WHELPING THE LITTER
What Can Possible Go Wrong?
by Catherine de la Cruz
If all goes well with the breeding, pups can be expected 60-63 days later. Things don't always go as expected.
Continue the bitch's usual diet through the first month of the pregnancy; her appetite may increase slightly, her activity level may or may not be reduced and she may act mellower or bitchier. They are as variable as their human counterparts. Make an appointment with your vet to ultrasound the bitch at 28-32 days of gestation. If your own vet doesn't have the proper equipment and experience, ask for a referral to a radiology office, which does. Prior to 28 days gestation, the fetuses are too small to get a good reading; after 32 days they are large enough you can't get a good count. If no fetuses are seen at 28 days, repeat the examination a week later. If there are still no fetuses, then no pregnancy has resulted and you will know that any swelling or nesting behavior is false pregnancy.
An ultrasound will give you an approximate number of pups to expect - valuable information at whelping time when you are not sure whether all the pups have been delivered. Not all pups survive to whelping; so don't start taking deposits yet. Most vets charge between $50 and $100 for an ultrasound examination. No anesthesia is needed, and only a little clipping of her tummy is done to insure a good contact with the head of the instrument. The ultra-sound waves are harmless to bitch and pups, although pups older than 32 days can be seen to turn their heads toward the source of the ultra-sound. If the examination shows a large litter (ten or more) you might expect an earlier whelping date than planned. Labor is precipitated in part by a hormone secreted by the placentas and a large litter secretes more of that hormone.
During the second half of her pregnancy, the bitch will start eating more food. A good multi-vitamin/mineral supplement given once a day isn't a bad idea. She will also drink more water and need to go outside a little more often. Set and keep scheduled pre-natal examinations with your vet. If this is your first or second litter, arrange with an experienced breeder to be available to help when whelping starts. Find out who is on call for your vet when he is not available. If he uses the local Emergency Clinic, find out their fees and method of payment. All require payment at time of service; some won't take checks but require credit cards or cash. Be certain you have a credit card with a large available balance. Emergency c-sections can run $600 or more.
A week before whelping, clip your bitch's belly and rear end from tail to ankles; remove all britches and hock hair and as much of the tail hair as you can. If you don't clip her, she may pull it out herself during whelping; in any case, it will get so stained with green birth fluids that you will never get it clean. She will blow her entire coat when the pups are 6-9 weeks old, so don't think you are saving it to show her. If you can't clip the whole tail, have a roll of vet-wrap handy to wrap the tail when whelping starts. Bathe her belly with warm water, paying particular attention to the nipples. The waxy plugs tend to accumulate dirt. Have an experienced breeder show you how to straighten inverted nipples.
Start taking her temperature rectally twice a day on day 57. Normal temperature is 101-102 degrees. One of the new digital thermometers is very handy for this; they are easy to hold and don't break if dropped. A few days before whelping, her temperature hovers around the 100-degree mark, bouncing up and down but not dropping below 99 or going above 101. When her temperature does drop below 99, whelping should occur within 24 hours. After the drop, her temp will return to 101 just before whelping, so you have to be alert to catch the drop.
If she does not whelp within 24 hours of the temperature drop, or if she has green fluid dripping from her vulva for more than two hours, or she is in labor for more than two hours without producing a pup, get her to the vet. If she passes the 63rd day from the last breeding and has not gone into labor, get her to the vet. If she is dripping bright red blood from the vulva, and/or her lips and gums are very pale, get her to the vet.
Some of the complications that can occur at this point range from a large or dead pup blocking the birth canal, to uterine dystocia (failure to contract), to uterine wall rupture. The latter is fatal to the bitch if not caught within a couple of hours. Dystocia is fatal to the pups if a c-section is not performed and can be fatal to the bitch if the pups die and begin to decay in utero.
If labor proceeds normally, the bitch needs to be supervised closely. A young bitch belonging to an experienced breeder was carrying a litter of 13; she whelped unexpectedly on day 58 and lost 60% of the litter because the owner was at work. They either were not freed from their birth sac quickly enough or were laid on by the bitch during the birth of subsequent pups. Even in a normal labor, pups need to be helped to breathe, umbilical cords need to be tied, cut and sterilized and pups kept warm while later siblings are delivered. The assistance of an experienced breeder is a godsend to the novice. Even the experienced breeder, if she doesn't have live-in help, will often welcome the assistance of an apprentice to help with the more routine chores. This is an excellent way for a novice to gain the experience needed that might one day save the lives of her own bitch and pups.
If more than two hours go by without the birth of a pup, and the bitch is still contracting, call your vet. If contractions stop for more than two hours, and the number of pups seen in the ultra-sound have not been delivered, call your vet. When you think all pups have been delivered, put the pups in a box with a hot water bottle, cover the back of your car with a waterproof tarp and some old blankets and towels, and take bitch and pups to the vet. An x-ray of the bitch is in order to assure that nothing remains inside. Sometimes a dead or mummified pup has not been delivered and a combination of a pitocin shot and some external manipulation can work it down the birth canal. The pups should be examined for cleft palates; this is a developmental flaw and the affected pup should be humanely euthanized. Extra dewclaws (more than one in front, or two in the rear) can quickly be clipped off at this point.
When you get the bitch and pups back home, give her a chance to relieve herself, change the papers and towels in the whelping box and settle her and the pups to nurse. Plan to spend the next two to three weeks beside the litter box, sleeping lightly if at all. The pups are not out of danger; mother can still step on them or roll on them. It is heartbreaking to count pups in the morning, after you've fallen asleep for a few hours, and find the biggest pup dead under the mother.
Her milk will come in fully around the third day after whelping. If there is a large litter (more than eight) be prepared to supplement the smaller pups. Use a postage scale to accurately weigh the pups so you know they are gaining weight properly. Check her teats daily to be sure the milk is normal; it should be a pale creamy color and slightly sticky. If is becomes thick, or tinged with blood, call your vet. Mastitis (infected milk) can kill the pups. It is almost always due to an infection in the uterus; removing the affected breast surgically is not the answer - spaying the bitch to remove the infected uterus is. If you and the vet opt for treating the infection instead, the pups will have to be removed and hand-fed and the bitch will have to be watched for pyometria during her next heats.
Some bitches are natural mothers, staying with their pups, cleaning and feeding them, making your life relatively easy. Some are not. If you are unfortunate enough to have one who is not, you may have to force the bitch into the box to nurse, you may have to clean the pups yourself, stimulating them to urinate and defecate, you may even have to remove them completely from the bitch and hand raise them.
Think the above problems are exaggerated? All of them have occurred to me at some time during the past 30 years. A normal pregnancy and whelping, healthy puppies and mother and wonderful home for all the pups are what we all dream about when we plan a breeding. It doesn't always work that way, and some advance planning and attention to detail may save the lives of your pups - or your bitch.