By T.J. Dunn, Jr., DVM
Well, you've really gone and done it now, haven't you! That moment you've been waiting impatiently for is here and you have to face the facts that you are going to be a puppy parent ... sort of. Whelping is the process of a dog giving birth to puppies, and, luckily, the vast majority of bitches will have their pups without any help from you or anyone else. In fact, you may be able to just sit back and watch the entire process.
Nevertheless there certainly are times when you MUST intervene -- times when the bitch and her pups will require your assistance.
How Do You Know When Your Dog is in Labor?
Let me first recommend that you forget about using a thermometer to help you guess when the pups are on the way. Some bitches' temperature will drop a degree or so below their normal range (101 to 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit) a few hours prior to whelping, while others don't. And if her temperature does drop and no puppies are forthcoming, are you going to rush her into surgery? Of course not. Recording the temperature, and over-estimating its importance, can cause you more turmoil and anxiety than any value taking the temperature may have as a prognosticator of labor.
Typically, the first sign that the puppies are soon to come is the bitch's lack of interest in food about 24 hours before whelping. Following this, she will lick at her vulva and have slight abdominal cramping. As the birthing time approaches, the abdominal contractions become more frequent -- about every half hour. All of a sudden you may notice a shiny, grayish sac drooping through the vulva; it looks like a gray water balloon. The bitch may even walk around with this hanging out and will often open the "water sac," letting all the clear fluid run out. The pup(s) is now on the way!
How Do Dogs Have Puppies?
In most cases the pup will be delivered within an hour of the presentation of the "water sac," since it is an indication that the pup(s) is in the pelvic canal. The first puppy is usually the most difficult for the bitch to pass, and she may strain quite hard and even moan a bit. Don't panic yet, though! (It is, however, a good idea to call your veterinarian and announce proudly, "She's havin' 'em!" This will put the entire animal hospital/vet office staff on alert; call back every fifteen minutes with updates on her progress.) If she hasn't passed the pup within one hour of the "water sac" showing, call your veterinarian and discuss whether you should bring her in.
Once the pup passes through the pelvic canal and into our world it will be covered in a thin membrane that looks like plastic wrap. If the bitch does not lick and nip this membrane away from the puppy right away, and most do, you should remove it so the pup can breathe. (The pup has about six minutes of "grace period" before it must breathe, otherwise brain damage or death will occur.) Give the mother several second to remove this membrane; if she doesn't, you do it.