Dystocia in Dogs

Jennifer Coates, DVM
By Jennifer Coates, DVM on Jan. 15, 2013

Nobody likes to be kept waiting. I’ve always tried to get my clients in and out of the veterinary clinic in a reasonable amount of time, but sometimes an emergency throws the schedule completely out of whack. A dystocia can do just that.

Dystocia means "difficult birth," and it can be an all hands on deck kind of emergency since we’re simultaneously dealing with mom’s health as well as that of a sometimes large number of newborn puppies. Even if you never plan on having a pregnant female dog in your life (I’m going to avoid the b-word to keep the profanity filters happy), knowing the basics about the canine birthing process might help you understand why you’ve been kept waiting, or why your appointment has to be rescheduled if a dog with dystocia arrives at the clinic.

Normal labor is divided into three stages:

  • Stage One: Uterine contractions start. Dogs may appear restless, pant, tremble, vomit, and exhibit nesting behavior. This stage can continue for up to 12 hours or so.

  • Stage Two: Visible abdominal contractions and pushing. Stage two should result in a puppy being born after 10-30 minutes of hard labor.

  • Stage Three: The expulsion of the afterbirth.

Dogs move between stages two and three as they give birth to a litter. Sometimes a puppy will be born followed by a placenta. Other times, several puppies will be born followed by several placentas.

I use the following parameters to help determine if a dog is having difficulty giving birth.

  • Greater than 4 hours have passed after the first rupture of membranes (water breaking) without a puppy being born.

  • 30-60 minutes of hard labor without a puppy being born.

  • Greater than 2 hours between the births of puppies. Some dogs will take a break of up to four hours or so in the middle of giving birth to a large litter, so I don’t panic if there is one longer pause and everything else seems normal.

  • The presence of green or black discharge before the birth of a puppy. This is meconium, a puppy’s first poop, and when meconium is passed in utero it is indicative of fetal distress.

  • Heavy uterine bleeding, abdominal pain, weakness, or other signs of maternal distress.

When an owner calls after noticing any of the above, I have them bring the dog into the clinic. Depending on the condition of mom and any unborn puppies, I’ll either send her home to continue labor, set up a quiet birthing room and nest in the hospital for close monitoring, stimulate contractions using feathering (firmly stroking the top of vaginal wall) or giving calcium and/or oxytocin injections, or move straight to a caesarian section.

To make appropriate decisions around the time of birth, veterinarians need to know when the litter is due (based on breeding dates, a surge in luteinizing hormone(LH) prior to breeding, and/or a drop in temperature or progesterone levels prior to labor) and how many puppies are coming (based on X-rays or ultrasounds). Good preparation and communication between owner and breeder can help prevent many problems associated with the birth process.

So if you ever get swept up in the controlled chaos associated with a canine dystocia, please be patient ... the vet will get to you eventually.

Dr. Jennifer Coates

Image: Breather by Phlora / via Flickr

Jennifer Coates, DVM


Jennifer Coates, DVM


Dr. Jennifer Coates is an accomplished veterinarian, writer, editor, and consultant with years of experience in the fields of veterinary...

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