Understanding Dog Labour Stages and Signs: A Guide for Breeders

Mother dalmatian with a newborn dalmatian puppy

The foundation of a healthy litter of puppies lies in the care provided to the dam. Responsible breeders understand the significance of ensuring the female is in optimal health and, most importantly, in good physical condition before breeding, as this directly affects her ability to carry and deliver the puppies successfully.

“The goal of most breeders is to get the highest number of healthy puppies as possible,” says Julie T. Cecere, DVM, MS, DCAT, clinical associate professor of theriogenology at Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. “Routine veterinary care for a female is a good start in achieving that goal.”

Before breeding, it is essential to ensure that female dogs are up to date on their core vaccinations. Additionally, lifestyle vaccinations should be administered as necessary, taking into account the individual dog's risk of exposure. Females due for vaccination during the nine weeks of pregnancy and three to five weeks of nursing should receive boosters before coming into heat. 

“This helps to ensure adequate immunity is passed on to the puppies,” Dr. Cecere explains. “Passive transfer of immunity occurs across the placenta during pregnancy and when puppies nurse. During the first 18 hours of life, puppies ingest colostrum, which contains the antibody-rich secretions the mother produces. These antibodies serve as the initial proactive defenses in the first six weeks of life.”

Annual screenings for heartworm and tick-borne diseases are recommended, as these diseases can reduce fertility, Dr. Cecere says. “The stress of heartworm disease on a pregnant dog puts her at risk for abortion or delivering unhealthy puppies,” she adds. “A heartworm-positive female will pass microfilariae, the early life stage of heartworms, to her puppies in the womb, causing them to be vectors of the disease. Year-round heartworm and flea and tick prevention is recommended, though some products are not safe during pregnancy. It also is not safe to treat a pregnant dog for heartworms or tick-borne diseases due to the toxic effects on the puppies.”

To ensure the best reproductive outcomes, it is crucial to maintain optimal body condition and nutrition in female dogs before coming into heat, during breeding, pregnancy, and lactation. “This means that she should have an abdominal tuck when looking from the side and a waist when looking down from above, and her ribs should be easily felt,” Dr. Cecere says. “Diets should be adjusted to maintain ideal body condition, but as the pregnancy advances, you will not be able to see the abdominal tuck or waist as when she is not pregnant. Careful monitoring of weight gain and/or muscle loss is key.”

Engaging in regular exercise during pregnancy can be beneficial for female dogs as it helps prepare them for labor and delivery. Dogs that have maintained an active lifestyle during pregnancy may have a reduced risk of experiencing dystocia, or difficulty birthing. “Do not ignore a female’s health and fitness during pregnancy,” Dr. Cecere says. “Those that are in good physical shape before and during pregnancy have less dystocia and whelp faster when compared to those females that are couch potatoes.”

Feeding a balanced commercial all life stages dog food or specifically formulated puppy food is recommended for achieving optimal reproduction in females and promoting healthy growth in puppies. “Do not feed supplements to a pregnant dog as this could unbalance the diet and cause problems in late gestation and early lactation,” advises Dr. Cecere. “Calcium should never be supplemented in a healthy pregnant dog because this could alter her body’s ability to mobilize its own calcium and cause a life-threatening condition, hypocalcemia, or low calcium. Certain supplements also contain high levels of certain nutrients that can cause midline defects, such as cleft palate, or have embryo toxic ingredients.”

A radiograph is recommended approximately one week before the expected delivery date of a female dog's puppies. “This allows the veterinarian to count the puppies and to perform a prewhelping exam of the dam,” Dr. Cecere says. “This puppy count will aid in the decision-making tree during dystocia. The exam of the mother allows a veterinarian to make any last-minute adjustments to diet and exercise, as well as provides the opportunity for the owner and veterinarian to make plans for the whelping.”

No matter whether it is the female dog's first or third litter, it is crucial for breeders to involve  their veterinarian throughout the entire process to minimize unexpected issues. The key to delivering healthy puppies lies in the overall well-being of the female, including regular heat cycles, successful pregnancy, and carrying her pregnancy to term. By thoroughly preparing, planning, and implementing these guidelines, breeders enhance the likelihood of welcoming a joyful and healthy litter.

Pregnancy Tips for Breeders

  • Females due for vaccination during pregnancy and lactation should receive boosters before being bred
  • Some heartworm and flea and tick preventives are not safe during pregnancy; check with your veterinarian before using them
  • Exercise helps prepare females for labor and delivery; keep your female active during pregnancy
  • Supplementing an all life stages dog food or puppy food could unbalance the food and potentially cause problems in late pregnancy and lactation
  • A pregnancy radiograph is recommended the week before puppies are due to learn the number of puppies expected and to prepare for the whelping

Canine Pregnancy Care Checklist

Core Vaccine Protection (Recommended for all dogs by the American Animal Hospital Association):

  • Distemper: A viral disease affecting the respiratory, gastrointestinal and central nervous systems
  • Parvovirus: A highly contagious viral gastrointestinal disease
  • Parainfluenza: A respiratory virus that is a main cause of kennel cough
  • Rabies: Fatal viral disease transmitted when bitten by an infected animal

Lifestyle Vaccine Protection (Bordetella and canine influenza vaccines are recommended for breeding females; leptospirosis and Lyme disease vaccines should be given based on the risk of exposure): 

  • Bordetella: Bordetella bronchiseptica bacterial infection is a leading cause of kennel cough
  • Canine Influenza: Viral respiratory influenza caused by H3N8 and H3N2 strains
  • Leptospirosis: Disease caused by Leptospira bacterial infection found in soil and water
  • Lyme: A disease caused by blacklegged (deer) ticks infected with the Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium

Pre-Pregnancy Testing: 

  • Pregnancy Ultrasound: Around 28 days after ovulation or breeding to confirm the dam is carrying a litter
  • External Parasites: Dogs should be tested annually for heartworms and tick-borne diseases; year-round monthly preventive care is recommended
  • Internal Parasites: A short course of Fenbendazole (Panacur®) at 41 to 43 days of pregnancy reduces the migration of internal parasites through the placenta and mammary glands, benefitting puppies in the long run
  • Brucellosis: Testing for the Brucella canis bacterium is performed in females with every heat cycle and in stud dogs every three to six months. This highly infectious, devastating disease is transmitted both sexually and via nasal and urine secretions

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