Helping a Dog in Labor

australian shepherd mother dog and nursing puppies
Life On White /Photodisc/Getty Images

Is your dog pregnant and about to give birth? If this will be your first time helping a dog give birth, read on for some answers to common questions about whelping (giving birth).

First, you should talk to your veterinarian about the process. It is important to understand the potential risks and be able to identify signs of complications. It's best to find a vet in advance that has experience and interest in canine reproduction. Ideally, your vet will have been checking on your dog throughout the pregnancy. The vet will talk to you about preparation and may also be able to help you find the right supplies. It is also a good idea to talk to an experienced dog breeder and consider having that person present for the birth.

Knowing When Your Dog Is Ready to Give Birth

A pregnant dog typically shows signs of nesting within about 48 hours of the onset of labor. These signs may include scratching at her bed and looking for a safe place to have her puppies. You should begin to take your dog's rectal temperature once or twice a day as her due date approaches. Normal body temperature is about 100-102°F. When the rectal temperature drops below 100°F this is a good sign that labor will begin within about 24 hours.

During the first stage of labor, your dog will begin to experience uterine contractions. She may also start pacing or digging. Many dogs will pant or shake. Some dogs even vomit. This is all considered normal behavior and typically lasts for six to twelve hours until the cervix dilates and she is ready to deliver her pups.

signs your dog is ready to give birth illustration
Illustration: Hilary Allison

What You Can Do to Help

When your dog first goes into labor, the best thing you can do is keep your distance while quietly observing her. It may surprise you to learn that dogs don't typically need much help giving birth. In fact, it can be quite fascinating to watch a dog's instincts take over as they whelp and nurse their young. 

When the pregnant dog is ready to deliver her first puppy, she will typically strain, or push, for about 10-30 minutes before the puppy emerges. As each newborn puppy emerges from the birth canal, you will see that it is covered with a membrane that must be removed in order for the puppy to breathe. Most mothers will instinctively do this by licking and biting at the membrane. She will lick the mouth and nostrils to enable the puppy to breathe. The placenta will still be attached to the puppy via the umbilical cord. The mother should nibble off the umbilical cord within about five minutes, then proceed to lick the puppy's body clean.

If the mother does not remove the membrane within about two minutes, you will need to assist. Carefully remove the membrane using your fingers, then gently rub the puppy clean with a towel. Tie the umbilical cord umbilical tape, string or floss (unflavored and unwaxed) about a half-inch from the puppy's belly, taking care not to tug on the cord. Cut the cord with sterilized surgical scissors about an inch and a half away from the puppy. The cord should fall off on its own in a few days.

The puppies are generally born about 45-60 minutes apart. In between pups, the mother may or may not try to eat the placenta from the previous pup. You might want to prevent your dog from eating too much placenta as it may cause vomiting later. 

About halfway through delivering the pups, the mother may need to take a break. Up to four hours may pass before she begins to strain again. There is no cause for concern unless she goes longer than four hours before beginning to deliver the next pup. Hopefully, you have an idea of the number of pups and their sizes. Your vet may take x-rays around day 45 to determine the number of puppies.

Some puppies may be born tail first. This is not abnormal and is not usually a problem unless the pup seems stuck.

Signs of Complications

Call your veterinarian right away if any of the following occurs:

  • She does not go into labor within 24 hours of her temperature dropping below 100°F
  • She is straining/having contractions for more than 45 minutes and no puppy is born
  • A puppy appears to be stuck in the birth canal, or the puppy is halfway out, and the mother cannot push the puppy anymore. 
  • It has been more than four hours since the last pup, and you know there are more inside
  • She appears to be in extreme pain
  • The gestation period has reached 70 days
  • You have other concerns about the mother or her puppies

When in doubt, contact a veterinarian with questions. Ideally, you will already have a relationship with a vet experienced in canine reproduction.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.
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