Whelping

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In the period just before and after whelping the bitch must be closely monitored. It is essential that the veterinarian see all bitches due to give birth for the first time and those in high-risk groups. This should take place in week 8 of gestation. A number of tests may be conducted.

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Monitoring examinations

• A gynaecological examination to detect any obstacles to whelping, such as vaginal adhesion in first-time mothers.

• One or more abdominal X-rays to determine the number of foetuses with more precision than an ultrasound. It will also help to detect any abnormalities that often lead to dystocia, such as a narrow pelvis, foetal mummification (gas density, bone dislocations) or disproportion between foetuses and mother. Foetus position in X-rays is not a good indicator of dystocia, as this can change at the last moment (180° rotation).

• Possibly genital ultrasound, which can help to determine the vitality of the puppies by visualising their heartbeats.

Signs of imminent whelping

The week preceding labour is marked by general changes in the bitch’s behaviour. She will appropriate objects to make a nest, go in search of a quiet place or seek out the companionship of her master or mistress. Reduced appetite, constipation and the development of the teats are unreliable signs, especially in first-time mothers, which do not begin producing milk until the day of labour or even in the days following whelping.

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Supervising the bitch between oestrus and whelping

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• Check the condition of the vagina
• Check the health of the bitch
- Age of the bitch
- Presence of any abnormal vulvar discharge
- Weight of the female (neither obese nor too thin)
• Monitor oestrus (vaginal smear, blood progesterone)
• Mate or inseminate
- Mate twice if possible
- Continued mating if no results are observed
• Herpes vaccination if necessary (ask your veterinarian for advice)
• Gestation diagnosis after 25 days (palpation, ultrasound or relaxin measurement)
• Gradually adapt the food ration (final third of gestation)
• Worming (ask your veterinarian for advice)
• X-ray to estimate the size of the future litter after at least 50 days
• Female enters the “maternity unit” (1-2 weeks prior to whelping)
- Preparation of the nest
- Grooming of the female
• Take the temperature daily (from 1 week prior to whelping)
• Stay alert for the first signs of labour

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In the three days prior to labour, the vulva puffs out and the pelvic ligaments relax due to oestrogen impregnation. Her shape may change.

The rectal temperature drops by 1°C in the 24 hours prior to labour. This is a reliable indicator, provided the bitch’s temperature is taken in the morning and evening every day for four days prior to the expected whelping date. A 1°C drop compared with the average temperature in those four days will be a sign that labour and birth are imminent.

A drop in the blood progesterone level accompanies this temporary drop in temperature. The measurements provide information on the maturity of the foetuses and indicate that they can be born naturally or by C-section without any great risk to them.

The leaking of the mucus plug – translucent liquid discharged from the neck of the vulva – is a sign of approaching labour, coming a few hours (never more than 24-36 hours) before the first contractions.

When the placentas start to detach themselves, the uteroverdine (placental pigment) is tipped out into the uterus and a dark green vulval discharge is observed. This marks the start of labour.

Normal course of labour

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Provided no special risks have been identified, there is generally no need to intervene in labour.

The first signs of labour typically appear 63 days after fertilisation. It will be a concern if labour does not start within 65 days. 70 days is certainly abnormal.

First the uterus contracts and often the only external sign is agitation – the bitch will often look at her sides and generally seek out a quiet corner to be alone and make her bed if a whelping box is not available. Anorexia (loss of appetite), and sometimes vomiting, is commonplace during this preparatory phase, which on average lasts 6-12 hours, although it can last up to 36 hours in the case of first-time mothers. Concerned owners can determine how dilated the uterus is by inserted one or two fingers of a gloved hand. The presence and position of a puppy may also be verified this way.

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The introduction of the first whelp into the birth canal provokes visible contractions of the abdominal muscles (Ferguson reflex), which complements the expulsion efforts of the uterus and should result in the breaking of the first bag of waters (allantoids) in less than three hours. The second bag of waters (amniotic sac) holding the whelp can then appear in the vulva (no more than 12 hours after the first waters break). If the amniotic membrane has not ripped, mothers generally do this themselves within a minute of the expulsion, severing the umbilical cord and licking the newborn’s thorax, which stimulates the first respiratory movements. Intervention at this stage is only necessary in the event of reverse presentation (around 40% of cases). In this case whelping will take longer and it may be necessary to help by lightly pulling the whelp in line with the abdominal contractions. The puppy’s upper airways will have to be checked for obstruction – common in reverse presentations. They can be unblocked using an enema syringe or a nasal aspirator. If this does not help, the use of cold water or respiratory stimulants may be necessary.

The afterbirth generally follows the whelp within 15 minutes (except when the contractions are intense) and is most often ingested by the mother. Subsequent whelps follow at an interval of a few minutes to a half-hour. An interval longer than two hours is a sign of an abnormality, such as primary uterine disorder (connected with fatigue, hypoglycaemia or hypocalcaemia) or secondary uterine disorder due to obstruction (lateral presentation, introduction of two foetuses at the same time, congestion of the birth canal). A medical or surgical intervention will be necessary in this case.

© Diffomédia/Royal Canin

Medical interventions

Systematic use of oxytocin (a hormone that stimulates contractions of the uterus), which is naturally released by the posterior pituitary gland, is strongly advised against. The unconsidered use of oxytocin in the absence of any exact diagnosis leads to the following risks:

• Tearing of the uterus if the inertia is secondary to an obstruction

• Asphyxia of all whelps still in the mother due to the premature constriction of the afferent blood vessels of the umbilical cord

• Complete lack of effect on the uterus, which is naturally resistant to oxytocin during periods of uterine relaxation (around a half-hour after each birth), resulting only in the manifestation of its side-effects (notably diarrhoea)

• Relaxation of the posterior pituitary gland, disrupting the secretion of milk

• Secondary eclampsia

Primary uterine inertia (i.e. without anatomical obstructions) is common in some predisposed females:

• Small (Yorkshire Terriers, Miniature Poodles, small Greyhounds) or giant breed bitches (Bullmastiffs, Dogue de Bordeaux),

• Very calm (Basset Hounds) or overly nervous bitches (Cocker Spaniels) during labour

• Obese or ageing bitches

• Mothers of big litters

In these cases, a calcium gluconate drip, while monitoring the heart rate, is generally enough to stimulate uterine contractions again. Massage of the mammary glands provokes automatic discharge of endogenous oxytocin, which is preferable to administration.

Surgical interventions

Obstetrical manipulations are very limited in dogs, so an episiotomy (an incision made at the opening of the vulva) or a C-section are essential interventions if medical treatments prove inadequate or the birth canal is clearly obstructed. The disproportionate size of the foetuses compared with the mother is the main indication of a C-section. They are common:

• In brachycephalic breeds: it is difficult for wide, flat heads to move into the birth canal and they are often the cause of lateral presentation, when the head is folded against the neck

• When the litter is overdue or only comprises two whelps: the size of the foetuses becomes greater than the diameter of the birth canal

• In miniaturised breeds

• When the father is much larger than the mother

The viability of the whelps depends on their maturity (which can be checked by measuring the blood progesterone level), the duration of unproductive contractions (leading to the holding up and anoxia of the whelp in the birth canal as well as any foetuses still in the womb), the speed of intervention and the type of anaesthesia used.

Post-natal care

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If the bitch doesn’t do so, each newborn should be guided to a teat so that it can suckle and take in colostrum. The antibodies in colostrum provide the puppy with passive protection rather than the active immunisation that follows vaccination or infection.

If the number of puppies is lower than expected based on ultrasound, the missing puppies can be located with a new ultrasound, avoiding an unnecessary C-section if they are in the mother’s stomach. It is not uncommon for a mother to ingest stillborns along with placentas.

Some homeopathic products encourage emptying and involution of the uterus. Some simple hygiene precautions will help to prevent infections of the uterus during lochia discharge (normal greenish discharge during the first three days after whelping). Systematic use of antibiotics is unnecessary from an economic, medical or health perspective. They can be absorbed into the milk and affect suckling puppies, in certain cases causing the malformation of tooth enamel, or contribute to developing antibiotic resistance by bacteria.

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