WHELPING A LITTER
It is your bitch’s due date. Her temperature has dropped to around 97 degrees F. or lower. You have prepared a whelping box, your whelping kit supplies are handy near the box, and you’ve notified your vet that you have a bitch about to whelp. You know what hours the vet will be available and what to do in case of an after-hours emergency. What’s next?
Your expectant mother will probably be acting restless: tearing up papers, asking to go out to potty frequently, digging, perhaps rolling or lying on her back, and generally acting uncomfortable. This is the first stage of labor (sometimes referred to as ‘pre-labor.’). I’ve had bitches that absolutely demanded that I stay with them during this time, and a couple that wanted to burrow off to themselves in a quiet, dark area. Others just get busy with the business at hand and don’t seem to care much where they are or who is with them. In any case, you should start timing, watching for contractions, and never let a bitch outside without watching her closely (in case she drops a puppy instead of having a bowel movement).
Most bitches will start having contractions (second stage labor, also referred to as ‘hard labor’) within 12 to 24 hours of the time when their temperature drops. (However, there have been instances when a bitch’s temperature will drop very little prior to whelping.) If this has not begun within 30 hours of the temperature drop, or if you see a bloody or pus-filled discharge or the bitch appears abnormally depressed or uncomfortable, have the bitch checked out by a veterinarian.
If you watch carefully you will be able to detect the first actual labor contraction, which signifies the the beginning of the birthing process. The bitch will display an abdominal press and may or may not groan or grunt. Some bitches will rush to the door and ask to be let out, but after the initial trip will not pass much, if any, feces or urine. At first the contractions will come every 10 or 15 minutes, usually in waves of two or three, followed by a rest. The first puppy usually arrives in 2 (not more than 3) hours from the time of the first contraction.
Timing is important here. If contractions begin but seem to stop or become very mild, if more than two hours pass without a birth, or if frequent, hard contractions persist for more than 30 minutes without a puppy, there is likely to be trouble. Either the pup is too large or is malpositioned. Also, if there is more than a four hour rest between puppies and you know there are more puppies inside, seek veterinary help. Delaying in getting the bitch to a veterinarian in these instances can result in death to the puppies or even to the bitch.
Sometimes a puppy’s rear legs (breech) or head are protruding from the vulva but the puppy is stuck. First try to assist by grasping the puppy with a dry washcloth and pulling outward and downward, toward the bitch’s stomach. You can also try to get a little KY Jelly inside the vaginal opening to help with lubrication. If a puppy’s leg or head is out of position you may be able to push it back between contractions enough to re-position it. If you are unable to remove the pup within 15 minutes, get to a veterinary quickly. Remaining pups will die if you cannot get the stuck puppy out of the way.
When a puppy is delivered, I prefer to let the bitch do the work of cutting the cord and cleaning up the puppy if she will, and I only interfere when needed. The bitch will chew the cord, which seems to prevent it from bleeding. Sometimes they will appear to be quite rough, even picking the pup up by the cord. This will not harm it. However, if the bitch doesn’t eventually sever the cord herself, you can clamp it about an inch from the body with a small hemostat and either tear the cord, grasping it in two places with a clean washcloth or towel between your fingers (preferred), or cut it with a sterile scissors. Don’t do this until the entire afterbirth (placenta) has come out! Tie the cord off with dental floss about a half inch from the body. Whether I or the dam does the cord cutting, I dip the cord in iodine solution to sterilize it and help it to dry. Some people feel this is not necessary under clean conditions.
I let the bitch clean and nuzzle the puppy until hard contractions for the next puppy begin. At that time I remove the newborn and place it in the separate small box that I have prepared with a heating pad or hot water bottle. This keeps the newborn puppies dry and warm and prevents them from getting injured while their mother is distracted by labor pains and caring for the subsequent whelps. I cover the top with a towel to keep the heat in, and set the box just outside the whelping box. Then I turn my attention to the next arrival and repeat the process.
Make sure that there is a placenta delivered for every puppy. If there is any chance that a placenta has been retained, or if you are not sure that the last puppy has been delivered, a veterinary checkup within the next few hours is advisable. Always remember, time is of the essence at whelping time. A delay in obtaining veterinary assistance when needed can result in the loss of one or more puppies, or even the bitch. If in doubt, no matter how many litters you have delivered without incidence, consult your veterinarian. And, as a final word, I might say that you know your own bitch better than anyone, and if you think she is in trouble, no matter if the vet tells you on the phone to wait, take her in now.
If there is a a long interval between puppies, the newborns should be taken from their little nest box and placed back with the dam to nurse until she once again begins having contractions. Some bitches will whelp a litter almost nonstop and be done in an hour. Others will take most of the night (or day) to deliver a large litter, usually delivering two puppies, then a rest, then two more, and so on.
If a bitch wears out during labor, you can try giving her a little broth or electrolytes. If labor ceases or contractions become very weak, she an oxytocin injection to get her going again. Or there may be an obstruction or some other more serious problem, such as two puppies lodged at the junction of the uterine horns.
There is much more to learn than I have space in this article. For more on dealing with whelping problems, helping newborns to start breathing, clearing fluid from their lungs, and more symptoms of problems an what to do about them, consult Dr. Phyllis Holst’s book Canine Reproduction: The Breeder’s Guide.
After all puppies have been delivered and the whelping box lined with fresh bedding, I move all the puppies back with their dam. At that time bitch and puppies are left alone to rest and bond, but I keep a close eye on them for the next 24 to 48 hours. A healthy puppy will cuddle with its dam and litter mates, feel warm to the touch, suckle vigorously within a few hours of birth, and not cry excessively. A sick puppy will lie by itself, scream, cry, or whimper a lot, and feels cold to touch. A puppy that refuses to eat within a couple hours after birth is definitely cause for concern.
The bitch should settle in quietly with her litter. If she is restless, has to go potty frequently, is still having contractions, runs a temperature of 102 degrees or higher, has a greenish or puss-colored discharge or excessive bleeding, or is very listless and will not care for her puppies, you need to have her examined by a veterinarian. If a placenta was not expelled following the birth of each puppy, it is imperative that the bitch be taken to a veterinarian for a pituitary injection within 12 hours after the last puppy was born. A retained placenta can cause an infection, which will get to the puppies through the milk.