|Let’s start with the canine heat cycle. The canine heat or estrous cycle varies in length. Many people know that their dog goes into "heat" but don’t realize that unlike the human menstrual cycle, which is a non-fertile stage, dogs that are in heat are preparing to ovulate. There are four stages of the estrous cycle. The first stage is proestrus, which is characterized by increased follicular activity of the ovary, a stage that is necessary prior to the release of the eggs. Outward signs include vulvar swelling and bleeding. During this time, your dog will be attractive to males but not receptive to them. In general, this stage lasts six to 11 days with an average of nine days. The end of this cycle is noted when your pet becomes receptive to the male and will stand to be bred.
The second phase is the actual fertile phase or estrus. During this time, the discharge becomes more straw-colored to light pink and the vulva, although still swollen, is softer. The female is now receptive to males and will stand for breeding. This stage generally lasts five to nine days. Unfortunately, it can last as long as 20 days and still be normal. Each dog is different and must be monitored closely. The end of this stage is characterized by the female no longer accepting the male.
The last two stages of the estrous cycle are diestrus, a non-receptive time when the corpora lutea, which produce progesterone, are active on the ovary and anestrus. During anestrus there is no ovarian activity. Diestrus and anestrus are lengthy periods: diestrus lasts 56 to 60 days and anestrus is variable, but several months long. Most dogs cycle twice a year.
The next step in the course of the pregnancy is the actual conception…well, I hope you know how that works, so I’ll skip that part. It takes about 62 days from the day that your dog is bred for the puppies to be born.
A doggie biscuit in the oven
The next logical question is, "How can you tell if your dog is in the family way?" Confirming pregnancy necessitates a trip to the veterinary office. The earliest method of pregnancy detection is ultrasound—a nice test because it is noninvasive and very reliable. Fetal heartbeats can be detected at around the 25th day from first breeding. This is not, however, considered a reliable way to determine fetal number.
One interesting fact about the canine reproductive cycle is that the dog goes through roughly the same hormonal changes whether or not she is pregnant. For this reason, there is no progesterone blood or urine test to diagnose pregnancy in dogs. There is, however, a blood test that will detect relaxin, a hormone that is produced in pregnant dogs but is not found in non-pregnant dogs. This test may be performed mid gestation, which occurs at around the same time that your veterinarian can palpate the fetuses.
Most experienced veterinarians can determine pregnancy by simply feeling the dog’s abdomen during a certain a window of time—about 20-30 days after conception. During this time period, there is uterine swelling around the placental sites that feels like firm and discrete lumps. After 30 days, the uterine swelling is more diffuse and it is difficult to distinguish the gravid uterus from the feel of the intestinal tract. Dogs that are very large or obese may be difficult to examine in any stage, however.
A third way to detect pregnancy is by taking x-rays. Fetal skeletons can be visualized at about 45 days of pregnancy. This test cannot be done until late in gestation, but it is nice to know about how many of the little creatures you can expect once the actual birthing occurs.
Get out the clean towels
Although it takes an average of 62 days for puppies to gestate, normal variation is from 54-72 days depending on the breeding dates. During this time there is really not a lot for you do—just feed the dog her regular diet for the first month. It is absolutely crucial that you do NOT supplement your dog with vitamins during her pregnancy. Although this seems to be against normal thinking, dogs that are supplemented are unable to efficiently extract calcium from their bones after they give birth, and this predisposes them to suffer from hypocalcemia, which can result in muscular weakness and even seizures. Starting in the second month of pregnancy, you will want to switch her diet over to a good quality puppy food. This will provide her with the extra calories that she needs without providing excess supplementation.
Speaking of the blessed event, here is your reward for reading this far. If your dog is pregnant, you will want to start taking her temperature (yeah, you know where) about a week prior to her due date. The normal rectal temperature for dogs ranges from 100 to 102.5F. About 24 hours prior to giving birth the dam’s rectal temperature will drop a few degrees. If you record the temperature daily you will know when it is okay to go out to dinner and when you will have a long night ahead of you.
One to two weeks prior to the delivery, get your whelping box and supplies together. Your whelping box should have sides that are high enough so that four to six week-old puppies cannot get out, but when mom needs a Calgon moment she can leave without doing damage to the milking apparatus. It is also important to have a ledge of some kind all around the inside edge so that no puppies are inadvertently smothered by the mother—the pups should be able to slide under the ledge so that mom cannot squish them. Place the box in a familiar but private area and line it with towels.
Get as many clean towels on hand as possible. It is amazing how many you will use trying to keep the canine family clean. You will also want to have sharp scissors (to cut the cords), dental floss (for tying off cords), and povidone iodine (for disinfecting the cord ends) on hand for the delivery.
I could have whelped all night…
Okay, so now comes the scary part: actual birthing. Let me tell you that this usually starts at 10 o’clock at night—the perfect time to prevent you from getting any sleep and late enough that you will have to go to the emergency clinic if you have problems. You will also want to make sure that you are wearing clothes that can be thrown away. Whelping is a messy business and there is some bright green goo that can be produced that cannot be washed out of anything with any stain remover on the planet. So, it is definitely a dress down event.
There are three stages of labor. The first stage, which will probably go by undetected, occurs when the cervix is dilating and there are some uterine contractions. You may notice some shivering, restlessness, panting, vomiting, and unwillingness to eat, and the dog may seek out a private place. If you do notice this stage (which lasts six to 12 hours), encourage your pet to go to the whelping area.
Stages two and three, active labor and placental expulsion, conclude with the expulsion of the fetus and the placenta, respectively. If your dog has more than one puppy, she will alternate between stages two and three. Once your dog begins actively straining, the first puppy is usually delivered within 10 to 20 minutes. If the active straining has gone on for an hour unproductively it is time to call the vet. She needs some professional assistance. Many dogs will rest between puppies for an hour or so. This does not require intervention since the dog is not actively straining.
It is normal for puppies to be born either head first or breech (rear first). If you try to assist in delivery, never pull on an ear or a foot; instead, try to hook your fingers behind the shoulders or over the hips and use very gentle downward traction. Some dogs will squat to have puppies; others lie down. My dog thought running around in circles and relying upon centrifugal force would facilitate birthing, so really you must be flexible and responsive to what the mother may need. By the same token, some dogs just grunt quietly as they give birth, and others are screamers.
Most puppies are born with the amniotic sac intact. If mom doesn’t attend to them within the first two minutes, it is time for your intervention. This membrane must be ruptured so that the puppy can breathe. Use a child nasal aspirator to clear the fluid from the mouth and with a clean, dry towel—each pup gets its own—dry the puppy and gently rub near the umbilicus to stimulate respiration. Use the dental floss to tie off the cord about an inch from the puppy’s body, and then cut it with the scissors and dip the end of the cord in the povidone iodine.
Now, I usually let mom lick to her heart’s content. If your dog is an experienced mother or seems to want to do all this herself, there is no reason why you shouldn’t let her tear the membrane and chew off the cord. Eating the placenta, however, is another matter. It is an old wives tale that the mother will not produce milk if she doesn’t eat them. Just take them away from her and she will never know the difference.
Mama’s little babies
Once all the puppies are born, make sure they all get a chance to have their first meal. The first milk is rich with protective antibodies that really help them to start off on the right foot. You will also want to offer mom a light meal and a potty break. Then you can all have a nice rest.
The next morning, call your veterinarian to apprise him or her of the results of the event. Many vets will want you to bring the brood in so that mom can have a quick check up to make sure that all is returning to normal and that there are no more puppies inside.
For the next six to eight weeks, the mother will be producing a reddish brown to bright green odorless discharge called lochia. This is a normal discharge and nothing to be concerned about. If your dog had a bright red bloody discharge, however, call your veterinarian right away. You will also want to continue to take your dog’s temperature and inspect the mammary glands daily so that any uterine or mammary infection can be caught and treated early.
Now that she’s given birth, you can feed her like gangbusters. Lactation increases your dog’s caloric needs by three to four times. So, it’s time to bring on the extra meals. Make sure that the babies are on a high quality puppy food as well. You should also start to supplement calcium in the mother’s diet by providing her with a specific calcium supplement from your vet or by adding some cottage cheese to her diet. Free access to ample quantities of water must be available for your dog, but do not put it in the whelping box where puppies may drown. Use common sense.
So, congratulations on your new family and enjoy the fun. It has been a long road, but we hope every one is happy and healthy at the end