Dog Pregnancy: What to Expect
Bringing new life into the world is a big responsibility—especially when that new life is a litter of grandpuppies! Choosing to let your dog get pregnant is a serious decision, one that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Lonna J. Nielsen, DVM, of Winterset Veterinary Center in Winterset, Iowa, highly encourages spaying and neutering dogs and says dog pregnancy and having puppies “should never be considered as a moneymaker. Many folks are not prepared for the amount of work or the cost of having a litter of puppies,” she says. “I do not recommend it.”
As a responsible dog owner, if you do choose to have puppies, you want to ensure the best of care for your female dog and for her offspring. Here, we offer an overview of how to care for your pregnant pooch; what to expect during dog pregnancy, delivery, and recovery; and how to get the new puppies started with excellent care.
Pregnancy Signs & Symptoms
While you can’t just run out to the doggie drugstore and grab a pregnancy test off the shelf, you can spot some tell-tale signs and symptoms during the early weeks of canine pregnancy—changes in appetite and energy levels, even morning sickness. A veterinarian can confirm the pregnancy about four weeks into gestation with a blood test to check hormone levels or with an ultrasound to see heartbeats.
Nielsen says x-rays are also an option once the fetus’ skeletons have formed and solidified. “But they are not recommended. Just like with humans, we want to avoid the dogs’ exposure to x-rays,” she says. “Ultrasound is preferred,” but keep in mind that while the procedure can confirm the pregnancy, it likely won’t be able to give you an accurate count of how many puppies to expect. “It is hard to count all those tiny spines or heartbeats when they are all piled in there and mom is lying on her side,” she says.
Nielsen says prior to breeding, your dog should be up-to-date on all her vaccines and be on a regimen of flea/tick and heartworm preventatives. Once a dog is pregnant, nutrition is the key concern. “Always have mom on puppy food during gestation and nursing,” Nielsen says. A good quality puppy food will provide all the nutritional needs for the pregnancy. “Be sure to have plenty of food available for high-demand times,” Nielsen says, noting that as her pregnancy progresses your dog’s appetite will increase and her eating habits may change from one or two large meals a day to several smaller meals.
Stages of Dog Pregnancy
Compared to the 40 weeks of human gestation, a dog’s pregnancy is remarkably short—“62 to 65 days,” Nielsen says, and the fetal development happens at a rapid pace over those two months. Be sure to have a conversation with your vet about warning signs during pregnancy—you want to know what things are normal (weight gain, low energy) and what should be a cause for concern. Nielsen reiterates that “it’s crucial that Mom eats well throughout her pregnancy.”
“I take a very practical approach,” Nielsen says of pregnancy and whelping. “Nature takes care and we step in and help if needed. Dogs have been having litters for a long time.” That said, she suggests you prepare yourself and your home for the arrival of your dog’s litter. You should be ready for a number of scenarios: “Know who you will call if she has trouble in delivery and it’s after hours for your vet. What will you do if Mom doesn’t care for the pups or doesn’t want to nurse them? What if she gets sick or dies? Talk to your vet about what to have on hand and a plan in case one of those things comes to pass.”
As the time for whelping gets closer, your dog will begin looking for and preparing a nest. Help her find a secluded, quiet, not-high-traffic space where she can feel safe and secure. You want to offer her a box or crate or other contained area lined with newspaper and bedding that can be discarded after the birth. “Some people do kiddie pools with blankets. It gives enough space for Mom and keeps the puppies contained in the first few weeks,” Nielsen says. Be sure to talk to your vet about the whelping process, what is normal, when and how you should help, and when it’s time to call the vet.
Once labor begins, Nielsen says to keep an eye on your dog, but don’t add to her stress. “If Mom is in good shape—well fed, not too old, she’s calm, and you aren’t freaking her out by having the whole family and all the neighbors over to watch—most often it all goes off without a hitch,” she says.
One way to help your dog stay calm is for you to know what’s normal and what should cause concern. For example, “there is a dark greenish discharge when each placenta separates,” Nielsen says. “This is normal and it comes with each puppy.” It’s also normal for dogs to be born head or tail first—but they come down the birth canal one at a time.
The first puppy can take a few hours to be born. “You might see a tail and feet in the birth canal, but keep in mind the very first puppy can take a while. But if she is not making progress after a few hours, call your vet,” Nielsen says. After the first puppy arrives, the pace might pick up considerably. “She can have all of the litter in two hours,” Nielsen says. Or it might take many hours—every whelping is different. “If she’s in obvious distress or you know her breed has problems with delivery, contact your vet,” she says.
During the delivery, you may want to lend a helping hand. Ideally, your dog will break the fetal sacks that surround each puppy. Many dogs will eat the sacks. “This is all natural and it’s her instinct to do it,” Nielsen says. “But if she eats them all, she will get massive diarrhea the next day.” She suggests letting your dog do as her instincts tell her with the first puppy, then you should take the other sacks after she opens them and before she can eat them to save her from an upset tummy.
“Let Mom lick the new puppies to stimulate them—it helps her milk come in and is part of their bonding,” Nielsen says. “If your dog has misaligned teeth, you might tie off the puppies’ umbilical cords a few inches from their bellies and cut the cords above the ties (leave the tie—string or dental floss work well—and below to the belly). Mom’s mismatched bite can cause damage to the puppies when she tries to bite and sever the cords.”
Beware: While many dogs take to motherhood naturally, not every doggy gets the mommy memo—some dogs run away or even try to eat their pups. “If she’s not into it and she doesn’t open each sack, you can reach in and easily tear the sack open with your hand. Have old towels on hand and vigorously (but carefully) rub each puppy just like Mom would lick them to stimulate each one and get them breathing.”
After the whelping is done, your dog will be exhausted but caring for her litter. “If all is well, she should finish and have milk and happy puppies who are not crying or whining,” Nielsen says. “And sometimes, you think she’s had all her pups and then 12 to 14 hours later there’s suddenly another one!”
Replace the ruined bedding in her nest with fresh, clean blankets or towels and make sure she has easy access to food and water. “After the birth, she’ll have discharge for 3 to 5 days,” Nielsen says, so be ready to replace the bedding regularly.
Keep a close eye on your dog’s condition in the hours and days after whelping: “If she’s not feeling well—gets a fever, is lethargic, is not eating—call the vet,” Nielsen says. “Sometimes a dog’s blood calcium level drops—a condition called eclampsia or ‘milk fever.’ Basically, Mom gets malnutrition and can’t stand up. Don’t ignore this! Call your vet immediately.”
New Puppy Care
Caring for newborn puppies takes a village. There are many things to do in the weeks between birth and puppies going to their new homes, and visits to the veterinarian are some of the most important. “Puppies should have shots before 8 weeks of age and every month until they are four months old,” Nielsen says. “Also, they should be dewormed two to three times while they are with their mother.”
The best time to send puppies to their new home, Nielsen says, is “two weeks after their first round of shots so that immunity has had time to develop. Six to 8 weeks old is ideal.”
Another consideration to discuss with your veterinarian is the removal of dewclaws and tail. “Yorkies, for example, are born with tails,” Nielsen says, pointing out that the breed standard is a docked tail. If you have a litter of puppies buyers expect to have docked tails, “they must be removed by the time the puppy is 5 days old,” she says. “After that, the procedure requires full anesthesia and is a much bigger deal.”
As a loving, responsible pet owner, you want to give your dog the best pregnancy and whelping experience possible as well as start her litter off in life with the best of care. Remember to have conversations with your vet prior to delivery day (and even before breeding if possible) to prepare yourself and your home so you are ready to enjoy an adorable litter of roly-poly grandpuppies.