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Is my dog pregnant?

In the days before high walls and fences in South Africa, it was quite common for dogs to roam around freely in cities and towns; and it was not uncommon to discover out of the blue, that your female dog at home may be pregnant without you knowing how she fell pregnant.

Having said that, in those days most people who had an un-spayed (unsterilized) bitch at home, would have known very well that she was “in season” or “on heat”, which is the time the female dog is ready to ovulate and mate, because the whole neighbourhoods’ male dogs would have been howling at the door for “a piece of the action”.

Male dogs can smell bitches in heat up to 3 kilometres away and not spaying a female dog you do not want to breed with, can leave intact male dogs in agony because of nature’s drive to mate when there is a female in season. Some of this is still happening in informal settlements in South Africa in this day and age and therefore there is strong drive from welfare and community-driven organisations like the Community Veterinary Clinics of the South African Veterinary Association, to sterilise as many pets as possible and prevent unwanted litters.

These days, most people who do not sterilise their pets, because they are planning to breed with them, will know exactly when their bitches are on heat and will have full knowledge of when the mating takes place and when the puppies can be expected.

Bitches are usually on heat for 10 to 14 days. In the first week, they are very attractive to male dogs but, will not allow mating and even turn around and try to bite male dogs who try to mate with them. The second week of being on heat they are as attractive to male dogs as the first and will readily allow a male dog to mate with them and even seek out a male to mate with during this time period.

It is quite possible for a bitch to mate several times in the second week of their heat season. It is also possible for a litter of puppies to have different fathers. The male dog’s sperm can stay active inside the female dog’s genital tract for up to 7 days after mating.  

How long is pregnancy in dogs?

Dogs have a gestation period or said in another way, dogs are on average pregnant for 63 days.  

How do I know my dog is pregnant or how far my dog is pregnant?

If one is not sure whether your female dog was covered (or mated) with a male dog when she was on heat, there are other ways to confirm the pregnancy. To diagnose the pregnancy, an ultrasound can be performed from the 25th day after breeding. Alternatively, blood progesterone levels can be measured from the 34th day onwards. The average duration of pregnancy is 63-64 days from the date of breeding but can range from 56 to 72 days.

At around the Day 45, the vet may recommend that you bring your bitch for a check-up and X-rays, to determine how many puppies she is carrying. An ultrasound is not a reliable way to determine how many puppies your bitch is carrying and the fail-safe method to determine the number of puppies in a pregnancy, is through  X-ray.

What happens before my dog gives birth?

As the pregnancy progresses, you will notice that your bitch will gradually start eating more than usual and will start eating a lot more once the puppies are born and nursing from her. Do make provision for the requirement of more food for her but, try to feed her smaller meals more often rather, than one or two large meals per day. A small or medium breed (not large breed) puppy food from a reputable brand will provide her with all the nutrients she needs during this time. Do not give her any supplements without discussing it with a vet first. Supplementing with, for example, calcium or vitamin D can actually increase the risk of complications and is usually not recommended.

Two weeks before her estimated due date, purchase a thermometer from any pharmacy and start taking her rectal temperature at the same time every day; ideally twice a day. The tip of the thermometer can be lubricated with K-Y jelly or similar inert lubricant before being inserted into the rear end. A temperature of between 37.5°C and 39.5°C is normal for a dog. Yes, dogs are on average 1.5 °C  warmer than humans. Typically the bitch’s temperature will suddenly drop by 1 to 3°C, 12 to 24 hours before she goes into labour.

Whelping – what is normal?

Most dogs are able to give birth naturally without any assistance or complications but it is useful to know what to expect and when intervention is needed.

When the whelping process begins, the bitch will first enter stage 1 of labour, where her cervix begins to dilate to allow the puppies to pass through the birth canal. She will appear restless and uncomfortable – pacing, shivering, panting and whining. She will probably not eat and may even vomit. She may also search for a quiet, secluded spot and create a nest to whelp in. This stage can last anything from 3 to 24 hours.

Thereafter the bitch will enter stage 2 of labour, where the placental sacs tear and release straw-coloured fluid (her “water breaks”) and uterine contractions begin. Each puppy has its own set of foetal membranes. The puppies are delivered, on average, every 30 to 60 minutes. The bitch may also “rest” between puppies for to 4 to 6 hours, during which no contractions occur. Once a puppy is delivered, its mother will bite off its umbilical cord and lick it clean – it is important that she is allowed to do this as it stimulates the puppy’s breathing and helps the mother to bond with the puppy and produce milk.

If the mother doesn’t perform these crucial steps within 3 minutes you may have to intervene and do it yourself. Use some clean thread to tie a tight knot around the umbilical cord approximately 2.5cm away from the puppy. Use a clean pair of scissors to cut the umbilical cord about 1cm away from the knot towards the bitch’s end. Clear all the membranes and fluid away from the puppy’s face, nose and mouth and rub its body vigorously with a soft, dry towel to stimulate breathing. Check that the puppy is alive by feeling for a heartbeat. Place your index finger (not your thumb) behind the puppy’s elbow for a few moments – if it is alive you will feel the heartbeat against your finger. If the puppy has a heartbeat but isn’t breathing, be patient, it may take up to 10 minutes to start breathing. If you need to help more than one puppy in this way, use a separate clean, dry, soft towel for each puppy. The puppies are very slippery when born and using a wet towel will make them even more slippery – you don’t want a puppy slipping out of your hands and falling.

The mother usually eats the afterbirth and this behaviour is normal, so do not interfere with this process or try and deter her from eating it.

Stage 3 starts once the puppy is delivered and ends when its foetal membranes are expelled. The bitch will alternate between stage 2 and 3 when there is more than one puppy.

How involved do I need to be in the whelping process?

It is important to understand that a bitch can interrupt the whelping process if she is frightened, nervous or disturbed. You will thus need to provide her with a quiet, secluded spot in which to whelp and keep disturbances to a minimum.

Check on her every few minutes and only disturb her when absolutely necessary. If either you or the bitch are generally nervous or anxious and you are worried that it will interfere with the whelping process, contact the vet and discuss it with us. In some instances it might be better for everyone to have the bitch hospitalised and the process monitored by professionals.

The puppies should be left with their mother at all times and handled as little as possible. Newborn puppies are very cute and the temptation to cuddle them is often very high, but handling them too much will affect the bonding process with their mother negatively.

When should you call the vet?

Phone your vet as soon as possible when you notice any of the following:

  • 20 to 30 minutes of active contractions but no puppy is delivered
  • More than 4 hours pass since the birth of the last puppy and you suspect or know that there are more
  • No puppies have been delivered 24 to 36 hours after the rectal temperature has dropped
  • The bitch cries and licks or bites at her rear end during whelping
  • The bitch fails to enter stage 2 of labour after 8 to 12 hours of being in stage 1
  • The pregnancy progresses beyond the due date – beyond 70-72 days from the first breeding.
  • No puppies are born 2 hours after lochia or water-like discharges were first seen (see below)

Discharges of different colours– what is normal and when should you worry?

Greenish, with or without small amounts of blood: As the bitch enters stage 2, the uterus (womb) and the placenta surrounding the foetus separate from each other to allow the foetus to be born and the placenta to be expelled. This causes the greenish discharge, called lochia, and is normal.

Watery or egg white-like: Indicates that the bitch is starting to give birth. You may even see a water-filled bubble or balloon protruding from the vulva. These are the fluids that surrounded the foetus during its development and are normal.

Red: It is normal for the lochia to contain small amounts of blood. If you think that there is a lot of blood or are worried about anything, rather phone the vet and discuss it with us. Once whelping is completed, the bitch may have a bloody discharge for up to 6 weeks. This is due to the uterus involuting i.e. reconstructing and shrinking back to its pre-pregnancy size and state.

The bitch should have a normal temperature and not be showing any signs of illness during the time – if this is not the case she needs to be examined by a vet as soon as possible.

Stinky, yellowish-white or brown: The discharge contains pus, which indicates there is an infection in either the uterus or vagina. This is not normal and the bitch should be brought in to the vet for examination as soon as possible.

The birth of new puppies is a wonderful experience to go through and with the correct information at hand, you will be able to know when to assist your bitch or when to just leave her and let nature take its course.

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