Signs Leading Up to Labor
- A dramatic drop in body temperature:
- During the last week of pregnancy you should be taking your bitch’s temperature at least twice, preferably three times, a day. This will provide you with an early warning of the birth.
- Her temperature will drop from a normal 37.9 – 38.2°Celsius (100.2-100.8°Farenheit) to around 36.7 – 37.4° Celsius (98-99.4°Farenheit) within 24 – 48 hours of labor. Unless the bitch is heading for uterine inertia (where she goes into labor with a sluggish uterus that yields no pups within a reasonable timeframe) the temperature should stay low until labor begins.
- As soon as you notice the temperature drop, let your vet and your helpers know the birth is imminent.
- Restlessness – In the last day leading up to labor your bitch will appear restless and begin anxiously seeking out place that feels safe to have her pups. This is called “nesting behavior”.
The Normal Labor
Labor occurs in three stages.
1. Dilation of the cervix:
This stage may last as long as 12 hours and occurs before any serious abdominal contractions are evident (there may be a few very weak contractions).
- She will become restless and exhibit pronounced nesting behavior, such as digging at her bedding or in sand in her yard. She may spurn her usual sleeping place and anxiously visit several potential nest sites trying to choose a place where she’ll feel safe and comfortable to have her pups. You’ll have to keep a close eye on her and gently redirect her to the nesting box, as she is very likely to pick or dig out some very inaccessible and downright unsuitable spot if left to her own devices. Provided the spot she chooses is accessible I often let my bitch have her first puppy there. I find that once she has birthed her first, and I transfer her and the pup to MY chosen nest, she is then happy to settle down in it.
- She may refuse food close to going into labor.
- As labor approaches she may seem distressed, panting, restless and uncomfortable.
- She may lick and look at her vulva.
2. Passage of puppies:
Labor proper begins when the bitch starts straining seriously. Her contractions can be felt as a distinct hardening of the abdominal walls of her belly, and seen as arching and tightening of the muscles on her back and body that progress towards her tail. Between contractions she will pant heavily. Offer her frequent small drinks of water during labor as the panting will dry her out and make her thirsty. During labor she will worry and scratch at her bedding and get up and down and move around a fair bit in obvious discomfort. Don’t worry – this is normal!
Prior to the passage of the first pup there may be a green discharge (lochia) from the vulva. This signifies the placenta separating from the uterus and is normal. The first pup should be born within an hour or two of seeing the first lochia.
In an uneventful labor, the straining and contractions will become more frequent and gain in strength until the front of the water sac that surrounds the pup appears at the vulva. The pup usually is delivered shortly afterwards. Soon after this its placenta normally follows, usually attached to the pup by the umbilical cord.
The normal interval between deliveries can vary between 15 minutes to up to an hour or so.
From the first obvious abdominal contractions, a pup should be born within 4 hours. No more than 2 hours should elapse between pups. Puppies may be born either head first with front legs extended or in the reversed ‘breech’ position presenting tail and hindlimbs first. A breech pup will often take longer to birth than one coming head first.
The pup may still be inside the amniotic sac when born. If so, you must tear the sac around the puppy’s head so that it is free to take its first breath. You may also need to wipe mucus from around its nose and mouth with a towel.
Abnormalities of second stage labor include:
- Prolonged labor with no pups produced. If there is a long delay between births despite straining, or straining becomes weak and ineffectual, I find it most beneficial to give the bitch an oral calcium gel to feed her muscles to work more effectively. During delivery, low calcium can cause uterine inertia where the uterus just doesn’t have enough energy to go through with the job of delivering the pups. You may want to consider giving her a carefully calculated dose of calcium gel at the onset of labor to ensure her uterine muscles have sufficient calcium to contract properly. In my 10-15 kg bitches I give 1 teaspoon (5 ml) by mouth of Calcoral Gel – an oral calcium supplement that delivers 13350 mg of calcium per 100 ml i.e. one 5ml teaspoon is 667 mg. It tastes foul but does the job, is inexpensive, safe, and available from the internet as a dairy cow treatment.
- Malpresentation of a pup (for example, single limb protruding from the vulva). You can insert a lubricated finger gently into the vagina and visualize the parts of the puppy that are presented by feel. Because of the relatively small size of most dogs, it is difficult though sometimes possible to correct the position of a poorly presented pup. Both pups and the Mom’s vaginal tissues are also quite delicate and care must be taken if attempting to sort a malpresentation out yourself.
- Appearance of abnormal discharge from the vagina. However, DO expect black, green and bloody discharge – this is in most cases normal.
3. Passage of the placenta:
Each pup has its own placenta which is normally passed within 5 to 15 minutes of the pup being born. If left to her own devices, the bitch normally eats the placentas.
During the break between deliveries, the healthy vigorous pup will nurse from the bitch. This will encourage further contractions and a speedy labor, as it stimulates oxytocin release in the bitch. Early nursing is also important to ensure the pup gets the antibody-rich colostrum of the first milk. This protects it in early life from infection from diseases to which the bitch has been exposed. The colostrum also has a laxative effect that will ensure the pups eliminate properly and kick start their digestive systems. However, puppies can safely go for several hours before their first feed, so don’t worry if you can’t latch them onto the bitch straight away.
Once the last pup in the litter has been born, the bitch will stop straining and panting, and will settle down peacefully to attend to her babies. When her puppies have finished feeding and are settled quietly:
- Take her for a walk outside to relieve herself.
- Make sure she has frequent access to water.
- Sponge clean the muck from her back end and dry her off.
- Remove the soiled newspaper from the nesting box and replace with a clean thick, double-sewn blanket.
- Offer her a light nutritious meal such as chicken broth with rice.
It is often recommended to have your veterinarian check your bitch as soon as possible after the birth (within 5 to 6 hours preferably) to ensure there are no retained puppies or placentas (which, I hope, you have been counting as they come out!). There is only a small, 24 hour, window of opportunity after the birth when the cervix will still be open, so that when your vet gives your bitch Oxytocin to make the uterus contract, it is able to clean itself out and expel any pup or placenta that is still left in there. Your vet will palpate (feel) for pups through the bitch’s abdomen, or may even Xray her to check for remaining pups. Your veterinarian can also check the pups for obvious congenital defects such as cleft palate, explain your options, and humanely euthanize any with serious problems.
However, if she is a healthy bitch, she stopped straining soon after the last pup and its placenta was born, and all placentas have been accounted for, there is really no reason to give her Oxytocin or antibiotics. As always I maintain that the less you interfere, the better, but it is ultimately up to you.
I certainly do not recommend that you administer any such drugs to your bitch yourself either during or after the labor. With Oxytocin it is easy to give too much, which can spasm the uterus and trap and suffocate the pups, the opposite to what you want. Antibiotics interfere with the proper balance of microorganisms important to digestion and so can cause diarrhea in the bitch and her pups.
So long as your bitch eats well and seems bright and happy, you can relax. If she loses her appetite, and pants a lot despite your attention to maintaining her environment at a comfortable temperature, you should take her to your veterinarian for a check. You might also like to take her temperature with your rectal thermometer to reassure yourself that it is not higher than the normal range: 37.9 – 38.2°Celsius (100.2-100.8°Farenheit). An elevated temperature with loss of appetite usually means infection.
The bitch will produce a vaginal discharge for several days after the birth. This is normal! While it may be green on the first day, after that it should be reddish-brown.
Watch the vaginal discharge closely for the first week or so after the birth. Consult your veterinarian for advice immediately if:
- If the vaginal discharge is black.
If the vaginal discharge contains pus and smells foul. This indicates a possible uterine infection. The bitch will no doubt also be lethargic, panting, have lost her appetite, and running a fever.