Providing of a whelping box ....

A whelping box does not have to be “a box”, but should be a method of containment of the bitch and her forthcoming litter which provides a quiet, warm place, free from moisture and excessive heat or cold. Often layers of newspapers are used as a cheap, easy to clean base. Often internal rails are provided around the box to prevent the bitch from lying directly against the sides of the box so as to prevent her from pinning her pups against the side and suffocating or crushing them. Rather than a solid wooden box with internal railings, some breeders will use a child’s inflatable pool (which has flexible sides) as a whelping containment. The size of the box will depend on the size of the bitch, but it must be long enough for the dam to be able to lie down at full stretch. Ideally the sides of the box should be high enough to prevent the young pups from escaping, yet enable the bitch to leave when she desires. The box should be disinfected before use. Bitches can be introduced to the box one to two weeks prior to whelping. Boxes should be lined with bedding material, or newspaper that the bitch may shred as part of her nesting behaviour which occurs shortly before whelping.

Once the litter is whelped, the initial bedding material may be replaced with other bedding, such as sheepskin, or towels, as the bitch will be less likely to shred them. Newspaper can continue to be used as an insulent beneath the new bedding, as it is cheap and easy to dispose of, but something offering traction is required to provide developing puppies secure footing. Some breeders add external sources of heat to keep the newborn pups warm. A heat pad is placed into the whelping box but it should not cover the entire area so some relief from overheating is available. Heated whelping boxes are also available for hire or purchase. Hot water bottles, wrapped in towels, and refilled as they cool may also be used. In all instances, care must be taken to ensure the dam and pups are able to move away from the heat when required.

Whelping ...

For most dogs, the average length of gestation (pregnancy) is 64-66 days following a surge in leutenising hormone (LH) levels, or 62-64 days post ovulation. Ovulation is triggered by the LH surge, and ova are then released over the following 1-2 days. The normal time frame between breeding and whelping can vary between 55 to 70 days, depending upon the time when the bitch was mated. If a bitch was mated before she ovulated, she can still become pregnant, as spermatozoa can remain viable within the reproductive tract of a bitch for over a week. It is assumed however, that the sperm reduce in number or fertility within a few days of mating. When the eggs are released by a bitch, they are immature and require 2.5 to 3 days after ovulation to mature. Bitches bred after they have ovulated and the egg has matured will therefore conceive much earlier. Therefore, don’t always assume your bitch will deliver pups exactly nine weeks after being mated.

Clues that whelping is imminent ...  

Many bitches may display “nesting” behaviour in the few days, or week preceding birthing. They may collect papers, clothes etc together, may seek shelter beneath chairs or other furniture, or may dig a burrow. Some may become restless or “clingy”. Production of milk is not a reliable sign that whelping is imminent, as many bitches may exude watery secretions up to two weeks prior to whelping.

Within 24 hours of whelping, levels of a hormone called progesterone decrease, with a concurrent drop in rectal temperature of 1 degree C. Twice daily (or three times, if possible) monitoring of temperatures, starting several days to a week before expected whelp date will normally detect this drop in temperature.

Whelping - First stage of labour ... 

This is the initial phase of labour, where the cervix begins to dilate. Bitches may refuse food, appear restless, pant, shiver or occasionally vomit during this time. (So may novice breeders!) This stage can last a variable amount of time, from hours to more than a day. Weak contractions of the uterus may also occur.

Second stage of labour ...  

The second stage of labour is when the cervix fully dilates, contractions will be easily seen, and finally, pups are born. When the pups pass through the cervix, this creates the urge to push and visible straining of the bitch can be observed. Bitches will often move around between whelps, but most will lie down as each pup is born. Bitches can be expected to pant and may lick their genitalia, or shiver, prior to the birth of a pup. The first pup to be born is usually from the side of the uterus (uterine horn) containing the most foetuses. The next pup is usually from the other horn, and so forth.

Prior to the birth of the first pup, a greenish-black discharge (lochia) may be observed. This is normal, and results from the placenta separating from the uterus. Whelping should occur within the next one to two hours. Whilst in the uterus, each pup is surrounded by two sacs. The outer one ruptures as the pup enters the birth canal, releasing a small amount of fluid. The second sac may, or may not, rupture during birth. If it hasn’t ruptured, the dam who will also bite the umbilical cord will usually remove it. The bitch will also vigorously lick fluid from the pup, which stimulates it to breathe and assists in drying.

The bitch will normally suckle pups between whelping the following pups. Nursing stimulates release of the hormone called oxytocin, which in turn stimulates milk let down, and contraction of the uterus. The newborn puppy will also receive colostrum. This is specialised milk, which is rich in antibodies and produced within the first 24 hours of whelping. The antibodies are absorbed by the newborn pup, providing it with immunity to infectious agents.

Third stage of labour ... 

This final stage is the passing of foetal membranes and placenta, and often occurs as subsequent pups are being whelped. The time between second and third stages is extremely variable. Some bitches may deliver puppies 5-10 minutes apart, others 20-60 minutes apart. The time intervals between pups usually increase as labour continues. As the whelps are often delivered alternately from each of the two uterine horns, two pups are often born close together. When this happens, the placenta from the first pup may not be passed until the second pup has been born.

Opinions vary as to whether bitches should be allowed to eat all the placentas. The placenta is rich in nutrients, so there is no medical reason to prevent this from occurring but ingestion can result in dark, loose stools and/or vomiting.

The time it takes for a bitch to normally whelp her litter will depend on the breed, her fitness and age, number of pups in the litter, etc. Once the bitch assumes strong straining, a pup should be whelped within 30 minutes. As labour progresses, normally the time between delivery of pups increases. If the bitch has strong contractions and strains for an hour without producing another pup, veterinary assistance should be sought. If the bitch has weak contractions, the interval between puppies will be longer. Veterinary assistance should be sought for bitches with weak or intermittent contractions who do not produce their first pup within four hours after the start of stage 2, or within two hours between later pups*. Some bitches may rest after delivering the majority of the litter, to resume some hours later. It can therefore be difficult to distinguish between genuine rest, and uterine inertia.

  • Times quoted from: Johnston, S.D., Root Kustritz, M.V. and Olson, P.N.S. Canine and feline theriogenology. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders, 2001. These times may vary in different books. You should discuss with your veterinarian at what time they feel assistance should be sought. It would also be prudent to have either your veterinarian’s after hours contact details, or the phone number of the after hours clinic to which they would refer you, should assistance be required.

Post partum ... 

Following completion of birthing, the dam will require rest. She may also be hungry and thirsty. She and her pups should be taken to your vet within the next 12-24 hours for a thorough check. Your vet will check the pups for obvious signs of congenital defects, such as cleft palate.

In the first few days after delivering the litter, there will be a red, watery vaginal discharge from the bitch as the uterus starts to reduce in size. During the following weeks this amount decreases and becomes brownish-red. Discharge occurs for about 3 weeks.

The bitch’s mammary glands should be regularly checked for signs of inflammation, or mastitis. They may become reddened feel warm and lumpy, and when gently expressed, the milk may have an abnormal colour. If you are at all concerned, seek veterinary advice.

Summary ...

  • Bitches whelp between 55-70 days after mating, or 62-64 days after ovulation.
  • The whelping area should provide a safe, warm, dry environment.
  • A drop in rectal temperature of 1 degree C occurs within 24 hours of whelping. Within 1-2 hours of whelping, a small amount of greenish black discharge (lochia) may also be seen passing from vulva.
  • Pups should be born within 30 minutes of strong straining. For the first born, a pup should be produced within 4 hours of weak or intermittent contractions. Subsequent puppies should be whelped within 2 hours of weak contractions. Seek veterinary assistance should times fall outside these parameters.

jAB sePT 07

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