Whelping and initial contacts


The gestation period in dogs is 57-72 days. The foetus responds to any tactile stimulation after 45 days. When stroking the mother’s stomach you can feel the movements of the foetuses, which gradually decrease after several days. Puppies whose mother has been stroked in this way are more comfortable with being handled. Unborn puppies can also react to the emotional responses of their mother, which is why gestating females should be protected from situations that are potentially stressful or frightening.

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Unassisted whelping

Generally humans need not get involved in whelping, which is a natural act. The bitch will choose where she wants to whelp, usually choosing somewhere quiet. The puppy emerges in its umbilical sac (water bag), and the mother bites through the umbilical cord and eats the sac. This can be helpful because the sac contains a hormone that triggers the onset of lactation. The mother then licks the puppy to stimulate its breathing. Puppies in a litter emerge at variable intervals of between 10 and 60 minutes. The whole process generally takes less than 12 hours, although it may take longer if the bitch has not given birth before. A litter can contain anything between one and 15 puppies, or even more.


The best approach is to leave the bitch alone after she has finished whelping. Occasionally, she may not display her natural maternal instincts, particularly if she is a first-time mother. In this case, the umbilical cord will have to be cut and the puppy extricated from the umbilical sac, rubbed down and placed by its mother’s teats. The bitch should be fully alert during whelping, because if her senses are affected this may have an adverse impact on how she bonds with her puppies.

Puppy activity

Puppies spend most of their time sleeping – more than 90% of the day – and more than 95% of this is REM sleep, characterised by movements of the face, lips, ears and limbs.

When they are not sleeping they feed, generally every three to four hours. The whole litter feeds at the same time. When the puppy’s muzzle comes into contact with the mother or another puppy it instinctively seeks the teat. This behaviour is known as the rooting reflex. On finding the teat, the puppy will knead with its front paws, right and left alternately to get the milk flowing. Contact with the teat triggers the sucking reflex.

Essential contact with the mother

The puppy gets around by crawling, since it cannot stand on its legs due to its limited motor skills. If it finds itself a long way from the mother the puppy will display great agitation, emitting a constant whine until the mother brings it back to the fold.


After feeding, the mother turns her puppies over for grooming. She licks the area around the anus to trigger the perineal reflex, causing the puppy to defaecate and urinate, and then eats the products. The puppies then huddle together again and sleep. Even in this neonatal period the puppies have a well-developed tactile sensitivity and sense of taste, responding to basic flavours. This is when the mother bonds with her puppies. As a result, anything that limits contact with her litter will be deeply distressing. The mother bonds specifically with her own puppies, and while she may sometimes adopt puppies from another female at the same stage, only her own puppies will truly calm her down.

Learn more

Why is it critical that the puppies remain with their mother during the first 45-60 days of life?

This is important because they will learn valuable lessons during this first period of life, and the mother will be in charge of taking care of them. The puppies will not only learn to handle themselves coexisting with their mother (or any adult dog in charge of them), they will also learn to inhibit the bite, handle enviromental stimulation and communicate with their peers.

At the age of 2-3 months old, the puppies must control their bite, even when playing. They must not bite or show any uncontrollable behaviour. The bitch controls and punishes the puppies when their behaviour is not appropiate.

This is a very hard task for the owners, given that many of them would never punish a small puppy.

If the initial conditions are correct, there is a significant decrease in the probability of having behavioural issues during development.


Maria de la Paz Salinas;
Doctor of Veterinary Medecine

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Whelping and initial contacts
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