What to Expect When Your Dog is Expecting
Whether you are looking to breed your dog, or you are faced with the surprise of an unplanned litter, this article is here to help, providing a comprehensive look at dog pregnancy from the reproductive cycle through whelping. For those of you looking to breed your dog, understanding the reproductive or heat cycle and the dog pregnancy calendar is crucial. Depending on the dog and the breed, they usually enter a heat cycle every 6 months, with each heat cycle lasting anywhere from 18-21 days.
There are 4 stages in a heat cycle.
Proestrus – This is the stage where you will notice changes in your dog and when we say the dog is ‘in heat’. Your dog is producing hormones in preparation for ovulation or releasing eggs. This stage can last anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. In this stage, male dogs will be attracted to your female, but she will not be receptive.
Estrus – Or ‘Heat’ is the next stage during which your dog will become receptive to mating with males. Estrogen levels first increase and then sharply decrease, releasing the mature eggs from the ovaries.
Diestrus – The stage following estrus, in which the female is no longer receptive to the male. The reproductive tract functions to support early pregnancy. The uterus becomes toned, and uterine contractions facilitate the establishment of pregnancy. The cervix elongates and closes, protecting the uterine environment.
Anestrus -In the event that your dog is not bred, the time between diestrus and the next proestrus is known as Anestrus. This stage will last about 4 months, though in certain breeds of dogs it can be longer.
How long are dogs pregnant?
The average canine pregnancy last around 9 weeks total or around 63 days from the date of ovulation. Far less than a human pregnancy, but no less miraculous in what can be achieved in such a relatively short space of time. Litter sizes vary, but on average most dogs carry and give birth to 5-6 puppies. Smaller breeds may have less (3 – 4 puppies), while in larger breeds up to 7-8 puppies is common.
It is possible for sperm from the male to live for days inside the female reproductive tract, and the egg is viable for around 48 hours, the act of mating isn’t a good predictor of time of conception.
If you are purposefully breeding your dog, keeping track of her hormone levels during the estrus part of her heat cycle will give you the most accurate due date. The use of vaginal smears and blood tests to monitor the reproductive hormones during estrus helps to determine the best time to breed your dog, as well as being able to predict a due date for the litter.
Canine Pregnancy Calendar Gestation length according to accurate hormone levels;
55-60 days from the first day of diestrus
66-70 days from the initial rise in progesterone
56-70 days from the first breeding
One thing to keep in mind is that it is possible for your dog to have different due dates if you are breeding her on consecutive days in her heat cycle.
As with any pregnancy, early detection is important to be able to access good prenatal care, as each day is critical in the development of the fetuses.
In the event that you suspect your dog is carrying an unplanned pregnancy, there is no way to accurately predict a due date for the litter without the help of an ultrasound. Also a dog pregnancy calculator will come in handy to find the due date.
How to Tell If A Dog is Pregnant
Very early signs of dog pregnancy can be difficult to spot and can easily be confused with something else. If your dog is showing signs that are out of the ordinary for her, seek the advice of your vet. If you suspect that your dog may be pregnant, your vet will be able to confirm that for you. If it is still too early in the pregnancy, your vet can give you signs and symptoms to be on the lookout for, and then schedule a checkup.
There are a few ways that a vet will check for possible pregnancy, although some will only be useful at a particular point in gestation.
There is a blood pregnancy test for dogs that measures the levels of a hormone called Relaxin. This is produced by the developing placenta following implantation of the embryos. It can be detected as early as 22-27 days post breeding. The level of Relaxin stays elevated throughout the pregnancy and declines rapidly after the birth of the puppies.
Palpation is the careful massaging of the dog’s abdomen to feel for the presence of puppies. Abdominal palpation should not be attempted without the assistance of a vet, as you run the risk of hurting the puppies in utero. Palpation can be performed as early as three weeks after breeding.
X-rays are the most effective way of determining if your dog is pregnant but they are not reliable until around 6 weeks gestation as the puppies’ skeletal systems will not be obvious enough until then. X-rays are also the most reliable predictor of how many puppies are in the litter.
An ultrasound can be performed as early as three weeks after mating. An ultrasound can detect fetal heartbeats, and this way your vet can estimate how many puppies there are in the litter. An ultrasound might allow your vet to make a prediction of your dog’ due date.
Stages of pregnancy Week by Week
By the end of the first week after mating, multiple fertilized embryos implant in the uterine wall. While this process does produce many internal hormonal fluctuations in your dog, many will not show any outward signs of pregnancy at this early stage. Continue to provide the same amount of food and keep a constant source of fresh water available for your dog. Also keep regular play and exercise schedules.
The embryos continue to develop but your dog does not need a lot of extra calories to make up for their growth. From this point until around day 35, your dog’s weight should remain the same. Be sure to monitor weight carefully as a drop in body weight could be a sign that the puppies are at risk.
To keep your dog comfortable and to help reduce stress, groom your dog regularly.
There still won’t be any outward changes in your dog’s appearance, and for this reason, unless suggested by your vet, it is both safe and recommended that you continue play and exercise activities. If you notice an increase in appetite, you can introduce a more food. You might begin to notice that your dog has slightly enlarged nipples.
If you have bred your dog and are keeping track, by week 4 it’s advisable to visit your vet, even if she looks fine. The vet can not only give your dog a clean bill of health but by the middle of this week, an ultrasound will be able to detect fetal heartbeats and may give a good estimate as to how many puppies are in the litter. An ultrasound will also be able to give you and your provider, a good idea of the overall health and development of the puppies at this stage. You may notice a decrease in your dog’s physical activity level at this point.
Puppy fetuses begin to put on weight quickly in the fifth week as embryogenesis ends, and organs begin to take shape. By the end of this week, you will have noticed an increase in your dog’s appetite, and she will have started putting on weight. To address the new calorie need for both the puppies and your dog, your vet can give you good advice for how much to be increasing her daily food intake. If you have been feeding your dog a high-quality dog food there should be no need to change her food at this point. All that’s required is an increase in the food made available to her.
Puppy development continues at a rapid rate and their organs and tissues are even more distinct. At this point in your dog’s pregnancy, you might want to change her food to one that is high-nutrition and high energy to ensure that you are meeting both your dog’s and the puppies’ nutritional needs. Due to discomfort as her pregnancy progresses, your dog might even have a decrease in appetite and feeding her a nutrient dense dog food will help to combat nutrient deficiency in either her or the puppies.
The countdown to birth has begun and now it is time to start preparing.
Set up a whelping box, or a birthing space in a quiet and clean spot for your dog that is out of the way of foot traffic. A whelping box or pen, or nesting box is designed to protect puppies during whelping and early life by keeping them contained to an area and protected from cold.
Ideally a whelping box should have sides high enough that the puppies cannot escape, but low enough that the mother can come and go as she chooses. Line the whelping box with puppy pads in case of accidents and clean towels for comfort. Introduce your dog to this space to get her used to it.
Just like expectant human moms pack bag to take with them to hospital when they deliver, you will want to gather a few things that you may need when your dog goes into labor. These are by no means a necessity, as your dog instinctively knows what to do when her puppies are born. It’s advisable for you not to try to help in any way if your dog is taking care of her pups, but there are times when your help might be needed.
CHECKLIST FOR BIRTH
- Clean towels or cloths
- Clean thread or unflavored dental floss
- Clean, sharp scissors
- Bulb syringe
- Vet’s number including an emergency contact number for after-hours help
In preparation for the birth of the puppies, your dog’s teats will begin to swell as milk production starts. If you choose to, you can trim the hair around the nipples and vulva. An X ray done at this time will be able to show how many puppies are in the litter.
By this week, puppy development is almost complete and they are ready to move into whelping position in the birth canal. You may notice your dog’s waistline begin to ‘trim’, as the puppies move into whelping position. Birth could happen any day now.
You might notice a distinct loss of appetite from your dog as she prepares for birth, as well as restless behavior, panting, shivering and pacing. Nesting behavior is common as well.
12-24 hours before the onset of labor there is usually a drop in your dog’s body temperature. To know when this drop occurs, take your dog’s temperature twice a day with a rectal thermometer for the last week of pregnancy. If you are unsure how to do this, your vet can show you. Keep in mind that obtaining the readings could be stressful to your dog, and if she begins to show any signs of this, then stop.
In the days before labor it is important to keep your dog as relaxed as possible. Soothing voices and lots of love will help ease some of the stress your dog will undoubtably be feeling.
Day 7 Embryo travels to the uterus
Day 16 Embryo embeds in uterine lining
Day 22 Fetus begins to take shape
Day 28-30 Fetal heartbeat can be detected by ultrasound
Day 32 Eyelids form
Day 35 Toes can be seen. Embryogenesis ends and distinct organs have begun to form
Day 40 Claws form
Day 45 Skeleton begins to form
Day 50 An X ray will show how many puppies to expect
Day 58 Puppy development is almost complete. Puppies move into whelping position in the birth canal.
There are three stages of labor;
The first stage can last anywhere between 6 and 24 hours and is often not very noticeable. Contractions of the uterine lining begin and increase, in both frequency and strength as stage 1 progresses. The birth canal will relax and the cervix will soften.
Things to keep an eye out for;
- Change in your dog’s behavior
- Your dog is restless
- Your dog is being reclusive
- Your dog is displaying nesting behavior
- Your dog is refusing food
Stage 2 is where the puppies are born. You will be able to see visible abdominal contractions as well as pushing. Nature has instinctively given your dog the ability to birth the puppies without your help. Unless there appears to be a problem, it is best to leave her to birth the puppies alone in the space set up for her. It is possible for your dog to involuntarily stop giving birth if she is disturbed. It may take several hours of hard abdominal contractions to see fetal tissue protruding from your dog’s vulva. Once you see the fetal tissue, your dog should deliver the puppy in around 30 minutes. Most dogs will deliver a puppy every 30 – 60 minutes but it can take up to an hour or two between puppies.
Depending on the number of puppies your dog is carrying, it is also possible for her to deliver several, and then take a break before delivering the rest.
With good prenatal care for your dog, you will already know how many puppies to expect, and with that knowledge, an estimated time that it should take your dog to whelp them. If at any point you are unsure about how the birthing is progressing, or if too much time has elapsed between births, call your vet.
The puppies will be born covered in a membrane that your dog will most likely rupture herself. In the event that she does not, you can step in. Puppies should be dried with a clean towel and all fluid wiped clean from the nose and mouth area. You can use a bulb syringe for this if you have one. Rub the puppy vigorously with the towel to stimulate breathing. If your dog does not sever the umbilical cord herself, you will have to do it. After about 5-10 minutes, tie the umbilical cord in two places with thread or unflavored dental floss. The closest tie should be one to two inches away from the puppy’s body. Cut between the ties with a clean pair of scissors. Carefully clean the puppy’s exposed cord with iodine.
Leave the puppies with your dog. They need her for warmth and physical contact, even if she does not allow them to nurse right away.
The third stage of labor is the expelling of the placenta. Stage 2 and 3 can run together, as dogs typically expel the placenta for each puppy after it is born. Keep count to make sure that a placenta has been expelled for each puppy delivered, as a placenta left inside the uterus may cause an infection.
TO EAT OR NOT TO EAT? Opinions are divided on whether your dog should be allowed to eat the placenta. It will not harm your dog to eat placentae, nor is she missing out on any vital nutrients if you remove the placentae after birth. If you have questions about this, ask your vet for his/her recommendation.
While your dog may instinctively know what to do, and might not need any help from you during the whelping process it is a good idea to be close by. Your presence may be calming for her and help to alleviate some of the stress she feels.
As with any pregnancy and delivery, there is the possibility of complications arising. While the vast majority of deliveries occur without any issues, there are a few things to be on the lookout for. All of these are potentially major complications that put both the lives of your dog and her puppies at risk, and require urgent veterinary care.
Uterine Inertia (more common in smaller dogs)
This happens when the puppies are ready to be born, the cervix opens, and your dog either doesn’t or can’t push. Very small litters, exhaustion, or calcium levels that are too low could be possible causes.
Dystocia is a failure to give birth. This can happen when a puppy has not descended far enough into the birth canal, or is stuck. Both mother and puppy can die from this.
This is blood calcium levels that are dangerously low. In a lot of cases it occurs a few weeks after birth, but it can happen at the time of labor, and cause the above mentioned, uterine inertia or dystocia. A major cause is too much calcium in your dog’s diet during her pregnancy, leading to your dog’s body being unable to regulate calcium efficiently around the birth, and when the puppies start suckling. This causes the calcium levels to drop too far.
Unfortunately, this condition looks very much like the onset of labor with panting and restlessness as symptoms. The difference is that it progresses from panting and restlessness, to tremors, collapse, and seizures. This condition requires immediate veterinary intervention.
AFTER BIRTH DOG AND PUPPY CARE
The puppies need to nurse within two hours of the completion of whelping. Just like for human babies, the colostrum, or first milk, they receive from the mother is very important both for providing immunity to diseases as well as keeping the puppies warm.
The place set aside for your dog to whelp should be kept at around 85 degrees so ensure that the puppies stay warm.
Your dog may have a green to red-brown discharge from her vulva for a few weeks after whelping. This is normal and not of concern unless she is showing signs of illness or if the discharge is foul smelling.
Continue to monitor your dog’s temperature for a few weeks after whelping. It is normal for it to be elevated for a few days after whelping.
Inspect your dog’s teats and mammary glands daily to check for the presence of milk and if there is any welling, pain or discharge.
Puppies should be weighed at birth and then daily after that. It is normal for them to have a drop in weight right after birth but they should steadily gain in the days after. The puppy’s birth weight should double in the first 2 weeks.
Always have your vet’s number close by. A few things that you should definitely make that call for are;
- Your dog has started labor, but it is not progressing within the times stated above
- Your dog strains without producing any puppies for over an hour
- Your dog’s rectal temperature dropped over 24 hours ago and active labor hasn’t started
- Your dog appears ill; lethargic, depressed, feverish
- You are not sure if your dog is done whelping or has not delivered placenta
- The puppies are not breathing well on their own, or are not able to suckle
- If you have any other questions or concerns
Whether your dog’s pregnancy is the result of a planned breeding or not, with knowledge, planning and good veterinary care, you can do your best to ensure a healthy outcome for both your dog and her puppies.