Demystifying Eclampsia – Hypocalcemia – Milk Fever in the Bitch

Today, I’m going to talk about eclampsia or milk fever in the bitch, which is  basically calcium deficiency (hypocalcemia).

It’s a very, very common issue and one you will probably encounter sooner or later once you’ve been breeding for a while.

What Causes Milk Fever or Eclampsia in the Bitch?

Milk Fever/Eclampsia is actually a lack readily available calcium.  It commonly affects bitches anywhere from whelping on,  especially a couple of few weeks after whelping.  The demands on their body of this time for calcium are high.

Hypocalcemia is a common disease that can kill a bitch very quickly but is sometimes not readily understood by breeders and some vets.

Now, the first thing about calcium is that calcium metabolism is actually controlled by a hormone called parathyroid hormone and parathyroid hormone allows the bitch to mine calcium out of her own bones if she doesn’t have sufficient in her diet or her day-to-day needs at the time.

A diet very rich in calcium turns down the levels of parathyroid hormone in the body.  If this occurs during pregnancy the bitch can be in trouble. Whelping and lactation soon deplete the available calcium.  With little parathyroid hormone on hand, she is unable to make it up by getting  that calcium out of her bones and goes into hypocalcemia (low blood calcium).  This can kill them.

Symptoms of Milk Fever or Eclampsia in the Bitch

One of the very first signs is not eating, inappetence. You may also see, when you take them for a walk, that their gait is strange. You might hear a clicking of their hips as they walk too.

As hypocalcemia progresses, they froth at the mouth a bit and they can go into tremors. You can feel tremors on their skin.

If not treated, the bitch will go into full on seizures and then they can die.

How to Prevent Milk Fever or Eclampsia in the Bitch

Milk Fever or Eclampsia in the Bitch is a especially a problem for people who supplement calcium during pregnancy. So definitely, don’t do that!  High dietary calcium will switch off parathyroid hormone and the bitch won’t then be able to access calcium from the stores in her bones when she needs it.  Wait until whelping and lactation to supplement with calcium.

Hypocalcemia during lactation can also happen with bitches that are on a raw meaty bone diet, because it is naturally rich in calcium.

Management of Eclampsia/Milk Fever/Hypocalcemia in the Dog

Now one of the very first signs of calcium deficiency coming up is when you’re taking the bitch’s temperature for her Whelping Temperature Chart [which I always do. In fact, if you want to download the chart for free, you can get it here]

The normal temperature for a bitch is between 37.9 and 39 C [100 and 102 F]. But 24 hours before she gives birth, her temperature will drop down way below that to under 37.5 C [99.5F].  That gives you a warning that within 24 hours she’s likely to have pups.

But in a bitch that is on the verge of eclampsia, her temperature will tend to dip into that low temperature region days before whelping.  Then it goes back up to normal again, and is likely to dip back down again a few times as “false alarms”. So the pre-eclampsia bitch will often have an erratic Whelping Temperature Chart.

And that at that point, you should keep in your mind to give her some calcium as soon as she starts whelping. And that will help her whelp easily as well.  [I always give calcium during whelping anyway. It’s really good for helping the uterine muscles contract strongly].

Thereafter make sure you take your bitch for a walk every day when she’s got wee ones. That will allow you to detect if there is something going on with her gait.

Monitor her diet, make sure she’s eating well. If she goes off her food, then the first thing I would suspect would be that the calcium is low and give her some calcium.

I always keep oral calcium. I’ll put a screenshot up here of the one I use [I just use one formulated for humans].  I give my little 10 kilo (22 lb) bitch 2 x 600 mg calcium tablets at the start of whelping. And if it’s a long birth, halfway through I give her another couple.  Then every second day I’ll give her two tablets, right the way through until the puppies are pretty much weaned.

We try to wean the puppies starting from about three and a half weeks, introducing them to food, and starting to limit her access to them starting from about four and a half to five weeks so that it really starts to spare her.

Puppies do drain a lot of resources out of your bitch.  Just imagine: she almost produces her own body weight as puppies in just a few months.  It’s an amazing feat of metabolism.

The alternate day dosing is important because you want to encourage her body to actually go through some low calcium days.  That helps the parathyroid hormone kick back in.

What to Feed Your Bitch During Lactation 

A lot of breeders give their bitches puppy food at this time because it has naturally high calcium.

I also like to give my newly whelped and lactating bitches whole natural live yogurt with probiotics and egg yolks in it.  Even bitches that are not otherwise eating will eat that.

Prevention of Milk Fever – Eclampsia – Hypocalcemia is Better Than Cure

If you are alert for early signs of low calcium, trembling for example, it only takes 20 to 30 minutes for oral calcium to take effect.

If you’re at all worried, take her to the veterinarian.  But give your bitch a couple of tablets first if you have them to hand.  You’ll probably find by the time you get to the vet she’ll be fine.

One thing to bear in mind is if you do end up having to use the vet for an intravenous calcium, that is an extremely dangerous procedure. Bitches can die within a few hours from a heart attack.

So, prevention of milk fever/eclampsia/hypocalcemia is better than cure! Keep an eye on your bitch around whelping and lactation and do supplement that calcium.


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