharges, membranes or debris, also stimulate it by gently rubbing with a towel until it starts to breathe.

If you cannot dislodge the puppy or if it appears to be painful to the bitch, call us urgently.

Is it true that the puppy will die if it is not stimulated immediately after birth?

If the puppy is born within the foetal sac it will be unable to breathe and that is why it is important that if the bitch does not break the sac, you should do so and follow the instructions given above.

The weight of the puppy usually breaks the sac during birth. This also stimulates the puppy to breathe. If this does not occur tear the sac and clear the puppy’s nose and mouth without delay, blowing on the nostrils and mouth to stimulate breathing.

a bitch and her puppies in the whelping boxCan puppies drown in their foetal fluids?

Yes. If the puppy is born and tries to breathe and the nose and mouth are still surrounded with fluid, this enters the lungs. This is then an emergency.  If the puppy is still breathing spontaneously it sounds as though it is drowning. The fluid has to be removed urgently. Hold the puppy in the palm of one hand, cradling the head between your thumb and finger to steady the head and neck. Your other hand is used to cover the body. Then using both hands together, the puppy is gently but firmly swung head downwards. The force generated should make the puppy gasp. Gravity will help the fluid and mucus flow out of the lungs and mouth. Repeat this several times checking the colour of the tongue and listening for any breathing. If successful the tongue should change from a greyish blue to pink. If it remains bluish, continue the swinging process and do not give up for at least 10-15 minutes. Once breathing, place the puppy in a warm box as before.

In these circumstances is it still correct to cover the puppy with a light towel?

Yes, this will contain the warmth but check the puppy very frequently.

Is it possible to keep the puppies too warm?

The puppies have developed in a temperature of 38.5oC. Immediately after birth they are unable to control their own temperature and are dependent upon external warmth. Neonates sometimes cannot move from the source of artificial heat if too warm therefore care is necessary. Use a thermometer if you are using heat lamps. Normal puppy body temperatures range from 35-37.2°C in the first week, 36.1-37.8°C in the second and third week and 37.8 38.9°C from week four.

Should I continue the heat source if the bitch is nursing her puppies?

This depends on the breed but if a heat lamp is used care must be exercised otherwise the bitch can become restless and sometimes leave the puppies if too warm.

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