Whelping - How Do Dogs Have Puppies?

By T. J. Dunn, DVM on May 2, 2011

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?

A visit to the veterinarian for x-rays about 60 days into your dog's pregnancy can be helpful, as it will determine the number of puppies you should expect her to deliver.

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.

You will notice that the pup is attached to a yucky looking mass of tissue by the umbilical cord. You can separate the pup from this blackish-green tissue, which is the afterbirth. (The afterbirth is the tissue that attaches very closely to the lining of the uterus. Through the afterbirth the pup "breathes" and acquires nourishment via the umbilical cord; now that the pup is born, though, there's no need for this equipment any more. Now it's nasty looking and yucky so throw it out.)

There is no real benefit for the bitch to eat all the afterbirths so discard them if you wish. In fact, some dogs can get digestive upsets from consuming a large number of afterbirths. Ultimately, it's your choice whether or not you want your bitch to eat the afterbirth.

Now that the membrane is removed and the umbilical cord is chewed through (or separated about an inch away from the pup by you), licking and cleaning the new pup is the bitch's first order of business. If she ignores the pup, you can take a clean towel and rub the puppy dry; this will stimulate it to breath and it will protest a bit. Ouch ... Welcome to our world!

While doting over the new pup the bitch will probably start the process over and present another one...here we go again! While the new pup's brothers and sisters are yet to see the light of day, the first pup, having found a nipple, is already having breakfast. (I say breakfast because the vast majority of whelpings occur in the very early hours of predawn darkness!)

In any litter the entire process of whelping can take from two to twenty hours. In Golden Retrievers, for example, they may have three pups in the first hour, take a break for three or four hours, have a few more, take a break, have one, take a break and finish up sometime the next day. All that may be perfectly normal. However, if a bitch is really straining, with contractions coming every minute or so and no pup is presented within half an hour, get the veterinarian on the phone. Often, if the bitch seems to be doing nothing for a few hours and you are sure there are more pups to be delivered, the bitch often can be energized to have more contractions by a brisk walk outside. She may not want to leave the pups but fresh air and a short run or walk will get things started again. Have food and water available for her, too. During the whelping process, it is also common for the mother to vomit, defecate, and urinate frequently.  

Whelping Problems

Sometimes the litter will be so large, either due to the number or size of the pups, that a problem with Uterine Inertia can occur. In these situations the bitch will fail in weak attempts to pass the pups. She may not even show any visible contractions. This is a good reason why you should keep good records of dates and times of breeding.

If the bitch has not given birth 65 days after successful breeding, there's a problem! If the uterus has been so stretched and fatigued by size of the litter, she may not be able to pass them. Uterine Inertia also is common when an older bitch has a single fetus that doesn't stimulate the uterus enough to begin contractions.

You must consult your veterinarian if any of these issues arise. Your veterinarian may take a X-ray (don't worry, a single x-ray in full term pups presents practically zero risk), medically intervene, and/or give the bitch medication(s) to induce labor. If none of this helps, it's time for surgery!

Here's a partial list of breeds that often require medical and surgical assistance with whelping:

  • Pugs
  • Bulldogs
  • Chihuahuas
  • Boston Terriers
  • Pekingese

If your bitch is pregnant, communicate with your veterinarian regularly, especially once the whelping process begins. It may just save some lives.

Image: Katie Brady / via Flickr


T. J. Dunn, DVM


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