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The Signs of Labor In Dogs

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The "deed" is done and the test came back positive, but how will you know when your dam’s biscuits are ready to come out of the oven?

When the time comes, certain signs will indicate the onset of labor and the beginning of each stage of the labor process. Think of the signs of labor like a ladder. The signs usually appear in a set order, so as each sign presents itself, we will be moving one rung higher on the ladder.

Please bear in mind that not all dogs are the same, and not all dogs will present the same signs in the same order. But, by recognizing the more important signs of labor, as well as the steps you can take to make your dam as comfortable as possible, you will be on the right track towards a happy, healthy mother and litter.

Building a Whelping Kit

You will want to have all the items for your whelping kit collected by the fifth week of pregnancy. If you don't have any old towels, ask your friends and family if they would like to donate a few to your cause. Wash any donated towels in a bleach solution and rinse them well before use. Once the towels have been cleaned, keep them stowed away in a dry place until the whelping begins.

To build your whelping kit, you will need the following:
1. The phone number of a trusted veterinarian.
2. Directions and a phone number to an emergency animal hospital.
3. A crate/carrier waiting in the car for emergency vet transportation.
4. An old sheet under the crate in the car.
5. A vehicle with at least enough gas to make it to the animal hospital and back in case of an emergency.
6. A whelping box in a quiet location. It should be large enough for mom to move around with sides tall enough for her to step over. It needs guard rails to prevent mom from trampling on the pups. A whelping box with a door is especially handy.
7. Several layers of newspapers lining the whelping box. This way, when the newspapers become messy from whelping, they can be discarded layer by layer.
8. Safety scissors for cutting the umbilical cord.
9. Constant supply of old, clean towels. Keep a constant supply of clean towels on hand. There should also be clean towels or blankets in the whelping box at all times. They must be changed one to two times per day (or more, if needed).

Getting Ready

About one week prior to the dam’s due date, you will want to begin taking her temperature. A normal range in temperature is 101–102.5, but when the birth of the litter draws near, her temperature will be around 100.5. To take the dam’s temperature, you will need a digital rectal thermometer, petroleum jelly, and a sterile alcohol pad (alcohol and cotton balls work also). Thoroughly clean the rectal thermometer with the alcohol pad (or alcohol on a cotton ball) and apply a dab of petroleum jelly to the tip. Insert the tip of the thermometer just past the metal end and wait for the reading. Take and record the dam’s temperature twice daily from here on out. The dam’s temperature will drop down to about 98 degrees approximately 12–24 hours prior to whelping. This will help you to determine if you need to stick around for a long night of puppy whelping, or if you can leave the house.

When your dam’s temperature begins to drop, change into old clothes that you really don’t want to keep around anymore. Depending on the level of assistance the dam will need, the labor process can get pretty messy, and some things just won’t wash out with bleach. Most dogs (98%) can deliver puppies with very little to no assistance, but this largely depends on the number of litters the dog has whelped in the past, the individual dog, and the dog’s breed. Some dog breeds cannot whelp their own puppies (English Bulldogs), and veterinary assistance will be required.

The puppies will arrive in 12–24 hours after the dam's temperature drops to 98 degrees, which means that the labor process will soon begin.

The Three Stages of Labor

Stage 1
This stage includes the dilation of the cervix and uterine contractions. This is the longest stage of labor, lasting between six and 18 hours. It is as painful for the dog as it is for humans, so the dam will naturally appear restless and uncomfortable. Other symptoms of this stage that you may notice include restlessness, shivering, panting, loss of appetite/refusal to eat, vomiting, and persistent whining. Some dogs will attempt to dig or build a nest, while others will retreat to an already decided/arranged “den” area or nesting box. If you notice these signs, try to coax your dog to her whelping box and eliminate all distractions. Dogs in this stage can become quite irritable, and visitors who are not immediate family should be prohibited. At the end of this stage, the dam’s cervix will be fully dilated and ready for the pups to arrive.

Stage 2
The second stage of labor is marked with uterine contractions in force, and it is recognized active straining. The placental water sac that surrounds each puppy breaks, and a yellow-green fluid is passed. Placentas are passed between puppies throughout labor. Puppies should appear between 10 and 30 minutes after intervals of forceful straining. If an hour of forceful, unproductive straining passes and you suspect there are still puppies or a puppy inside the dam, get her to a veterinarian as quickly as possible.

As the pups are born, the mother will break the placenta sacs and lick the puppies vigorously, even roughly, to stimulate breathing and blood circulation. She will then chew off their umbilical cords and may even eat the placental sacks. If she is doing this herself, there is no reason to intervene. It is best to let the mother handle this part of the labor process, since it is her special time with her puppies. She is learning their individual scents and bonding with the pups. At this point, a breeder should only intervene if the dam fails to tear the placental sac surrounding a pup, or if she fails to lick the pup to stimulate respiration and circulation. Breeders can do this by gently tearing the sac open, clearing all fluid away from the pup’s nose and mouth, and vigorously rubbing the pup to stimulate circulation and breathing.

It’s called “labor” for a reason, so don’t be surprised if the dam decides to take a break (which can last up to four hours before the next puppy is whelped). Breeders sometimes think that their dams have completed labor and successfully whelped an entire litter, only to find more puppies three to four hours later! If more than four hours have passed since the last puppy was whelped and you believe there are still more puppies in the dam, bring her to a veterinarian immediately.

Stage 3
Once all the puppies are born, the dam will enter the final stage of labor, which includes the full contraction of the uterus and the expulsion of any remaining fluids, blood, and placenta. Once all the pups are born, make sure that they find their way to the dam’s mammaries for their first meal. Just as breakfast is the most important meal of the day for us, the first meal of life is the most important for all newborn pups.

The first milk produced by the dam is called colostrum. It’s especially rich in antibodies and nutrients that will give the pups an immunity boost. Pups that don’t get their colostrum will be especially susceptible to contagious diseases. Offer the dam a small meal with some water and see if she would like to go outside for a potty break. Leave her so that nature can take its course and she can care for her pups throughout the night.

The next morning, call the veterinarian and schedule a checkup for the entire litter and the dam. Also, don’t forget to call about registration papers—it’s better to get this taken care of now while the demands on you are less than what they will be in the weeks to come. From here on out, most of your attention and the attention of your dam will be focused toward watching and ensuring a healthy start for the new pack of pouncing, nipping, playful puppies.

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