Breeding for Dog Owners - Problems at Birth

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Ernest Ward, DVM

Although most dogs will give birth without the need for human or veterinary assistance, certain problems can arise which require veterinary attention. It is essential to closely monitor your pet during birthing and seek veterinary care if you have any concerns.

How will I know the mother is about to give birth?

When whelping or birth is imminent, the female often stops eating (although this is not always the case), and her rectal temperature often drops below 100.5°F (38.1°C). Labor can be expected to begin within 24 hours when this temperature drop occurs. The female will often go into a corner or a quiet room and start scratching to make her bed. If you see any of these signs, you may wish to notify your veterinarian since this is the first stage of labor, when the birth canal starts to dilate. This first stage of labor can be long, lasting as much as 6 to 12 hours.

"The female will often go into a corner or a quiet room and start scratching to make her bed."

The second stage of labor is when the female starts to contract her uterus forcibly. These contractions start gradually and increase in intensity, frequency, and duration. You must contact your veterinarian if intense contractions occur for twenty to thirty minutes without delivering a puppy. You should also contact your veterinarian if any of the following occur:

  • The mother strains for eight to ten minutes with a puppy or a fluid-filled bubble stuck in the birth canal
  • The mother has a rectal temperature over 103°F (39.5°C)
  • You observe fresh bleeding from the vagina that persists beyond ten minutes
  • You observe a green discharge from the vagina without puppies being born
  • Four hours have passed since the last pup was born, and you are certain more pups are inside 
  • Over 24 hours passed since the mother’s temperature dropped

Can puppies be born prematurely?

Premature delivery can occur in dogs, but it is not as common as many think. Often, these so-called premature deliveries result from an error in recording the mating dates or a miscalculation in the gestation period (period of pregnancy), which is usually 63 days.

Truly premature puppies may be small, thin, and have little or no hair. Mothers often reject premature puppies, and these puppies soon die of hypothermia (low body temperature). Survival is possible, but they require an enormous amount of care and often have to be hand fed since they cannot suckle. Sometimes, they must be fed by a stomach tube (gavage feeding). If necessary, your veterinarian will show you how to do this.

"Truly premature puppies may be small, thin, and have little or no hair."

If possible, ensure all premature puppies receive some of their mother's first milk (colostrum), which is rich in antibodies and helps prevent infection in newborn puppies.

What else should I know about caring for premature puppies?

Excessive heat (hyperthermia) can be just as harmful as cold. The environment surrounding the puppies must stay at around 90°F (30°C), and the box must be large enough for the puppies to move away from a heat source if necessary. The atmosphere should also be humid if they are raised away from their mother. The mother usually licks and cleans her puppies frequently. As a result, the environment is warm as well as moist. You can provide a humid atmosphere by placing warm, damp cloths in the box beside the orphaned pups.

How long will I have to hand-raise premature puppies?

If the puppies can suckle, your veterinarian will show you how to hold them onto the mother's teats. If this fails, your veterinarian will advise you on milk replacement formulas and puppy bottles. Once the puppies are stronger and able to suckle properly, the mother may resume caring for them. Although it can be rewarding if the puppies survive, hand-raising puppies is extremely challenging, and many puppies fail to survive despite your best efforts.

Are some puppies likely to be stillborn or die shortly after birth?

With animals with multiple births, like dogs and cats, it is not unusual for some of the offspring to be stillborn or die shortly after birth. Sometimes a stillborn puppy will disrupt the birthing process, resulting in dystocia (difficult birth) or a birthing complication. At other times a dead puppy may be born normally.

Determining the cause of these neonatal deaths is often impossible without a complete post-mortem examination, including bacteriological cultures and the submission of tissues to a histopathologist. Some causes of neonatal death are preventable. It is essential to consult with your veterinarian regarding any problems with your pet's pregnancy or whelping.

Are cesarean sections more common in some breeds?

Unfortunately, certain breeds seem to have an increased risk of dystocia, resulting in the need for a cesarean section (C-section) surgery. Breeds with large, broad heads or flat faces tend to have a higher incidence of birthing problems. The correct timing of a C-section is always difficult in dogs. If surgery is delayed for too long, it can result in the death of the puppies, and if embarked upon too early, the puppies may be premature. It is essential that you discuss the relative benefits and risks of this procedure with your veterinarian.

Related Articles