Litter Preparation: A Vet’s Perspective

by Debra Wigal, DVM 

Preparing for a litter actually starts at the time of breeding. I determine the time of ovulation using progesterone testing. This not only tells me the best days to breed, but also lets me know fairly accurately when she will whelp. Most bitches will whelp nine weeks—give or take a day—from the day of ovulation regardless of the day(s) she was bred. This is what causes the wide variation in gestation times when one counts from breeding dates rather than day of ovulation.

Four weeks after breeding, I do an ultrasound to confirm pregnancy. Palpation can also be done at this time, but palpation of these big dogs can be difficult especially if they are tense or panting. It can be difficult to find someone with enough experience to do this accurately.

I set up the whelping box two weeks before the bitch is due. If the bitch is a first-time mom, I will walk her in and out of the box daily to get her used to it. I put a number of layers of newspaper and then place large blankets over the paper. If you have never had a litter, ask a breeder for plans to make a box. The box needs to have the proper safety features–like pig rails–to help protect the puppies. My box is 8 feet long by 4 feet wide with a two foot section partitioned off for storage of towels, blankets and other equipment. I always have different colored yarn, forceps, scissors, baby scale, paper and pen, heat lamp, milk replacer and bottles, a tube and syringes and a disinfectant set aside. My box is conveniently placed right off my kitchen with a couch in the same room. During this time, I will also clip the hair up around her vulva and mammary glands and give her a good bath with a hypoallergenic or soap-free shampoo.

I always radiograph my bitches at 7½-8 weeks to determine the number of puppies to expect. This can be very important to know especially at 2 a.m. If I know a bitch has eight puppies and has only delivered six and labor stops, I know that intervention is needed.

I will start monitoring my bitch’s temperature about five days before she is due. I take it three times a day. During this time, it is not uncommon for the bitch to become very restless. They will pant, pace and dig. Some may develop a light discharge also. As long as the discharge remains clear and odorless, it is of no concern. A bitch with a brown, green or red discharge without the onset of labor should be examined.

Just before parturition, the bitch’s progesterone abruptly drops. This, in turn, causes a drop in their body temperature –generally to below 99. If you catch the drop–expect puppies within 24 hours. If labor does not follow–contact your veterinarian. If I don’t catch a temperature drop and my bitch goes over a day past her due date, I will run a progesterone level. If it is still high, I wait. If her level is low with no signs of labor, I will do a C-section.

Having a litter can be a wonderful experience, but it should never be taken lightly. Most of the time everything goes smoothly but a breeder needs to be prepared for a potential disaster and must be able to recognize when their bitch is in trouble. A good veterinarian is also invaluable to any breeder. Find a veterinarian that is comfortable and experienced with reproduction. They should know when your bitch is due and be able to help you be it day or night. Most of the time everything goes great, but you need to know if you need assistance because it can mean the difference of losing one or more puppies or even the mother. Or, if you are not attentive enough to the bitch’s condition, you may have to spay her.

reprinted from Newf Tide 1Q 2001