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Care of Mother Dogs and Puppies

Veterinary Practice STAFF Vol. 5, No. 5 September/October 1993

This information leaflet is provided as a method of communication between veterinarians and clients whose dogs are about to give birth. It is designed to explain the signs of labor, normal birth process and follow-up care of the mother and her puppies. Your role in preparing for and assisting in the birth is discussed along with problems which require special and/or emergency veterinary care. If you have any questions, be sure to ask your veterinarian to answer them for you.

Preparing for Birth

A couple of weeks before your dog gives birth (whelping), supply the expectant mother with a box for her to have her pups in. The box must be large enough for the mother to stretch out in and allow enough room for a brood of new puppies. The mother dog should be able to enter and leave the box easily. Make sure the sides of the box are several inches high in order to keep the puppies in, box dry, and chilly drafts out. Place the whelping box in a warm area which is free from distractions but familiar to the mother dog. She needs a quiet and secure place to rest.

Newspapers or disposable diapers should layer the floor of the box. They make excellent bedding material because they are easy for the mother to shred for her nest, are absorbent, and can be replaced. Blankets, rugs, and towels are also useful, but they must be cleaned frequently. A heating pad under the box will serve as an additional heat source. Local areas should have a temperature of 80-85°F so the puppies can choose a warmer or cooler area as needed.

Signs of Labor

The normal body temperature of a dog is 101.5° F with variations of one degree above and below normal. About 24 hours before labor begins, the mother dog's temperature may drop by 2 degrees. By taking the expectant mother's temperature twice a day and recording it, dog owners may be able to predict quite accurately when the whelping process will begin. Also about 24 hours before labor, milk is produced, the external genitalia become enlarged and soft, and a thick mucous discharge appears. The dog will refuse food and will become quite restless. Since whelping is imminent, this is a good time to allow the dog some brief exercise, as well as one last chance for urination and bowel movements.

The mucous vaginal discharge turns to a thin greenish discharge a few hours prior to delivery. Primary uterine contractions (labor) begin shortly afterward. A dog may show no pain from these contractions, but she will be nervous and restless.

Whelping

When labor signs are first apparent, the expectant mother should be left alone. If she chooses a bedspread or other area of the house over the whelping box for giving birth, do not move her regardless of the mess that may result. Moving her at this time can take her out of labor and make whelping more difficult.

Prior to giving birth, a dog will assist uterine contractions by straining her abdominal muscles in an effort to force the puppies out of the birth canal. The expulsion of each puppy is preceded by a greenish, fluid-filled sac (placenta). Each puppy is attached to a placenta by an umbilical cord. In larger litters, you may not see one placenta passed immediately after every puppy. Some placentas may be retained and be expelled gradually days after all puppies are born. Most puppies are born head first, but as many as one-third may be born hindquarters first. Either position is considered normal.

An experienced mother will break the sac covering each puppy and lick it to clean it. She will also bite off the umbilical cord and eat the placenta and afterbirth. An unbroken sac could drown the puppy as it tries to breathe for the first time. Likewise, a puppy wrapped up in the umbilical cord could be strangled, so be prepared to assist the mother, if necessary. If the mother does not take the initiative, remove all covering membranes from the puppy, clean its face and remove any mucus from its mouth and nose. The umbilical cord should then be tied off with thread 1 inch from the pup's body and cut off beyond the tie. Apply a drop of iodine or Betadine to the end of the cord to prevent infection. The remaining part of the cord will shrivel, dry up, and drop off at 2-3 days of life. Letting the mother eat most of the placentas is likely to cause loose stools, and is no medical advantage.

When each puppy begins to squirm and cry on its own, place it close to its mother so it can receive warmth and mothering and begin nursing. Once this is done, the puppy should not be disturbed.

Most puppies are born at 30 to 60-minute intervals, but many variations are possible. For instance, two may be born in close succession, followed by 2-4 hours of rest. A resting stage follows each birth. At this time, milder contractions help expel remaining afterbirth in preparation for the next delivery.

After the last puppy has been delivered, the mother will appear more relaxed with no straining and will attend to her puppies. Allow her an opportunity to urinate and defecate and get some brief exercise. She may have diarrhea for a couple of days as a result of eating the placentas and afterbirth. Her vaginal discharge may appear bloody or a greenish-black color for a few days to 2 weeks, but this does not indicate a problem unless it persists beyond 4 weeks of whelping.

Whelping Problems

If a puppy becomes lodged in the birth canal, immediate assistance is required. Try removing the pup before calling for help. A delay could lead to puppy injury. Wrap a clean towel or disposable diaper around the part of the puppy you can grasp and pull gently but steadily in an outward and downward direction. If the puppy cannot be removed within 5 minutes, call your veterinarian immediately.

If a pup is born weak or is ignored by its mother, your assistance can save its life. For instance, if a newborn puppy appears cold and weak with irregular or no breathing, hold it firmly and swing it up and down between your legs with its head down. This will help drain fluid from the mouth and lungs. To stimulate breathing, rub the puppy briskly with a warm towel. By blowing gently into its nose and softly pressing its chest with your fingers you can also help induce breathing. When the puppy starts breathing on its own, return it to its mother.

Most mother dogs have all of the necessary tools for normal whelping. Too much intervention on your part may be a disservice to both the mother and her puppies; however, veterinary assistance may be necessary if specific problems arise. For example, emergency care is required when, 2-4 hours of intermittent straining and contractions, the dog enters a resting phase without a successful birth.

Follow-up Care of the Mother

It is a good idea to have the mother examined by a veterinarian within 24 hours after whelping concludes to ensure that no puppies or placentas remain in the uterus. An injection to reduce the size of the uterus help prevent infections and other complications.

The mother will need more food once her appetite returns, and it should be divided into at least three daily feedings. Dietary supplements can assist milk production. Ask your veterinarian for specific formulations best suited to your dog. Fresh water should be available at all times. If dried milk accumulates, clean the mother's nipples carefully with warm water.

Disease Considerations for the Mother

Uterine infections, mammary gland infections, and eclampsia (milk fever) can occur after whelping. Dark-colored material will be expelled from the uterus for several days following whelping. Under normal conditions, this discharge should cease within 4 weeks. If the uterus becomes infected, however, this discharge may increase and become red and foul-smelling. Other signs and symptoms of an infected uterus include an elevated temperature, and a loss of appetite. The dog will also act depressed. If the mother shows signs of an infected uterus, seek immediate veterinary care and keep the puppies warm and nursing.

An infection of the mammary glands will also cause depression and an elevated rectal temperature. One or more breasts will become hard, swollen, reddish-purple and extremely painful. This condition also requires immediate veterinary care.

Milk production and the nutritional demands of puppies can be a severe strain on the mother. She may suffer from a loss of calcium during the first month after whelping because her supply is utilized to produce milk for the puppies. This calcium reduction can create a disease known as eclampsia or milk fever. Emergency veterinary care is essential if the nursing mother shows any of the following signs:

muscular incoordination and excessive trembling,

muscle twitchings or convulsions,

excessive drooling, or

extreme nervousness and panting.

Calcium injections can reverse these signs, but treatment must be immediate to prevent death. Although both the puppies and the mother will try to nurse, in the case of untreated eclampsia, nursing will further drain calcium from the mother's body.

Care of Newborn Puppies

A good mother will do most of the work in caring for her puppies prior to weaning; therefore, a lot of human intervention usually is not needed. Nursing from the mother not only fulfills the puppies' nutritional needs, but it also provides them with antibodies to help prevent infections. In addition, the puppies have an opportunity to learn from their mother.

The two leading causes of puppy death after live birth are chilling, and a lack of fluids and energy. Puppies that are not nursing with enthusiasm, cold to the touch, or constantly complaining need your help. Warm them to 98-100° F rectally, and provide the necessary food. Ask your veterinarian for advice, but be prepared for these things weeks in advance. Soon after birth, the puppies should be examined by a veterinarian. If tail docking and/or dewclaw removal is desired, this should be done before the pups are about 3-5 days old.

The room temperature where puppies are housed should be no less than 70° F and cold floors should be avoided to prevent chilling. Clip the puppies' nails as they become sharp to prevent them from hurting the mother during nursing. A puppy's eyes should open 10-14 days after birth. As the puppies begin to explore their new environment, a mixture of dog food intended for puppy growth and water or milk can be given to assist weaning. Cow's milk can be used unless it makes the puppies sick.

Behavioral adaptation is as important as physical health in puppies. It is best to handle the puppies as little as possible during their first 3-4 weeks of life. After about 4 weeks, you can assist each pup's positive socialization toward people by cradling each puppy in your arms for about a minute twice a day. Do not handle them too much or permit rough handling by anyone, especially children.

Establish regular feeding schedules and take the pups outside or to a specific toilet area when they wake up and after each feeding - this will help facilitate house-training later on. Do not scold them for mistakes but praise and pet the puppies when they urinate or defecate in the correct place.

At 6-8 weeks of age, a stool sample should be checked by a veterinarian for internal parasites. At the same time, the puppies should be vaccinated for canine distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, and parvovirus. These vaccinations should be considered at an earlier age if the puppies are not able to nurse from their mother. A rabies vaccination can be given at 3 months of age and older.

Weaning

Under normal conditions, weaning will occur naturally around 5-6 weeks after birth. The puppies will become more independent, and the mother will react negatively to the sharp teeth and nails of her puppies.

To help the puppies make a smooth transition at this time to life without their mother, separate the mother and pups for an increasing length of time each day until they are together only at night. The mother's food intake should be reduced to help her produce less milk.

Gradually replace the puppies' liquid food with a well-balanced commercial puppy food that is intended for feeding during growth. Feed the puppies 3-5 times a day. The whole weaning process should take about 1 week.

If the mother dog continues to produce milk after weaning, her breasts could become engorged and painful. Hot towels and a gentle massage can help reduce the congestion. Complete withdrawal of all food and water for 24 hours often works well. Consult your veterinarian If milk production continues after weaning has been completed.

Orphaned Puppies

One of the primary killers of newborn puppies is the lack of adequate warmth. The mother's natural body heat must be replaced in her absence. Incubators, 60-watt infrared heat bulbs, heating pads or hot water bottles can be used as a heat source. It is estimated that puppies need a constant temperature of 85-90°F the first week of life, 80°F the second week, 75°F the third and fourth weeks, and 70°F thereafter. Incubators with thermostats are most efficient but expensive. The other heat alternatives should warm only half of the available space so the puppies can choose the temperature best suited to their needs. Be sure to cover any heating pad or hot water bottle with towels, newspapers, or disposable diapers to prevent burning the puppies' delicate skin.

A substitute for the mother dog's milk must be found if the natural mother dies or is unable to care for her puppies. Cow's milk alone is not a good alternative because it can irritate a puppy's stomach and intestine. A temporary replacement can be made by combining two egg yolks with 1 cup of homogenized milk or goat's milk. Milk substitutes for puppies can be purchased from veterinarians and certain pet, drug and grocery stores.

When preparing the milk substitute, always follow the manufacturer's directions on the label for its proper preparation and keep all feeding equipment scrupulously clean. A good way of handling prepared formula is to prepare only a 48-hour supply of formula at a time.

The easiest and safest way of feeding milk substitute formula to puppies is by nipple bottle feeding or by tube feeding. Nipple bottles made especially for feeding orphan puppies or bottles equipped with premie infant nipples are best. When feeding with a nipple bottle, hold the bottle so that the puppy does not ingest air. The hole in the nipple should be such that when the bottle is inverted, milk slowly oozes from the nipple. Never squeeze milk out of the bottle while the nipple is in the mouth; doing so may result in aspiration of the milk into the lungs.

Newborn puppies may have a small plug in their anus which prevents normal waste elimination. A mother normally licks each puppy, stimulating urination and defecation. In the absence of the mother, take a piece of cotton, soak it in warm water and wash each puppy's abdomen, anus and rear legs to stimulate the elimination of waste. It will take about 3 weeks before a puppy can function on its own.

A healthy puppy sleeps a great deal during its first few weeks of life, and it should gain weight every day. Consult a veterinarian if a puppy does not sleep well, loses or fails to gain weight or shows signs of illness.

Glossary

Eclampsia - Disease which is also referred to as milk fever caused by calcium reduction in nursing mothers

Placenta - Fluid-filled sac which is the organ of metabolic interchange between the fetus and mother

Weaning - To take from the breast, depriving permanently of breast milk, and nourishing with other food

Whelping - The act of giving birth to puppies

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