SIGNS OF APPROACHING PARTURITION
Normally, a bitch’s temperature will drop to around 98 or 99 degrees before whelping. The first puppy can be expected within 24 hours of this drop. Many bitches will try to hide and begin digging and nesting before they go into labor. They may refuse to eat, act uncomfortable, and ask to be let out to urinate frequently. This is the time when you must keep a close eye on the bitch at all times. Do not let her out unattended. Observe her for signs of straining, a discharge from the vagina, excessively
fearful behavior or pain.
If labor has not begun within thirty hours of the temperature drop, the bitch should be examined by a veterinarian. The same is true if you see a bloody or pus filled discharge with no signs of contractions.
If you watch carefully, you will be able to detect the first actual labor contraction, which signifies the second stage of labor. The bitch will display an abdominal press and may or may not groan or grunt. She may rush to the door and ask to be let out, but after the first time does not pass much, if any, feces or urine. At first the contractions will come every ten or fifteen minutes, usually in waves of two or three, followed by a rest. The time the first contraction to the birth of the first puppy is usually two, or not more than three hours.
If contractions begin but then seem to stop or become very mild and more than 2 hours has passed, have the bitch checked. If almost continuous, 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. If there is more than a four hour rest between puppies and you know she has more puppies inside, seek veterinary help.
THE PUPPIES ARRIVE
The first thing you may see is the amnionic sac, a fluid-filled pouch that pushes through the vulva. Sometimes this ruptures before you see it protruding and all you will see is the fluid. This plays an important part in lubrication. The pup and it’s inner membrane should follow shortly, and is usually delivered with two to four contractions. Puppies are born either head first or breech (rear first). Either is normal. If the puppy is very large, the vulva is not fully relaxed, or the vagina is dry the delivery may be more difficult. Sometimes a puppy’s rear legs or head will protrude from the vulva but the puppy is stuck. If this happens, try to assist by grasping the puppy with a dry washcloth and pulling outward and downward, toward the bitch’s stomach. If you are unable to remove the pup within 15 minutes, get her to a veterinary quickly. Other pups will die if you cannot get the stuck puppy out of the way.
After the puppy is born the bitch will sever the umbilical cord and will probably eat the placenta if it is not removed from the box. I allow this unless the litter is large (over 5 puppies), in which case I dispose of some of the placentas. Otherwise the bitch may have a good case of diarrhea the following day. The bitch may seem quite rough as she licks the puppy and takes care of the afterbirth. This is normal and actually helps stimulate the puppy to breath. Most healthy puppies will be squirming and crying and even searching for a teat within minutes after they are delivered. If a puppy is lethargic or doesn’t seem to be breathing, pick it up and rub it vigorously with a towel. If there seems to be fluid in the mouth or nose, hold the pup firmly between the palms of both your hands and raise it up to your waist level, then briskly shake it downward toward your feet, being sure to support the head and neck securely. This will help get fluid out of the respiratory tract. Continue to rub and stimulate any weak pups unless the bitch is doing a vigorous job. Often she will be preoccupied with the impending birth of the next whelp so you will have to work with the problem pup.
While the bitch is busy delivering and caring for the next puppy, I place the previous whelp(s) in the small box which is kept warm with either a heating pad or hot water bottle. If you have neither on hand, a pint jar filled with hot water and wrapped with a towel will work.
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 check within the next few hours is advisable. Always remember, time is of the essence. 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.
After the last pup has been delivered and the whelping box cleaned up with fresh bedding, I return all the puppies to the bitch in the whelping box. Dam and puppies are left alone to rest and bond, but keep a close eye on them for the next 24 to 48 hours. A healthy puppy will cuddle with its dam and littermates, 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 will feel cold to touch. A puppy that refuses to eat within, at most, a couple hours after birth is definitely cause for concern. Sometimes a boost with a tablespoon of Karo syrup in a cup of water, or a commercial electolyte solution, (even Gatoraid in a pinch) will give the pup enough of an energy boost to get it started nursing.
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 will cause an infection, which will get to the puppies through her milk supply, and which could ultimately kill the bitch.A good rule of thumb is to have every bitch examined by a veterinarian within 24 hours after whelping.
The puppies must be kept warm for the first two weeks in particular, as they are unable to regulate their own body temperature. I like to place a small heating pad under one end of the whelping box bedding, leaving the other end unheated so the bitch has a cooler place to lay. Puppies will crawl to the warmth when they need it, and crawl away if they get too hot. You can also place a heat lamp over one end of the box, but this is more difficult to regulate and the heat is more centralized over the whole box. Unless the bitch is doesn’t want to accept the puppies and goes away and leaves them for far too long, do not shut her in the box. She should be able to get out to exercise and eat if she wants. Some bitches will literally refuse to leave their litter even to relieve themselves at first.
The bitch will have a reddish brown vaginal discharge for the first week or so. Carefully monitor her for signs of a foul smelling or greenish discharge, excessive bleeding, or a high temperature. Occasionally a bitch that is nursing fat, healthy puppies will develop a condition known as eclampsia. Symptoms include restlessness, salivation, staggering or stumbling, stiffening of the muscles, and finally convulsions. This is a true emergency and requires prompt treatment by a veterinarian.
More helpful information on breeding, whelping and care of newborn puppies can be found in the highly recommended Canine Reproduction: The Breeder’s Guide.