Congratulations! You’re about to have grand-puppies. Other than finding out that you and your spouse were expecting, this may be the most terrifying news you will ever hear. Relax – take a deep breath. Counting from the day your dog was mated, you’ll have somewhere in the neighborhood of 65 days to prepare for the blessed event.
To start, educate yourself. Hilltop Animal Hospital near Chicago has a wealth of articles on whelping on their web site.
Doggies.com has a 5-part series on pregnancy and whelping in the dog den, starting here.
Finally, Kelrobin-Woodhaven Labradors in Michigan has a nice pictorial guide here.
Consult your veterinarian
Good prenatal care is as important for dogs as it is for humans. Although you don’t necessarily have to have a vet present for the puppies’ birth, you’ll want to make sure you give them every chance at a good start by keeping the mama dog in proper health during her pregnancy.
While you’re having mama checked, ask your vet about any particular whelping problems specific to the breed. For example, because of the shape of Boston Terriers and Bulldogs, puppies of these breeds often need to be delivered by Caesarian section.
Prepare a whelping pen
There are many things you can use as a whelping pen. One of the easiest is a baby playpen with the sides folded down to allow the mother easy access in and out of the pen, while keeping the puppies safely enclosed. Folding down the sides also gives the puppies a place to escape so they don’t get squished if mom decides to roll over.
About a week before the expected delivery date, place the whelping pen in a quiet area of your home that is easily accessible to your dog. Line the pen with several layers of newspapers, then with towels or a quilt on top of the papers. Allow your dog to check out the pen well in advance of her due date. It’s best to place the pen in a warm, quiet place that can easily be cleaned up afterwards. Laundry rooms make great whelping dens.
You may also want to have a basket and a hot water bottle close by the whelping pen. As each puppy is delivered, you can transfer them to the basket to stay warm while the mama delivers the rest of the litter. Make sure mama can see her pups so she doesn’t become anxious. It is also acceptable to leave the puppies in the whelping pen as long as the mama is taking care of them.
Mama dogs have been giving birth without human intervention for centuries, and your dog is quite capable of having her puppies on her own. However, there are a few things you can do to help assure your pups remain healthy.
Caring for the umbilicus is one such thing. Mama will take care of disconnecting the puppy from the umbilical cord by chewing through it, but you may see some bleeding from the stump. Near your whelping pen, you should have a box of dental floss which can be tied around the base of the umbilical cord. Simply tie the cord off about ½-inch from the puppy’s belly to stop the bleeding. The stump will fall off within the first week or two. Regardless of whether or not you have to tie off the cord, you should disinfect the open end of the cord with iodine soon after the birth.
A bulb syringe (at my house we call them snot suckers) such as those used to remove nasal mucus from a baby can be used to aspirate any fluids from the puppy’s nose and mouth right after the birth.
Clean, dry towels should be kept on hand to dry and warm the puppies if the mama is too tired or uninterested in cleaning them up after they come out. This can be especially important for the last few puppies of a large litter when the mama dog may be physically incapable of expending any more effort.
You should plan on providing a source of heat in or near the whelping box, particularly for small breeds. A hot water bottle is the safest way to do this, but the water will need to be continually replaced as it cools. Another option is to use a heating pad set on the lowest heat setting and securely covered with a towel to prevent burns.
Just in case, make sure you have a phone nearby and the number of your vet and after-hours emergency clinic posted near the whelping pen. Don’t count on remembering the numbers because you may be dealing with a problem at the time you are trying to pull the numbers from your stubborn memory.
How do I know when my dog is in labor?
Sometime during the 24 hours preceding birth, your mama dog will begin to get very restless. She may pace, change positions frequently in an effort to find a comfortable way to lie down, and she may exhibit nesting behavior, such as shredding the newspapers in the whelping pen. She will likely lose interest in food and may even vomit as she gets nervous about the impending birth.
When labor begins, you can see the contractions along her abdomen. Your dog may lie down on her side or she may squat as if she were urinating. If no puppies have been born within 1 – 2 hours of labor starting, you will need to call the vet. Before calling, you may want to be sure there is nothing blocking the birth canal.
Wash your hands thoroughly, then have someone hold the dog’s muzzle so you don’t get bitten when you try this. Place one or two fingers inside the birth canal and see if any parts of the puppy or the placenta have descended into the canal. If so, try to help the mama by pulling them out. Left in place, the puppies may suffer brain damage while you are loading your car to race to the vet’s office or clinic.
What to expect during whelping
Usually, the first thing you will see is a portion of the placenta known as the water bag. As the uterus contracts, the water bag will be forced out of the birth canal with a puppy inside! The mama should immediately begin licking and chewing through the sac to free the puppy. If she doesn’t, you will need to break open the sac to allow the puppy to breathe.
The mama should then bite through the umbilical cord, but if she doesn’t do so, you can cut it with scissors after tying dental floss around the cord. Tie one length of floss about ½-inch from the puppy and another length of floss about an inch further along, then cut between the two tie points using scissors that have been sterilized in alcohol.
Mama may eat the placenta, which is not of any great concern. She should then begin licking the puppy to dry him or her and to stimulate the pup to breathe. If you have to take over, dry the puppy vigorously with a towel to provide the same stimulation.
Within 15 minutes after each puppy is born, the mama should expel the remainder of the placenta. Another puppy may be born before the first puppy’s placenta has been expelled. Try to keep track of the number of afterbirths or placentas that come out – it should match the number of puppies. If any placental material is retained, it will be expelled as part of the post-delivery discharge that will “leak” from your dog’s uterus for as much as a month following the birth.
No more than 1 to 2 hours should pass between puppies if the mama is still in labor. Her labor may stop and start, which is not a problem, but if you can see the contractions and no more puppies come out, try to clear the birth canal as before. If that doesn’t work, call your vet for further instructions.
After the birth
After all of the puppies have been born, you will see the contractions stop and the mama dog will relax. Give her a few minutes to rest, then take her outside and let her go to the bathroom. When you bring her back in, she should go to the whelping box and nurse her puppies.
Make sure your puppies stay warm. Their rectal temperature should not fall below 97 degrees. 100 degrees is preferred. To help warm a cold or weak puppy, mix together some honey and water, warm it, and feed it to the puppy using a baby bottle. Place the puppy close to his or her mother, or hold the puppy next to your skin if the mama has rejected her babies. Make sure there is a source of heat in the whelping pen so the puppies can warm themselves when the mother is out of the pen.
Weigh the puppies regularly to assure they are getting enough to eat. If they are not gaining, try to express some milk from the mama’s nipples. If it does not come out easily, you may need to supplement your puppies’ diet with commercial puppy milk. If you want to make your own supplement, mix together 10 ounces of evaporated whole milk, 3 ounces of sterilized water, 1 raw egg yolk, and 1 cup whole fat yogurt. Make sure the ingredients are well mixed, then feed the puppies with a baby bottle. Warm the mixture slightly before feeding. Leftovers can be kept in the refrigerator for up to seven days.
Check mama’s breasts for any signs of mastitis, a common infection in lactating dogs. All ten of her mammary glands should be soft and cool to the touch. Tenderness, redness, and heat are indicators of an infection.
Only help when help is needed
Although your dog will appreciate your love and encouragement during her pregnancy, whelping and soon after, she is fully capable of giving birth alone. If you get too involved in the experience, she may become agitated or uninterested in her puppies because they are taking your attention away from her. Unless the mama is having trouble, you should sit back and enjoy the show. Remember how it felt when your mother-in-law wanted to be in the delivery room? Don’t put your dog through this unless there is an obvious need to help with the birth.
If you have children, they can watch, but should not be allowed to approach the whelping pen or touch the puppies. The mama will be overly protective of her brood and likely won’t want to have her puppies handled by anyone for several weeks.