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Whelping - potential problems

Just like it is for women, giving birth is a completely natural process for bitches. In most cases the delivery will go smoothly and your bitch will manage better without any interference. However, you should keep a watchful eye on proceedings as problems can occur. If your bitch is having problems then early intervention could save her life as well as that of the puppies.

Your questions answered

What is normal canine labour like?

When bitches give birth we say that they are 'whelping' and there are three recognised stages:

  • Stage I: this usually lasts from 12 to 24 hours, during which time bitches may show changes in behaviour. They become reclusive, restless and start 'nesting' (trying to make a bed for the puppies). Bitches may refuse to eat and sometimes vomit. Panting and trembling may occur. In this phase the uterus (womb) is contracting and the cervix is dilating. Although you might see a clear and watery discharge from the vulva (around the back end of the bitch) no visible abdominal contractions are evident.
  • Stage II: begins when you can see the bitch starting to strain. These  contractions will eventually result in the delivery of a puppy. Typically, there should not be more than 1-2 hours between puppies although great variation exists. The delivery of an entire litter of puppies can take between 1 and 24 hours. Increased puppy survival is associated with shorter total delivery time (less than 12 hours) and an interval of less than 2 hours between puppies. Discharge from the vulva during this time may  be clear or bloody and this would be normal. Typically bitches continue to nest between deliveries and may nurse and groom puppies intermittently. As the next puppy starts to arrive panting and trembling are common.
  • Stage III: this is the delivery of the placenta. Bitches often deliver puppies and placenta alternatively until the delivery is complete but sometimes 2 puppies will be born and then 2 placentae. Try to keep a check that the same numbers of placentas and puppies have been delivered at the end.

What if no puppies are being born?

Dystocia is the inability to expel a puppy through the birth canal. It is not uncommon in the bitch and can have several causes. The bitch may be in trouble if she is straining for a long time and no puppy is born - or if she strains for a while and then stops straining without producing a puppy or placenta. If you think that your bitch is having trouble delivering a puppy you should contact your vet for advice immediately. The early diagnosis and treatment of dystocia can prevent the loss of puppies and perhaps even the mother.

How do I know if my bitch is having problems?

The diagnosis of dystocia can be based on the presence of any of the following criteria:

  • Prolonged gestation: If the pregnancy lasts longer than 70-72 days from the first mating, 58-60 days of dioestrus (metoestrus) or 66 days from the day of the LH surge or initial rise in progesterone during oestrus (known if ovulation timing was performed) then this is abnormal. Prolonged pregnancy results in oversized puppies that will not fit through the birth canal. Partial separation of the placenta can result in death of these puppies in the uterus.
  • Failure of normal labour: Labour should begin within 24 hours of a decline in body temperature below 37°C (99°F) and progress through the three stages to completion within 12-24 hours.
  • Failure of delivery of all puppies in a timely fashion: Delivery should occur within 1 hour of active parturition (visible abdominal efforts) or 4-6 hours of intermittent parturition. Call your vet for advice if there is:
    • 30 minutes of strong contractions with no puppy born.
    • 2-3 hours of weak contractions without a puppy being born.
    • 4 or more hours between puppies.
    • Obvious problem (pup hanging out etc.).
  • Foetal distress: If stillborn puppies are delivered then concerns must be raised for the remainder of the litter as yet unborn. If the unborn puppies have slow heart rates (your vet will be able to detect heart rates) this can also indicate distress.
  • Maternal distress: The puppies are also at risk if their mother becomes ill before delivery. If they are nearly at full term they may stand a better chance of surviving if they can be delivered and cared for outside the womb. If a bitch develops green or copious vulval discharge and/or bleeding during pregnancy then veterinary advice must be sought immediately. 

Causes and treatment of dystocia

Dystocia is due to either a problem with the mother or with puppy size or position.

  • Abnormalities of the uterus (womb): these include poor contraction of the muscles of the uterus, abnormalities associated with foetal or maternal fluids or twisting or rupture of the uterus. Sometimes the uterine muscles never start to contract properly and a Caesarean operation must be performed to deliver the puppies. In other cases labour may develop normally but is prolonged and the muscles of the uterus become exhausted before all puppies have been born. Intravenous solutions containing glucose and drugs may help to stimulate contractions of the uterus, but a Caesarean operation may still be necessary. 
  • Disorders of the birth canal: previous damage to the pelvis such as healed fractures can make the birth canal narrow. Some bitches have abnormalities of the birth canal or unusually small vulvar openings (these may require a partial episiotomy (surgical incision) to deliver puppies vaginally).
  • Puppy abnormalities: include puppies that are too large, or in a abnormal position, presentation or posture. Puppy oversize can occur with prolonged pregnancy in abnormally small litters and is a common cause of dystocia. The normal position of a puppy before delivery is with the foetal backbone lying along the top of the womb. A mild dystocia may arise if they are lying the other way up. In most breeds puppies can be born normally in either anterior (head first) or posterior (back feet first) presentation. It is only a transverse (sideways) presentation that is associated with dystocia and this is rare. Deformed puppies may also become stuck in the birth canal. If the puppy is not in the correct position it is not easy to correct this with the use of forceps or traction because of the small size of the birth canal of the bitch. If a puppy is stuck in the birth canal then a Caesarean operation is needed in most cases.
  • Some breeds of dog have significant problems giving birth and in these breeds Caesarean delivery of puppies is usually required. If it is known in advance that problems are likely during delivery your vet will probably want to book the date of the Caesarean as a routine procedure. You should always discuss the options for your pet with your vet well in advance of labour to ensure you have the right plans in place.

How will my vet diagnose dystocia?

Your vet will want to have an accurate history about ovulation timing and breeding dates, as well as any events surrounding labor and performing a careful physical examination. This will include examination of the birth canal for any abnormalities or the presence of a puppy stuck in the birth canal. A hand held ultrasound may allow detection of foetal heart beats and abdominal ultrasound and x-rays can be very helpful in assessing puppy viability, litter size and puppy position. Blood tests to measure calcium and glucose levels are also helpful in identifying metabolic disorders contributing to dystocia. A uterine monitor can be used to evaluate the quality of uterine contractions. With this information your vet will be able to advise you on whether a Caesarean operation is likely to be in the best interests of the mother and the puppies.

What is uterine inertia?

Uterine inertia simply means that the womb is not contracting adequately. Primary uterine inertia means that the uterus never starts contracting. In this case a bitch will show the first signs of labour but never progress beyond this. This condition is not common but can be due to the pregnancy consisting of only a single puppy. Your vet may need to give an injection to try to stimulate uterine contraction or, if this fails to work, then a Caesarean delivery may be needed.

Secondary uterine inertia occurs after the bitch has been in labour for some time. One or more puppies may have been born but then contractions stop before all puppies have been delivered. This condition is more common in older bitches and can be due to exhausted muscles in the uterus or to glucose or calcium deficiencies. Veterinary attention should be sought immediately as this condition may respond to intravenous treatments but often means that a Caesarean delivery is needed.

Conclusion

With help from your veterinary surgeon, your bitch should be able to produce a healthy litter of puppies. Early diagnosis of problems will help prevent any life-threatening emergency, to puppy or dam by suitable and timely treatment.

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