Few healthy dogs need much help during pregnancy, although all should have a veterinary examination. Abortions and miscarriages do occur in dogs, if brucellosis occurs, or if other uterine problems are present. Learn to recognize signs of difficult birth. As the time for whelping nears, try to spend as much time as possible with the dam to comfort her. She may exhibit some early signs that labor is imminent, such as digging, tearing newspaper, and generally acting restless. A drop in temperature to approximately 99°F is a true indication that whelping will begin in the next 12 to 24 hours. Alternatively, should he temperature rise to more than 102°F, you should consult your veterinarian, as infection may be present.
Three stages of delivery are recognized. During the early onset, the dog will become restless, anxious, refuse food, and sometimes pant. The body temperature will drop to as low as 98°F, and there may be a watery discharge and milk coming from the nipples. She will seek an area to whelp, preferably a whelping box, and will settle down there. Normally, this first stage lasts from twelve to twenty four hours. During the second stage, uterine contractions and straining can be seen as the abdominal muscles contract in her effort to expel the puppies. Most puppies are born at fifteen- to sixty-minute intervals, although this varies, and sometimes two puppies are born close together. On the average, all puppies are born in about six hours, but it can take as long as twenty hours. The third stage is the uterine resting stage that occurs between each birth. It usually lasts about 15 minutes, sometimes up to an hour. The mother tends to the puppies and may even walk around and take a drink of water. Preferably the dog should be left alone during labor; the fewer interruptions and spectators, the better. Some nervous dogs may stop labor altogether if disturbed or moved. The best thing is quietly to check her and the puppies already born periodically to be sure there are no problems, keeping in mind that many whelping problems and uterine infections are caused by too much well-intentioned human interference.
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The whelp usually will be presented head first, but feet presentation (breech birth) is also common. Once the whelp begins to emerge, it should take only a few more contractions and pushes from the dam to eject it. Let the dam do the work. If she seems to abandon the pup or fail to remove the membrane covering the puppy's head, you must then take over and tear it open. Once the puppy is delivered, the mother will lick the newborn to dry and stimulate it. Should she fail in this, place the whelp in a clean, rough towel. Rub the pup briskly, holding it with its head pointed downward to help drain any fluids that may be present in the lungs. Then gently clean out the pup's mouth with a gauze pad or cotton swab to remove all mucus. The placenta (afterbirth) is usually expelled immediately after the whelp, but it may retained for up to 10 minutes. Make sure it is expelled, as a retained afterbirth can cause serious infection. Once the placenta has been passed, the mother will bite and sever the umbilical cord; she may then eat the afterbirth. The afterbirth, incidentally, contains a generous supply of vitamins and minerals, as well as a hormone that aids in uterine contraction and stimulates milk production. Allow the dam to eat one or two of these. Remove all others, however, as the afterbirth also contains a laxative that can be detrimental in large amounts.
If the umbilical cord is wrapped around the whelp's neck or if the dam fails to bite the cord, you must rectify these situations. If the latter occurs, hold the afterbirth above the whelp; allow fluid in the umbilical cord to drain to the puppy, as it is rich in nutrients. Using a piece of cotton thread, tie a knot about one inch from the whelp's body. Use the blunt-tipped scissors and cut directly above the knot. Apply a few drops of iodine to the umbilical stub to help disinfect it, and then return the puppy to its mother.
The whelps should be encourage to begin nursing immediately after birth. If they do not naturally find their way to a teat, place them there and stroke them to encourage their nursing instincts. The pups should be taken away only when the birth of another whelp is imminent, and they should be placed in the warm puppy box until the birth is complete. The nursing of the pups will encourage the dam's milk production. Supplementation with puppy formula should not be attempted for at least several days, unless a problem arises with the dam's milk supply.
Recognizing birthing difficulties (dystocia) can be a problem for the inexperienced breeder. The signs that the mother or puppies are in trouble are:
- A pup is seen at the external birth canal and is not expelled in a few minutes.
- The mother is in obvious labor (straining) for over two hours and no pup is delivered. This must not be confused with the resting stage between births, which can extend up to four hours, but there will be no straining then.
- There is excessive bleeding.
- The mother is obviously in distress.
- The mother does not break the sac the pup is usually born in, clean off the pup, or bite the umbilical cord.
- No placenta (afterbirth) is expelled after a pup is born. This is not always easy to determine, as the mother frequently eats the afterbirth.
If the mother cannot deliver the pups, veterinary care will involve the use of hormone injections to assist labor, or the puppies will have to be delivered by cesarean section, if contractions do not occur, or if there is an obstruction to delivery. If the mother ignores the puppy at birth, it will be necessary to break the sac, wrap the puppy in a towel and rub it vigorously, swing the head down to drain the fluid from the lungs, and wipe the fluid out of the mouth, all of which should help the puppy start breathing. If this is not successful, blowing into the mouth may stimulate breathing. The pup should then be returned to the mother.
Most mothers go through pregnancy and delivery without any problems, but it is a good idea to have a new mother and the puppies examined by the veterinarian within a few days of birth, particularly if you suspect the mother is unwell or the puppies are not thriving. A greenish uterine discharge which changes to brownish and then to clear mucus will be present for up to three weeks after birth. If this discharge is bloody, pus-like, or foul smelling, there is probably a retained fetus, placenta, or uterine infection, and veterinary care is essential to save the mother and the pups.