NOTE: If you are thinking of breeding your male or female dog, please contact your veterinarian about important steps that need to be taken to ensure safe and healthy breeding practices. In addition, female dogs should not be vaccinated while they are pregnant, so please confirm with your veterinarian that your dog is up to date with her vaccinations and heartworm/flea prevention before breeding.
While your dog may not need as many doctor appointments as humans do during pregnancy, you will need to know how to care for a pregnant dog before, during, and after she gives birth. This guide will tell you how to prepare a whelping area, what to feed pregnant dogs, what to expect during dog births, how to provide postpartum care, and how to care for your new puppies.
Here are some important considerations to keep your dog and her puppies healthy and happy.
Jump to a section here:
- Dog Pregnancy Signs
- Is There a Pregnancy Test for Dogs
- How Long Does a Pregnancy Last?
- What to Feed Pregnant Dogs
- Health Considerations for Pregnant Dogs
- How to Prepare for Dog Births
- How Long Does It Take for Dogs to Give Birth? Stages of Labor
- Issues to Watch Out for After Your Dog Gives Birth
- Postpartum Care
- Puppy Care and Nutrition
In the first few weeks, you may not notice any changes in your dog's behavior. Some dogs will seem more tired, some may vomit, and some and may eat less. You may notice that your dog is gaining weight and that her mammary glands are becoming more prominent. Late in pregnancy, many dogs will exhibit nesting behavior.
Methods of confirming pregnancy include a dog pregnancy ultrasound, which should be done on day 25 of the pregnancy, as well as blood tests, which can be done on day 35, and abdominal x-rays, which can be done on day 45. Please discuss these methods with your veterinarian for more information.
False pregnancy in dogs, or pseudopregnancy, is believed to be caused by hormonal imbalances that allow nonpregnant dogs to show symptoms such as lactation and behavioral changes. These changes usually occur one to two months after her heat is over and can last for up to a month.
Treatment for false pregnancy usually isn’t necessary if these signs persist. However, if your dog isn’t going to be bred, spaying her can prevent future episodes.
The gestation length in dogs (dog pregnancy length) is around 63 days, or just over two months, although it may range from 58-68 days. The pregnant mother should be examined by a veterinarian 25-45 days into pregnancy.
Pregnant dogs should be transitioned to a higher-calorie diet at four weeks of gestation (about a month into their pregnancy). This can be a commercial diet labeled for pregnancy and lactation, or a diet labeled for puppies. There are several high-quality, over-the-counter, veterinary-recommended diets labeled for pregnant dogs.
Bitches should be kept on this higher-calorie diet through weaning. It is important to note that puppy foods designed for large breeds are generally not recommended for pregnant and lactating dogs because of their lower calcium, phosphorus, and energy levels.
Pregnant and lactating bitches have a much higher metabolic demand associated with growing, birthing, and feeding puppies, so these diets can help ensure sufficient nutrition. There will be less room in your dog’s stomach, so she will need to eat smaller, more frequent meals.
It is recommended that you have a fresh stool sample checked by your veterinarian, as intestinal parasites can be spread to the puppies both in utero (in the womb) and during nursing.
Do not use over-the-counter dewormers in your pregnant or nursing dog, as some of these could be dangerous. Your veterinarian can prescribe the appropriate medication if her stool sample shows evidence of parasitic infection.
Female dogs should not have vaccinations, so make sure your dog is up to date on her shots and flea, tick, and heartworm prevention before she becomes pregnant.
Near the end of your dog’s pregnancy, you should create a quiet nesting area for the birthing (or whelping) process. This area should be warm and comfortable, and your dog should be able to get in and out as she pleases while keeping the puppies contained.
It is also important for the mother to be isolated from other dogs three weeks prior to labor and three weeks after delivery to prevent herpes virus infection. This virus rarely causes disease in adult dogs, but can be deadly for puppies.
A pregnant dog’s temperature will drop below 100°F within 24 hours of labor, so you should start taking her temperature a few days before her due date. The temperature should be taken rectally for the most accurate reading.
There are three stages of dog labor. Contractions in the first stage can last 6-12 hours. Puppies are usually born 45-60 minutes apart, but the mother dog may take a break of up to four hours between puppies. Here’s what happens in each stage.
First Stage of Dog Labor: Start of Contractions
The first stage is defined as cervix relaxation and the start of intermittent contractions. However, you are not likely to see the contractions at this point in the birthing process.
During this stage, your dog will act restless, travel in and out of the nesting box, pant, dig, and sometimes even vomit. This stage can last as long as 6-12 hours.
Second Stage of Dog Labor: Stronger Contractions and Birth
The second stage of labor begins with stronger, more frequent uterine contractions that eventually lead to the birth of a puppy. Puppies are usually born every 45-60 minutes, with 10-30 minutes of hard straining. Expect some puppies to be born tail first, as this is not abnormal for dogs.
It is normal for the mother to take a break during the whelping process, and she may not strain at all for up to four hours in between puppies.
If your dog has been straining for more than 60 minutes, or she takes longer than a four-hour break, take her to your veterinarian as soon as possible.
How Many Puppies Can a Dog Have?
The average litter size varies widely depending on the breed.
Larger breed dogs typically have larger litters. The average number of puppies in a litter is six to eight, but some large breed dogs have been known to give birth to up to 15 puppies!
Small breed dogs typically have one to five puppies.
Your veterinarian can take an x-ray after 55 days of gestation to get a count of how many puppies your dog is expecting.
What Should You Do After a Puppy Is Born?
Puppies are born with a protective fetal membrane that is usually removed by the mother dog shortly after birth.
If she does not remove this sac, you must manually remove it to stimulate the puppy to breathe. Break the sac, wipe away fluid from the puppy’s nostrils, then open the mouth with the head facing down and wipe off any remaining fluids. Stimulate the puppy to breathe by stroking their body firmly with a towel.
If the umbilical cord is not cut during birth or by the mother, you need to cut it, but be careful not to pull on the cord, as this may cause damage to the puppy’s organs. Break it about an inch from the puppy’s body, tearing it gently with your first two fingers and thumb.
Third Stage of Dog Labor: Afterbirth
The final stage of labor is passing the placenta. You will see a greenish-black mass of fetal membranes (sometimes called “afterbirth”) that is expelled after each puppy is born.
Here are some things to expect and what to watch for following the birth of the puppies.
The vaginal discharge may last in small amounts for up to eight weeks after the puppies are born. The discharge will normally appear reddish-black since it consists mostly of old blood.
If the discharge is overly bloody, has an odor, or looks like pus, your dog should be examined by her veterinarian as soon as possible.
It is normal for mother dogs to have a fever (greater than 102.5°F) in the 24-48 days after giving birth, but it should not be accompanied by signs of illness.
Metritis (Inflamed Uterus)
Metritis, or inflammation of the uterus, can occur when the placenta is retained or some form of trauma occurred during delivery. If you see signs of fever, lack of appetite, odorous vaginal discharge, lack of interest in the puppies, or lack of milk production, please contact your veterinarian immediately.
Eclampsia (Drop in Blood Calcium Levels)
Eclampsia may occur during the first three weeks after giving birth and is caused by inability of the mother to keep up with the calcium demand of lactation. This is usually seen in toy breeds, and calcium supplementation during pregnancy predisposes a dog to this condition.
Dogs that have this condition will experience restlessness, muscle spasms, a stiff gait, and even seizures. Please consult your veterinarian as soon as possible if you see any of these behaviors.
Mastitis (Infected Breast Tissue)
Mastitis, or inflammation of the breast tissue, occurs when the breasts become hard, red, and painful due to infection. The mother will likely be sore while nursing, but it is important for the puppies to keep suckling to help reduce swelling and promote excretion of the infected material. If you are concerned that your dog may have developed mastitis, please contact your veterinarian, as your dog will likely need treatment.
Agalactia (Not Producing Milk)
Agalactia occurs when the dog’s milk is either not being produced or is not being “let down.” If the puppies are suckling well but they are not receiving any milk, it is important to seek veterinary care.
The first milk, or “colostrum,” provides the puppies with the necessary nutrients and antibodies from the mother to help build up their natural immunity to infections. If they do not get these essential substances during the first few days of life, they may need to receive additional veterinary care.
Here are the steps you should know for postpartum care, nutrition, and nursing.
Keep Your Dog on a High-Calorie Diet
Your dog should be kept on a higher calorie (pregnancy or puppy) diet for as long as she is lactating (nursing her puppies). Make sure she has food and fresh water readily available at all times.
Create a Private Space for Your Dog and the Puppies
Keep the mother dog and her puppies in a clean, quiet, low-traffic area of the house. If there is too much commotion around her, she may become stressed and neglect her puppies.
Newborn puppies should be nursing every one to two hours, so your dog will likely be with them constantly for the first week or two. If you think that your dog may not be producing milk, or isn’t letting the puppies nurse, contact your veterinarian right away.
Medications and vaccines should be avoided while your dog is lactating (nursing).
Call Your Vet if Your Dog Seems Sick
If your dog becomes ill, call your veterinarian immediately and let them know that she is nursing so that they can prescribe safe medications if needed. If your dog stops eating, vomits, or becomes very lethargic (weak and tired), or if you notice redness and swelling in any of her mammary glands, contact your veterinarian.
Consider Spaying and Neutering
To help with the serious problem of overpopulation, talk to your veterinarian about spaying or neutering your dog. This is the only birth control for dogs. The cost of an unwanted pregnancy can be very high. Giving a litter of up to 14 puppies proper veterinary care adds up quickly, and emergency cesarean sections can cost thousands of dollars.
In general, small breed dogs should be spayed at a younger age, while large and giant breed dog spays may be delayed until they are a bit older. Small breed dogs tend to go into heat sooner than large and giant breeds, and there is recent evidence that allowing some large breed dogs to become skeletally mature before spaying or neutering may reduce the risk of joint problems later in life.
Because there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation of when to spay or neuter your dog, ask your veterinarian for their specific recommendation. Most dogs are spayed or neutered around 4 to 6 months of age.
It is also important to consider the risk of pyometra (infection in the uterus), which is a life-threatening condition that can happen in intact (not spayed) dogs. The best way to prevent this serious and expensive medical condition is to have your dog spayed. Spaying before the first heat cycle (which can occur as early as 6 months of age) can also reduce the risk of mammary cancer in your dog.
Follow these guidelines to care for the newborn puppies.
Approach the Puppies With Caution
Although you may want to pet and hold the puppies constantly, it is important not to intervene too much in the first week or two of their lives, as they are very susceptible to disease, and it can be stressful to mom and babies.
Use caution when approaching the puppies, as some mothers may show aggression to humans or other household pets if they perceive a threat.
As the puppies get older and more rambunctious, your dog will want more and more time to get away and sleep, exercise, or socialize with members of the household. Give your dog space to get away from the puppies, but make sure that she is returning often to check on them.
Provide Warm Bedding
Puppies are unable to regulate their own body temperature until they are 3 to 4 weeks old. For the first four weeks of their lives, you should provide a warm, clean box or bedding for the mother and puppies to share.
Use a heating pad below the whelping box, or a heating lamp above it to keep the puppies warm. Ensure that there are unheated areas as well, as the puppies will need to be able to move away from the heat source if they become too warm. The warm area should be about 97°F.
Start Socializing the Puppies
At this point, if the mother dog will allow it, you can get the puppies used to your presence. Socializing them at an early age can help ensure that they fit well into a household.
Watch for “poor doers” or “runts of the litter” (puppies that are much smaller and not growing as quickly as their littermates), as they could have underlying health conditions affecting their ability to grow. If you notice that one of your puppies is smaller or has less energy than the others, consult your veterinarian.
Puppies should not be taken away from their mother and sent to their new homes too quickly, as they learn very important social rules and behavior from their mother and siblings. Puppies should not be separated from their mother if they are younger than 8 weeks old. Wait until they are 10 weeks old so they will have had the maximum benefit of social interaction with their mother and littermates.
Begin Weaning at 3-4 Weeks of Age
Once the puppies are 3 to 4 weeks old, you can begin the weaning process by giving them access to puppy food. You can mix dry kibble with water or canned puppy food to make it easier for them to eat.
They should still have constant access to the mother, as she will continue to nurse them. Over the next few weeks, they will rely more and more on puppy food rather than nursing. Most dogs will wean their puppies by 5 to 6 weeks of age.
Contact Your Vet Just After the Puppies Are Born
Contact your veterinarian to ask for their recommendation regarding when the puppies should first be examined. They may want to see them right away to evaluate for cleft palates, umbilical hernias, and other health concerns, or they may advise you to wait until they are a bit older.
Many veterinarians recommend deworming at regular intervals starting at 2 to 4 weeks of age, and vaccinating at 6 weeks of age.
Featured Image: iStock.com/JodiJacobson