The birth of puppies is an exciting time, but it can also be an anxious time for the dog and the breeder, especially if this is the female’s first litter. On top of that, dogs often go into labor late into the night, so be prepared for a very long evening. However, keep in mind that around 98% of births do not require human assistance.
Pregnancy typically lasts 56-69 days with smaller breeds delivering earlier and larger breeds later. The dog will start showing signs of preparation a few days before birth. She will stop eating and get her nest – the whelping box – prepared. In the hours before labor begins, her temperature will drop from a normal range of 100-102.5 (37.5-39) degrees to below 99 (37) degrees (measure with a rectal thermometer).
First stage of labor
At this time, you may notice some discharge from the vagina. The female’s cervix dilates, and contractions begin. The birth canal begins to open up so that t puppies can pass through. The female may become restless and start shivering and panting. This stage can last up to 18 hours, and the environment should be kept as calm and peaceful as possible during this time.
Second stage of labor
This is the point at which the dog begins to strain and give birth to the puppies. The puppies typically come 45-60 minutes apart. They may come out tail first or nose first. They will be born enclosed inside a membrane. The mother is usually able to lick it off so that the puppy can commence breathing on its own (licking off the placenta and biting off the umbilical cord is important for the mother to recognize and bond with her puppies). If the mother cannot remove it, then it is up to the owner to try breaking open the sac near the puppy’s head. This should be done with a towel. When the puppies have all been born, the mother will continue to have contractions in order to remove any excess blood and tissues from the body.
After each puppy is born, it should be placed on one of the mother’s nipples immediately in order to receive colostrum. Colostrum is a milk-like substance that contains antibodies needed to help fight off infection in the first week or so until their immune systems become mature. The mother will also be cleaning the puppies and keeping them warm after they are born. You may want to use a heating pad to quickly warm them, being careful not to burn the puppies. A small portable heater nearby but out of reach will also be helpful.
If the mother strains for an hour or more with only the pup’s legs protruding, it may be necessary to assist the mother. Pull gently on the hind legs in a rearward and downward motion. Call a vet if complications persist.
Situations to look for
Various situations can occur during the dog birthing process. For example, some dogs may have more puppies than nipples, so it is important to watch the puppies closely and switch them on and off nipples at various intervals. Judge the sizes of the puppies. If one or two seem smaller than the others, make sure they get extra time on the nipples so they can be properly nourished. The puppies may fight over the nipples, so if needed, you should be prepared to bottle feed them with puppy milk from the pet store.
Some puppies, especially smaller ones, may have problems breathing or moving around after birth. It is important to keep them warm. Even a massage may help them live. Sadly, some puppies are born dead (stillborn) or die a few hours after birth. This is common in many litters, especially larger ones with 10 puppies or more.
Although most female dogs give birth fairly easily without the need for human assistance, sometimes complications do occur. It is not uncommon for a labor to stop progressing, at times requiring an emergency C-section. Here are some warning signs to look for:
- More than four hours between the birth of puppies
- Continual straining with no puppy born after an hour
- Lack of interest in the puppies
- Severe pain
- Foul-smelling discharge coming from the vagina
You should also be concerned if your dog has been pregnant for more than 69 days and is not showing any signs of labor. Contact a vet if you notice any of the above signs.
The female will rely on her instincts to care for the puppies after birth. She will even clean up after them. What you will need to do is keep her well-nourished with roughly twice the normal food intake. She will need to keep her fluid intake up, as she is using extra energy to produce milk. You should keep clean water and fresh food always on hand so she can regain strength. Puppies take a lot of vitamins away from mother, so the female may look skinny and have a dull coat after giving birth. You may want to ask your vet about special vitamins you can give your dog during this time.