A dog pregnancy cannot be compared to a human pregnancy: the differences between the human and canine gestation periods are too great. Understanding the distinctive features of canine gestation is key to making pregnancy as risk-free and healthy for both the bitch and the puppies.
Unless you’re breeding purebreds, avoid a dog pregnancy if at all possible: too many unwanted dogs are destroyed in animal shelters already. If you don’t want a dog pregnancy, please have your bitch spayed, or consider aborting the pregnancy if it catches you by surprise.
The Canine Gestation Period
Most dogs go into “heat” (estrus) twice a year. During this period of heat, the bitch is highly receptive to breeding. Although most bitches are usually fertile for five to nine days, some can remain fertile for as long as twenty days.
The canine gestation period lasts approximately 63 days from conception to whelping (or birthing) of the puppies. Like humans, the canine gestation period is flexible ranging from 54 to 74 weeks of pregnancy.
Signs of Dog Pregnancy
Signs of dog pregnancy include “nesting” behavior, which includes any behavior that indicates that the dog is creating a safe, comfortable place for herself somewhere in your home. She may also “adopt” a toy. However, both of these behaviors can also be signs of a false pregnancy. An increase in appetite is usually a better indicator of dog pregnancy.
If you suspect pregnancy, schedule a veterinary visit for approximately twenty days after the estimated time of conception. The veterinarian may be able to detect uterine swelling twenty to thirty days into a dog pregnancy. After thirty days this becomes more difficult, and may not be possible if the dog is large or obese.
Ultrasound may detect a dog pregnancy, and fetal heartbeats can be detected as early as 25 days into the canine gestation period. A blood test to detect the hormone relaxin can also confirm a canine pregnancy.
By day 45, fetal skeletons are visible on an x-ray, giving you some idea of how many puppies to expect during whelping.
Dog Pregnancy: Care and Feeding
The canine gestation period increases the expectant mother’s appetite. While she can be fed normally for the first thirty days of pregnancy, she will need to be switched to a high-calorie food for the remainder of the gestation period.
Veterinarians recommend a good quality puppy food approved for dog pregnancy and nursing. Her calorie needs will double during the gestation period, and triple or quadruple while nursing her puppies.
Although some dog owners are tempted to provide calcium supplementation during a dog pregnancy, this is not recommended. Calcium supplements during the canine gestation period suppress hormones that naturally release calcium, which can lead to hypocalcemia while nursing. Hypocalcemia is a serious calcium deficiency, which causes muscle weakness and seizures in the nursing bitch.
Dogs can be exercised throughout the canine gestation period, although milder exercise is recommended as the pregnancy approaches term. In the last three weeks of pregnancy, isolate the mother from all other dogs (this includes walks in public areas).
Isolation prevents the mother from catching canine herpes. While the virus causes only cold-like symptoms in adult dogs, it is dangerous during a dog pregnancy. Canine herpes can result in spontaneous abortion, stillbirth, and death in newborn puppies.
Vaccinations and Dog Pregnancy
If you’re planning a dog pregnancy, vaccinations are best administered just prior to breeding. Puppies will then receive some measure of immunity through their mother’s milk. However, vaccinations should not be administered if signs of dog pregnancy are already apparent because they can damage the developing puppies.
Whelping Puppies: Labor and Birth
Whelping usually occurs at home, but have your veterinarian’s emergency number at hand in case of an emergency. About two weeks before the end of the canine gestation period, provide your dog with a whelping box in a private area of the house. The whelping box should:
- be high enough to prevent the puppies from getting out, but low enough that the mother can enter and exit easily.
- have a ledge running around the inside that the puppies can squeeze under to prevent from suffocating under the mother.
- be lined with towels.
- In the week before the mother’s due date, record her rectal temperature every day. Normal rectal temperature falls between 100 ° and 102.5 ° F. Approximately 24 hours prior to whelping, the temperature will drop to below 100 ° F.
Stages of Labor
Like humans, canine labor is characterized by three stages:
- The first stage: During the first stage of labor, the cervix dilates. The dog may experience some contractions, and owners may notice she is restless, shivering and seeking privacy. This is a good time to move her to the whelping box. Her appetite will diminish, and she may vomit. Generally, the first stage of labor lasts six to twelve hours.
- Second stage: The second stage of labor is the actual whelping. After ten to twenty minutes of active labor, a pup will be delivered. Puppies may be born head first or breach; either position is normal.
- Third stage: After a pup is delivered, the placenta is expelled. Stages two and three tend to alternate until all the pups are delivered, although sometimes a mother whelps two puppies and then expels two placentas. Between birthing puppies, the mother may rest for up to four hours.
Puppies are born with their amniotic sac intact. Usually, the mother will tear open the sac and chew off the umbilical cord. If she does not do this after two minutes, step in to open the sac so the puppy can breathe.
Gently rupture the amniotic sac and dry the puppy with a towel, rubbing near the umbilical cord to stimulate breathing. You can clear fluid from the nose with a child’s nasal aspirator.
Use dental floss to tie the umbilical cord about an inch from the puppy, and cut the cord with scissors. Whelping is messy, so be sure to wear clothes you can throw out afterward.
Dog Pregnancy Complications
Most whelping goes smoothly, but on occasion veterinary assistance is helpful. Call your veterinarian if:
- labor does not begin within a day of the rectal temperature drop.
- more than four hours pass between puppies.
- no pup appears after an hour of contractions.
- the canine gestation period lasts more than seventy days.
- the mother is in extreme pain.