Cats, Rats and Dead Puppies

What do dead puppies have to do with cats and rats?  More than you might at first suspect!

Most breeders wouldn’t be too alarmed about having one or two puppies either born dead or too weak to survive in a litter.  It’s almost normal and usually put down to luck.  After all, birth is an arduous process that even healthy puppies do not always survive.  There are lots of possible explanations. A pup can be poorly presented in the birth canal, a bit bigger than normal, or breech and so take overly long to deliver.   So too for puppies born to a tired bitch or one with uterine eclampsia (weak or absent contractions due to calcium deficiency).   And raising puppies is a numbers game – the more litters you have under your belt, the more likely you are to encounter puppies who don’t make it due to a suspected congenital abnormality.   But if your bitch has also delivered significantly earlier than anticipated, dead puppies can be a sign of serious disease.

Prematurely early delivery – that is canine abortion or miscarriage – is a problem that is likely to strike anyone who has been breeding more than a few years.

We are lucky in Australia that we don’t have canine brucellosis here.  It is notorious in many countries for causing fetal death and subsequent abortion in susceptible dogs, or even “abortion storms” of dead puppies where several pregnancies are lost at the same time in an affected kennel.   But there are other diseases that can lead to similar scenarios, and this is where rats and cats come in.

Several years ago my two girls Dolly and Whisper (they were my whole “kennel” at the time) both slipped their litters at 7 weeks.   From that point on they were unable to complete a pregnancy to full term.  Vaginal swabs did not reveal anything out of the ordinary.  So what was going on?

When another bitch of mine, Jessie, gave birth to dead puppies two weeks prematurely many years later, I decided to look deeper into what might be causing it.  One thing I noticed one morning was how she loved to nose around in the sand patch.

When I investigated I found that she was looking for cat poo to eat.  Uuuugh.  And what can dogs catch from cat poo?  Toxoplasmosis.  It fit the symptoms so I embarked on a rigorous medication regime to rid Jessie of her infection.  Six months later she successfully birthed a small but viable litter.

So try to prevent your dogs from eating cat poo.  Is your own cat likely to be the culprit?  It’s possible, but only temporarily.  Cats only shed the infective stage – the eggs or oocytes – for a week or so after they first ingest the parasite in infected meat, birds or rodents.  After that they are clear.

The eggs, however, can remain viable in cool, damp places for up to a year.   Your dog or you can also get the disease from eating fresh raw meat, especially pork.   If you like to feed your dogs raw, as I do, freeze the meat first to kill any larvae that may be in it.

Now, onto the rats.  

A couple of years back we suffered a plague of rats in our area.   At the same time one of my girls was nearing the end of her pregnancy and I had started to chart her temperature a week beforehand in preparation for the big day.  One morning, instead of the expected drop that normally precedes the birth, I was alarmed to see that her temperature had soared to 39.5C (103.1F).  And by my calculations she still had 5 days or so to go.  I gave her some antibiotics and crossed my fingers, but within a few hours she started labour.  Long story short, all but one of the puppies were born dead.  They were obviously premature, small and with little hair covering their bodies.  The single live born baby was weak and sadly only lasted a few days.

In this case I suspect Leptospirosis may have been the culprit.  Commonly carried by rats, Leptospirosis can infect dogs when they drink from contaminated water.  We had just had an unseasonal summer downpour and with the rat plague there was likely puddles contaminated by rat urine all over the place.  We soon had the rats under control but too late to save that litter.  The good news is that, unlike Toxoplasmosis, there is a vaccine for dogs available to protect them against infection with Leptospirosis.

There are heaps of other possible causes of a whelping ending in dead puppies.  Quite a variety of common bacteria can have this effect under the right conditions.  Canine herpes virus too can be shed by clinically normal dogs and rapidly kill whole litters of very young puppies.  Normal antiseptics and basic hygiene remain the best means of prevention.  Also be careful of using chemicals on, in or around your bitch during pregnancy.  Always check the label, and avoid use if you can as many are toxic to developing embryos.  Click here for more tips on puppy care and avoiding fading puppy syndrome.