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Labour and giving birth

If your bitch is about to give birth, don't panic! Dogs are much better equipped to deal with it all than we are. Make sure she is comfortable, watch from a sensitive distance and only intervene if something goes seriously wrong - which is unlikely. If you have any concerns then consult your vet as soon as possible. If you are an inexperienced breeder, then read up on what to expect during labour and delivery (parturition), and chat to your vet beforehand so you are prepared.

Be prepared

It's always a good idea to have your vet's out-of-hours number, as birth often occurs at night. It is also a good idea to inform your vet of when the delivery is expected so they are on standby in case of problems. Make sure you have all the essentials to hand, just in case - nail scissors, several clean, dry towels and an extra basket - so if the litter is a large one, there will be plenty of room for the newborn puppies. Make sure you have transport available to take the bitch and pups to the vet if needed.

During the final two weeks, build the mother a ‘nest’ where she can feel warm, comfortable and safe for the delivery. A cardboard box filled with blankets, sheets or old towels works particularly well. Place the nest in a quiet spot where she won't be disturbed, ideally close to a radiator or a warm boiler. The ideal temperature is 25-30°C for the first few days, but the heat can then be reduced to 22°C as long as there are no draughts. Introduce her to the box before her due date and encourage her to start using it.

How do you know that the puppies are on their way?

In the final week of pregnancy, begin taking your dog's temperature, rectally, twice a day (ask your vet to show you how to do this if you haven’t done it before). The first noticeable sign of labour is a drop in mum's temperature from 38.5°C to 37°C (though normal body temperature can vary slightly from bitch to bitch). The drop in temperature depends slightly on breed with smaller bitches having the greatest drop in temperature. This usually occurs 12-24 hours before birth.

Several days before parturition, the bitch may be a little restless and go off on her own to sit quietly. In the 12-24 hours before the birth pregnant bitches may go off their food, and will probably scrabble at their bedding to prepare the nest for the imminent arrival of the puppies.

The birth

It is important to observe the birth of puppies, so you can step in if there are problems. This is particularly true for first-time mums. However, too much interference will slow labour and upset the dog. Generally all goes smoothly so try to observe without intervening unless absolutely necessary and contact your vet if you have any concerns. Limit the spectators: although the family might want to be involved, this may upset the mum.

Labour has three stages. The first stage can pass without you noticing but the cervix and uterus are preparing for delivery. Contractions are occurring but may not be visible from outside. During this stage the bitch may be very restless and unsettled and even begin to pant and shiver.

The second stage is the passing of puppies and this stage lasts a variable amount of time, usually 3-12 hours, but occasionally up to 24 hours. The rectal temperature will rise again to normal and you will see strong contractions and clear fluid from the vulva. A puppy should be born within 20-30 minutes of strong contractions and 2-3 hours from fluid being passed.

A greenish/brown discharge may suggest a placenta has separated. If this is observed a puppy should be born within 2-4 hours or veterinary advice sought.

Puppies are usually born within 20 minutes of each other, but it's normal for bitches to 'take a rest' part-way through delivery and they may not strain at all for up to two hours between pups. If you know the bitch has more puppies to come and she ‘rests’ for more than two hours, contact your vet.

Expect some puppies (usually 40% of them) to be born tail first. This is not abnormal for dogs. Mum will deal with them, licking each puppy to ensure the sac is cleaned from the face so they can breathe easily, and biting through the umbilical cord.

If your bitch is giving birth for the first time, she may need a little extra help and reassurance, so be ready to offer some soothing words. Occasionally, one will need help while the mother is in the middle of delivering the next. If this occurs, remove the membrane the puppy is in and quickly dry the puppy against the grain of the hair, using a clean cloth (facecloths work well because they're big enough to cover the puppy but won't get in your way). Finally, vigorous rubbing with a warm cloth will dry and warm the pup and also stimulate it to take its first breath. Crying clears all the fluid from the puppy's airway. If you have a suction bulb, you can gently use it in each nostril. Then take a piece of heavy thread and tie a knot approximately one inch from where the cord attaches to the pup’s body. Then tie another knot a little further from the first and use clean scissors to cut the cord between the knots. Don't cut it too close to the puppy, as this may cause infection or even death. Do not leave long ends on the thread in case it is chewed or swallowed by the mother. If you notice the mother trying to chew the cords too close to the puppy, stop her and do it yourself. The stump of the umbilical cord should also be dipped in a tincture of iodine or chlorhexidine (obtained from your vet). If you are unfamiliar with these practices then consult your vet before the birth to make sure you are happy with what to do.

If labour lasts a long time, the mother may need to pass water or solids before or in between deliveries. Make sure you watch carefully in case she starts giving birth to the next pup at the same time.

Stage 3 is the passage of the placentas and this usually occurs after each puppy. Try to check how many placentas have been passed (note if she eats any) so you will notice if any are left in the uterus: and then contact your vet if required.

After the birth

After the entire labour is over, get the mother something to eat and drink, and help her go outside (although that might be difficult). Remove and replace the soiled nest covers, then give the new family some time alone.

However, if mum is still straining, or doesn't seem to be very interested in taking care of her puppies (particularly if this disinterest extends for more than an hour), you may need to take over - and consult your vet immediately. See article 'Things to look out for during labour' for more information. In occasional cases hand-rearing may be necessary, as a result of parental neglect or a mother's inability to produce milk. This is unusual and if required take veterinary advice on the best way to rear the litter.

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