Ask Dr Iain-The Pregnant Bitch part 2


Whelping is due to start?

At the end of the last article (Care of the Pregnant Bitch) we had our prospective mother ensconced in her whelping box and have previously clipped hair away from her vulva and mammary glands, which we are monitoring for the presence of milk. We are also checking her temperature every morning to detect any marked decrease that will indi-cate that whelping is imminent. Usually whelping is going to occur 60 days post ovulation but sometimes bitches can whelp prematurely so I'd always advise trying to be home to monitor for at least 2 or 3 days before the expected whelping date.

What else should we have on hand next to the whelping box as 'due date' approaches?

-carry basket with newspaper, bedding and a hot water bottle ready to be filled, in case an emergency visit to the vet is required

-newspaper, to replace the paper that becomes soiled under the dry fleece bedding.

-fresh dry fleece bedding to replace that which has become wet and soiled as whelping progresses!

-plenty of soft dry towels, to help quickly dry the puppies after delivery and reduce the risk of them being chilled.

-some clean cotton tip ear buds or gauze swabs to wipe any excess placental fluid from the newly delivered pups mouth.

-a few pairs of small haemostats to clamp the umbilical cord ideally about 2 or 3 cms from a delivered pups tummy. Usually clamping isn't necessary as the bitch will often chew the cord away from the attached placenta but if the cord is torn away from the placenta during delivery and is bleeding profusely, then you'll wish you had some haemostats. Sometimes the bitch might chew the cord too close to the pup's abdomen and so clamping the bleeding cord might be necessary. Many dog product suppliers as well as some vets will sell you these. They don't need to be sterile, just clean.

-small bottle of povidone iodine which is used to wet either gauze swabs or cotton wool balls, which I use to wipe the blades of a small pair of scissors before cutting a clamped cord on the placental side of the haemostat. Alternatively, you can clamp the cord with a second pair of haemostats and gently break the cord by twisting the haemostats in opposite directions to each other. If the cord continues to bleed after removing the haemostat then you may need to clamp again and tie some cotton or suture material or very fine fishing line around the cord.

-disposable examination gloves. Ideally sterile packaged gloves but Ansell type gloves are a reasonable alternative.

-bottle of liquid calcium solution e.g. Calcium Sandoz or Troy Calcium syrup. Start administering this orally twice daily to the newly whelped bitch following manufacturers instructions. I usually store the calcium in a sealable clean jar or plastic kitchen container and from the jar will draw it into a syringe before administering it into the bitch's mouth slowly over about a minute.

-some clean syringes, say 10ml size for administering calcium syrup or milk replacement solution if pups require supplementary feeding.

-feeding tubes, required for pups that are not gaining weight. ( 5 French gauge for Griffon pups is a good size)

-milk replacement product e.g. Animalac or Divetalac.

-scales for weighing pups ideally twice daily. Electronic scales are best because the weight can be calibrated to 0 grams af-ter a suitable size dish in which pups can be safely placed have been set on them.

-notebook for recording both the time when whelping (contractions) started and when each pup has been delivered and the weight of each pup.

- possibly, depending on your vet and your experience, you may have frozen canine plasma stored in your freezer and injections of oxytocin on hand. Some vets dispense oxytocin to breeders to use during and after whelping. Oxytocin should only be used after speaking to your vet and receiving their approval to use it. For instance, if oxytocin is given where a bitch has a puppy actually stuck in the vaginal birth canal, then the forceful uterine con-tractions that this drug can stimulate might result in a ruptured uterus and life-threatening perito-nitis. Some vets will dispense oxytocin while many won't and will instead advise that a veterinarian should examine the bitch first, which might mean a visit to the clinic or a house call. Don't be offended if your vet doesn't dispense drugs like oxytocin to you because they can be suspended from practice if there are adverse consequences when the drug has been supplied and used without their direct supervision even if you say you are prepared to 'take the risk'.

Whelping has started.

When the bitch has started scratching at the bedding in the whelping box and often passes some clear discharge, sometimes tinged with green material that is from the placental site when the placenta of the first pup to be delivered has started to separate from the uterine wall, she has now entered the first or preparation stage of whelping. This can last from several minutes to several hours and all you can do is stay nearby the whelping box and observe for contractions and keep an eye on her vulva for the appearance of fluid filled foetal membranes, otherwise called a 'water bag'! Do turn the heat level in the box up to maximum, it's important to minimise risk of any chilling to the newly delivered pups.

The second stage of whelping is recorded when you first observe her starting to strain which should soon be followed by the appearance of that 'water bag'. Most normal whelps will see the first puppy passed well within 1.5 hours. The water bag will rupture at some stage as the puppy is passed, but not always, and if the puppy is hanging from the bitch in an intact bag and she is not making an attempt to rupture the bag herself then you should wash your hands and put on clean disposable gloves and between thumb and finger rub the bag so that it ruptures and the bitch can then start to clean the puppy even if the placenta is still inside the birth canal.

The first important thing to understand is that if after several minutes the puppy is still attached to the placenta that is inside the bitch or alternatively, the puppy is only partially protruding from the vulva and is becoming distressed or even worse, is not making any movements at all, then you really need to get the puppy free. Grasp the puppy as gently as you can and pull it downwards and not backwards, from the vulva and down between the bitch's hindlegs to-wards the tummy. The same applies if you are instead grasping the umbilical cord at least a few cms away from the pup with your haemostats and are pulling to free the attached placenta from the birth canal, you pull downwards in a steady and firm manner. This is because the vaginal birth canal is directed in a downward direction from the cervix and not in a directly backward direction. Don't worry if a pup is coming out hindlegs first rather than head-first, breech deliv-ery is common and quite normal in dogs. It's more of a problem when they come out backside first with the hindlegs extended up along the body and you or your vet may need to use gloves and lubricant and try to push the puppy back up into the birth canal a short distance so that you can use a finger to hook each leg in turn backwards and then allow the bitch to push the puppy out.

THIRD: The bitch rests for usually between 10-60 minutes between puppies. She will normally eat any afterbirth (but not always!), sever the umbilical cord and lick the puppy to dry, warm and stimulate it. I will help the bitch get the puppies dry more quickly by taking the pup and drying it with a soft towel, swabbing out the mouth with some clean gauze and checking for any cleft palate or harelip at the same time and quickly weigh the pup before handing it back to mother. So, weigh puppies shortly after birth, 12 hours later and then at least once daily. If puppies are failing to gain weight then they probably require supplementary feeding. It is a good idea to have some appropriate milk replacer (eg. 'Divetalac'), syringe, feeding tube or nursing bottle and teats on hand in case they are needed.

Do expect a normal green coloured discharge to be passed with the puppies and their afterbirths. This discharge can be passed for up to 3 weeks after whelping. If discharge becomes smelly and brown/red/yellow in colour then re-visit your vet, this can mean an infection is pre-sent.


 If more than two hours have passed since straining began or recommenced between puppies, and no puppy has passed.

 If a puppy is stuck fast in the birth canal for over 15 minutes.

 If severe bleeding occurs.

 If signs of eclampsia (milk fever) occur. Signs include marked panting, drooling and trem-ors. She may obviously be already panting but if she is drooling, distressed and tremoring then give a double dose of Calcium syrup (say 20ml) orally while organizing an immediate visit to the vet clinic.

DO NOT call if not all afterbirths are passed, this can be checked at post-whelp exam.


Ideally visit your vet the following day to check puppies for any gross abnormalities and the bitch for evidence of retained pups or potential infection. An antibiotic and oxytocin injection to stimulate passage of any retained afterbirth is often given. It might be on this visit that your vet dispenses some frozen plasma and administers the first dose whether by tube feeding or by subcutaneous injection to each of the puppies if you haven't already administered some already.

Frozen canine plasma is very expensive and the smallest available size bag is 100ml. I recommend that plasma administration twice weekly by subcutaneous injection for the first two to three weeks. Especially if you have experienced fading litters then plasma administration might supply adequate additional antibodies to help the pup combat infections like Herpes virus that commonly cause pup mortality in those first few weeks of life.

If you are keen to try using frozen canine plasma then it is safest if your vet shows you how to administer it the first time and then supplies you with more sterile fine gauge intravenous needles and syringes to administer at home. Once thawed, the plasma can be stored in the fridge (don't re-freeze it) and it can be re-warmed using a warm water bath technique (not microwave!) when about to be re-administered. The plasma can be reused up to 3 weeks after initial thawing if kept refrigerated. Beyond this time you have a greater risk of it becoming contaminated with bacteria and it should be thrown out. Generally I give 1 to 2 mls warm plasma via subcutaneous injection per 100g bodyweight of pup.

You should continue monitoring the bitches temperature daily to detect any increase over 39.5 degrees Celsius that could indicate an infection. Also monitor her vulval discharge colour and smell as mentioned earlier to detect evidence of metritis (uterine infection) as well as checking her mammary glands for mastitis, where one or more will become red, swollen, painful and on expression you'll see discoloured thickened milk. All these are indicators that a vet visit is urgently required to at least start antibiotics and possibly start supplementary feeding of pups.

You'll have already started twice daily Calcium supplementation for the bitch. If you are unlucky and the bitch develops signs of hypocalcaemia (milk fever or eclampsia) then you need to give say a double dose of calcium syrup orally while phoning the vet for further advice. Often more calcium needs to be given via intravenous or subcutaneous injection, depending on the preparation the vet stocks. Often you will need to start supplementary feeding of pups to decrease the calcium requirements of the bitch and this is usually best achieved by tube feeding.

Tube feeding pups in usually bigger litters that are failing to gain weight, or when bitches have metritis and /or mastitis or eclampsia and is best done with a 5 French gauge feeding tube. There are numerous really good videos on the internet describing how to do it and you can refer to these or even better, get your vet to show you how to measure the length of tube to be inserted and how to pass the tube and calculate how much milk replacer to administer. Tube feeding is not without some risk where milk can enter the pups lungs if the tube is passed into the windpipe rather than the oesophagus or if the pup is overfed which can cause a fatal pneumonia.

Whelping box temperature can gradually be reduced over the month. If the bitch is refusing to stay in the box for long and the pups are always at the periphery of the box then it is usually an indication to reduce the heating.

Hind dew claws? Your vet can remove these if they are present at about 3 days of age. Some breeders like to remove front dew claws but I think the less trauma we inflict on pups will mean reduced stress and improved survival rates. Fortunately, tail docking has been illegal throughout Australia for several years now. Yes, that's my personal opinion!

Worm puppies fortnightly from 2 weeks of age with a syrup initially, until 12 weeks of age and then the frequency can be reduced to every one to three months. When the pups are big enough to swallow a small tablet then make the switch from puppy worming syrup to a small all-worming tablet, e.g. drontal tablets for pups and small dogs. All pups are born with a worm burden no matter how good your parasite control measures are!

Weaning can usually begin from 3 weeks of age when puppies begin to lap. Offer goat milk or a milk substitute (e.g. Divetalac or Animalac) initially and later mix with minced chicken or beef and then canned puppy food, puppy loaf or even rehydratable puppy food, e.g. Advance Rehydratable Puppy Food. Cows milk will usually cause gastric upsets and should be avoided. By 5 weeks of age the puppies should be capable of eating several small meals daily of mainly a balanced soft puppy food perhaps with some added goat milk. You can add a small dry puppy kibble or just gradually stop adding water to the rehydratable puppy food. Often you need to keep mother away from the pups for an hour or more at a time to give pups more opportunity to eat their own rations if mother insists on eating theirs before her own!



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