Birth and Breastfeeding for Dogs
The birth of new puppies is always a very special occasion even for experienced breeders. But how does the process of dogs giving birth actually work? What problems can emerge when breastfeeding the puppies and how can the owner support their female dog during this full-on phase?
Dog owners expecting their dog to give birth for the first time often find themselves in a state of panic in the last few days before the litter is due. After all, they want to make things as pleasant as possible for their dog and avoid complications arising with the birth. Even if you have bought a puppy from an existing litter, the time of the birth will be quite intense for you. Will the birth go well? Will all the puppies be healthy? Will breastfeeding work? It's clear that the better informed you are on the subject of the birth, the more relaxed you can be looking ahead to the joyous occasion.
Preparations for the birth
Pregnancy normally lasts an average of 63 days for dogs. However, gestation periods between 57 and 72 days are completely normal and should be no cause for concern – provided that your dog's general state of health is good. If this is the case, it's best not to intervene with the natural progression of the pregnancy and birth as far as possible. After all, dogs act much more instinctively than us humans. Females can sense exactly when something is serious and know themselves best of all what needs to be done, which is particularly evident in the preparatory phase just before the birth. Your dog will gradually become restless, pant more and fully devote itself to nesting.
Setting up a whelping box
In order to support your dog in its quest to establish a suitable “nest” for the offspring, you should set up a whelping box some time before the birth date (at least two weeks in advance). Set it up in a quiet heated area that isn't too bright. The ideal room temperature is around 24 degrees. It's also recommended to provide a dimmable infrared-heater as an additional source of warmth, under which the puppies can snuggle together at warm temperatures of 35 degrees. Old bedding, towels, washable sheets or if necessary newspaper are suitable base materials. Ensure that the base remains clean and dry. You should change soiled towels and sheets for new, clean towels if necessary during the birth too (possibly in between puppies).
The right pre-birth diet
Giving the mother the right diet has a vital influence on the health of the unborn puppies. The usual food is fine up until the fifth week of pregnancy. As with all dogs, this should be balanced and of good quality. The composition of the nutrients should be adapted to the individual needs of your dog, which vary depending on the breed, size, age, weight and activity level. A high amount of valuable protein (particularly meat) and sufficient vitamins and minerals provided by fruit and vegetables are crucial for healthy canine development, as well as plenty of fresh drinking water. From the sixth week of pregnancy, your dog's energy requirements gradually increase. Calorie intake should therefore go up by 15% every week until the birth. Ensure the protein content is increased and that the ratio of calcium to phosphorus is 1.4:1.
You should definitely not try to offset the increased energy requirements with a greater quantity of food, since weight gain can have negative consequences on the health of both the mother and the puppies. Indeed, most pregnant dogs can no longer even consume such large quantities of food, because the stomach volume is increasingly limited by the growth of the puppies. Choose an easily digestible food with high energy density in relation to quantity (e.g. puppy food). As well, split the daily intake into three to four small portions – this is easier to digest for the mother-to-be than a large meal.
How often does a pregnant dog need to go the vet?
Along with an adapted diet and arrangements in the home, regular trips to the vet are part of the ideal preparations for the birth. As well as the obligatory vaccinations against the main canine diseases, it can be recommended to also get your dog vaccinated against canine herpesvirus too, as this can be responsible for puppy deaths. In addition, pregnant dogs need to be dewormed around the 40th and 55th day of pregnancy. From the 50th day, it is also recommended that your dog undergoes an X-ray examination to establish the number of puppies. After all, multiple births of 15 puppies or more are not uncommon. When you know the exact number of puppies, you will have a reliable indication of when the birth is over. After an X-ray examination, you can also better prepare yourself for potential difficulties with the birth, especially with a smaller number of larger puppies.
When does it start? Signs of imminent birth
The end of pregnancy is signalled both on a physical level and in terms of your dog's behaviour too. The following signs indicate that birth is imminent:
- Nesting, restlessness, panting, trembling
- Avoiding food (around 24 hours before the birth)
- Teats become larger, sometimes lacteal secretion begins right away
- Swelling of the vulva
- Slightly slimy vaginal discharge
- Body temperature drops below 37° degrees
- Occasional diarrhoea or vomiting
- Gentle contractions
Regularly checking your dog's temperature is the safest method to establish whether it really is close to giving birth. You should take your dog's temperature rectally two to four times a day a week before the due date. If the temperature drops from 38° to 37° or less, the birth is imminent and you can expect the first puppies in the next 12 to 24 hours.
The three phases of birth
- The dilation phase
The indicated signals like restlessness, nesting behaviour, panting, shaking, wheezing, avoiding food, diarrhoea and occasional vomiting emerge on an interval basis around 6 to 24 hours before the birth and continue to increase in intensity. These hours in which the mother intensively prepares herself for the imminent birth are known as the “dilation phase”. Along with the recognisable external signs, there are also some physical changes to the dog during this phase that are necessary for the pregnancy to end smoothly. The cervix widens (dilation), cervical mucus comes loose (light vaginal discharge) and the first contractions commence. Once the waters have broken or the first pushing contractions start, the first puppy should be born around three to four hours later.
- The expulsion phase
Once the first puppy enters the cervical canal, abdominal pressure automatically sets in for the mother. In this expulsion phase, she usually lies on her side or pushes in a squat position. After two to four powerful contractions, the abdominal pressure will usually pass relatively easily. It doesn't matter with dogs whether the puppies are born head-first or in breech position. The puppies are generally born in 10 to 60-minute intervals, but longer intervals of up to two hours are also possible, especially for first-time mothers. As soon as the first puppy is born, the mother bites the surrounding membrane and separates the umbilical cord with her teeth.
- The post-partum phase
Around five minutes after the puppies are born, the placenta drops out and will be guzzled by the mother along with the amniotic fluid. This doesn't just keep the birthplace clean, but also offers hormonal support to the mother for lactation. It can also be the case that two or three puppies are born straight after one another and each placenta only drops out afterwards. The mother licks the young puppies in order to induce their breathing. The birth is over as soon as all puppies are born and the same number of placentas have dropped out. In general, this comes to pass in less than 12 hours.
How can humans help during the birth?
In contrast to us humans for whom support from a midwife or doctor makes giving birth much easier, dogs don't need any help. It's best to leave your dog in peace during the expulsion phase and to only intervene in emergencies. Support is required if the puppies are born in very quick succession and the mother is still occupied eating the membrane and placenta of the first-born. In this case, the breeder should free the later-born puppies from the membrane with a paper towel and separate the umbilical cord. This prevents the puppy from breathing in amniotic fluid. In addition, you can dry off the first-born puppies during the birth and place them in a separate basket with a warm bottle or position them directly on the mother's teats.
In order to check whether all the puppies have been born, you should count the number of puppies and placentas. It's important for these numbers to be identical, since a placenta that remains in the uterus can lead to the mother suffering from septicaemia.
The first milk
Once the puppies are born, milk automatically enters the mother's mammary ducts. Milk production is adapted to the number and appetite of the puppies, with nature ensuring that all puppies are adequately provided for. Drinking the first milk, also known as colostrum, is particularly important for the development of young dogs, since it contains important maternal antibodies and protects them from pathogens.
Although puppies are real home-lovers and completely helpless when they are born, they can generally find the mother's teats on their own. Despite being deaf and blind and their sense of smell not working well enough, they can sense the mother's teats with the help of their tactile perception and the instinctive oscillating movements her nipples make.
Close contact with the mother is essential for survival
In the first hours and days after they are born, close contact with the mother is essential for the puppies' survival – not just due to nourishing breast milk, but also to activate further bodily functions. The warmth of the mother's body ensures that the little ones don't get cold, since puppies are not yet able to regulate their own body temperature. If a puppy ventures too far from its mother, she retrieves it and places it in the middle of the litter again. As well, newborn puppies still cannot urinate and defecate on their own. Only the mother licking the puppies' abdominal area triggers their reflex to urinate and defecate. In order to keep the nest clean, the mother then licks up the excrement.
Breastfeeding and weight gain in the first few weeks
In the first few days and weeks of a puppy's life, its main occupations are sleeping and drinking, which are mostly carried out in sync. Puppies quickly gain weight thanks to nourishing mother's milk that provides them with all vital nutrients. In order to satisfy their hunger and suckling needs, puppies drink around 12 to 20 times per day in their first few weeks. Up until the age of four weeks, they still seek out their mother's teats around eight times per day. Only after the fifth to sixth week does their need to breastfeed increasingly start to fall, with five feeds per day proving sufficient. The mother's milk is generally enough up until then. In order to ensure that the puppies have gained enough weight, they should be weighed once every day. After just ten days, most puppies have already doubled their weight at birth. Once they are six weeks old, they should be 6 to 10 times heavier than the day they were born.
From what point do they need additional food?
As to when the puppies start to need additional food, this depends on the quantity of milk produced by the mother and their weight gain. Breeders generally start giving supplementary food between the third and sixth week of age. If you are unsure, you should discuss with your vet after around four weeks whether it is recommended to provide supplementary food. Puppy milk or a homemade broth made from water and dry puppy food that you can initially smear on their mouth or paws can be offered as a starter food along with mother's milk. From the eighth to tenth week of age, puppies can slowly and cautiously be introduced to conventional puppy food, which should consist of 80% meat.
Diet of lactating mothers
The diet of the mother in the first few weeks after the birth has a vital influence on the quality of her milk and thereby the health of the puppies. She needs significant quantities of protein and calcium for milk production, with her energy needs increasing by around 325% in comparison to normal. Hence, giving her additional mineral supplements can make sense. However, the nutrients should be well-balanced; too much or too little of a certain mineral or nutrient can lead to other substances not being processed in the right way by the body, causing deficiency symptoms. Observe the mother very carefully during this strenuous period. If she gains weight, notably abandons activity or her fur appears dull, you should arrange an appointment with your vet to be on the safe side.
Possible complications with the birth
Although Mother Nature provides ideal conditions for a good start to life, of course birth and breastfeeding aren't always problem-free. As an “observer” of the birth, the human's task is therefore to recognise when the natural process is in jeopardy and when they or a vet should intervene.
The following signs indicate problems with the birth and require veterinary attention:
- Extended gestation period accompanied by fever or a poor general state of health
- Fever, state of exhaustion or deterioration of the mother's general state of health during the birth
- Birth of the first puppy doesn't come to pass or more than two hours pass after the birth of the last puppy despite strong contractions
- Dark green vaginal discharge before the first puppy is born (amniotic fluid possibly contaminated)
When is a Caesarean required?
Possible causes of these complications are, for instance, contractions failing to materialise, a blocked passage (vagina too narrow or individual puppies too big), the birth canal not dilating enough or deformed puppies (e.g. hydrocephalus or deceased puppies). In all these cases, you should seek the assistance of a vet who can make the decision to go ahead with a Caesarean based on an ultrasound scan or X-ray. In such situations, a Caesarean section can save the lives of the mother and the puppies. On the other hand, it's not advisable to use medication such as oxytocin to encourage contractions for dogs.
Absence of maternal instinct
It's possible that the maternal instinct is limited after the birth, for instance, due to the anaesthetic after a Caesarean, fear or the mother's dissatisfaction with the nest. If the mother doesn't bite on the membrane, separate the umbilical cord and lick the anal region, human intervention is required. The membrane can be rubbed off with a paper towel and the puppies can be laid on the mother's teats. You should also intervene if you have the feeling that some puppies are being pushed aside and not getting enough of the vital first milk.
What problems can emerge with breastfeeding?
A lack of milk production, deficiency symptoms during the breast-feeding phase for the mother or swollen teats (mastitis) are the most common problems that can emerge during the breastfeeding phase in the first few weeks. The first signs are fever, reluctance to breastfeed, avoiding food or apathy. As soon as you recognise these symptoms, the puppies' weight stagnates or even decreases or the mother's general state of health worsens, you should definitely seek veterinary advice.
Trust nature and your expertise
Despite the large number of potential problems and complications, most births go smoothly. So stay as relaxed as possible and trust in nature and your dog's instincts. With knowledge of the individual birth phases and the possible difficulties, you now know when you should leave your dog in peace, how you can provide gentle assistance and when you should call your vet. We wish you all the best for the next birth!