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Fostering: Pregnant and Nursing Dogs
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Responsibilities Of A Pregnant/Nursing Dog Foster

The attention and care of a pregnant and nursing dog will vary based on the individual dog.  At a minimum, you should be prepared for the following.

Pregnant Dogs
When a pregnant dog comes in to the shelter we generally have very little information about her background. Some dogs that appear large may not deliver for weeks, while some that appear average may give birth within a few hours of being placed into your home. We do our best at the shelter to give you an estimate on when the puppies will be delivered.

Before placing a pregnant dog into foster care, she is usually vaccinated, dewormed and behaviorally evaluated by the shelter staff. There are several other diseases that we are unable to test for and conditions that can arise unbeknownst to us when placing a dog in your care. Consequently, there is some risk associated to you or to your pets when you foster a dog whose background is unknown. The dog/or puppies should be kept in a separate area from your pets for this reason.

The dog’s gestation is approximately 63 days in length. As the gestation period comes to an end, the pregnant dog becomes restless, searching for a suitable den or nest in which to deliver her puppies. She looks for somewhere private, quiet and dry. Litter sizes vary, depending on the breed of the dog, three to ten puppies is average.

Usually a good eater, the pregnant dog’s desire for food disappears as she enters into labor. Some dogs will dislike interference at this point, while some may seem to enjoy having company during their labor. Most will gladly stay in an area provided by the foster parent for the birth of the puppies. If the mother dog attempts to find a different location to give birth, gently put her back in the place you have selected. Usually she will comply, but sometimes a very independent dog will only be happy giving birth in private. The mother dog should be provided with an area that is large enough for her and her puppies and ideally lined with soft towels, sheets or blankets.

When the first stage of labor starts, the mother dog’s rate of breathing increases and she may begin to breathe through her mouth and start to pant. This stage may last for hours and the foster parent should not be overly concerned. During this stage, uterine contractions begin. The mother dog will appear restless and may pace, dig, shiver, pant, or even vomit. This is all normal and all you can do be sure that she has water available. This stage of labor can be long, lasting 6 to 12 hours and culminates with full dilation of the cervix in preparation to expel a puppy.

Provided that the mother dog is happy, there is no need at this point for interference. It is important to ensure that you have all of the necessary supplies (a private area, soft blankets and towels that are easily changeable, water for mom, extra towels) and that the birthing room is warm enough. The room temperature should be at least 72º, as a cold room can cause hypothermia in the newborn puppies.

As labor progresses, there will be some vaginal discharge, colorless at first but later becoming blood tinged. If at any time she has a foul smelling discharge or if bleeding is profuse, this may be a sign of trouble and you need to call for help. Any sign of bright red blood is also indicative of a need to call for help. Please contact the veterinarian.

The second stage of labor is the hard labor stage in which the first puppy is expelled. Expect one pup every 30 to 45 minutes with 10 to 30 minutes of hard straining. You might also expect some puppies (probably half of them) to be born tail first. This is not abnormal for dogs. It is normal for the mom dog to take a rest partway through delivery, and she may not strain at all for up to four hours between pups. If she is seen straining hard for more than one hour or if she takes longer than a four hour break, please call the veterinarian for further instructions.

The third stage of labor is the expulsion of the placenta and afterbirth. Each pup may not be followed by afterbirth; the mother may pass two pups and then two placentas. This is normal.

Puppies are born covered in membranes that must be cleaned away or the pup will suffocate. The mother will bite and lick the membranes away. Allow her a minute or two after birth to do this; if she does not do it, then you must clean the pup for her. Simply remove the slippery covering and rub the puppy with a clean towel. The umbilical cord may be tied in a knot about one inch from the pup and cut with scissors on the far side of the knot. Be careful not to pull on the umbilical cord as this can injure the puppy. The mother may want to eat the placenta but this is probably not a good idea as vomiting it up later is common; it is best to clean away the placenta yourself.

The first amniotic sac will soon come into view. In a regular birth, the enclosed puppy will be born within 15 to 30 minutes. Very often, the mother’s constant licking will rupture the sac. If this happens you should remain calm and resist the temptation to interfere. If the puppy is being born head first, a few more contractions should release it.

In about one-third of all births, the hind legs emerge first. This is only slightly more difficult for the mother dog than a head-first birth. In a true breech birth (the puppy is arriving hindquarters and tail first) the mother dog may become agitated and turn around repeatedly in attempts to release the wedged puppy. She may find it easier to bear down if she can push with her hind legs against the box or your hand. Even with this help, the birth may take 20 minutes. The mother dog’s persistence will probably ensure delivery. If she should weaken or become distressed, you should be ready to call the veterinarian for help. In most births there are no complications, and only in a very few do serious difficulties arise.

There are three main phases that the mother dog goes through once a puppy is born. The first phase will be to break away the birth sac that covers the puppy. Next, she will clean the nose and mouth of the newborn, enabling him/her to take his/her first breath. Lastly the mother dog bites through the umbilical cord, separating the puppy from the placenta. She will ingest the cord up to about an inch from the puppies’ belly. The remaining cord should be left alone and will eventually dry up and fall off on its own. Following this the mother may want to eat the placenta but this is probably not a good idea as vomiting it up later is common; it is best to clean away the placenta yourself.

After these crucial steps, the mother dog vigorously licks the puppy all over, helping the fur to dry and allowing the puppy to stay warm. The next puppy will soon arrive and the process will begin all over again.

Occasionally a new mother does not attempt to remove the sac from the puppy. She may not know what to do or she may be too busy with the next delivery. In this case, give her a minute to realize what is needed, but if there is no sign of action, act quickly. Gently remove the membrane, being careful not to pull on the umbilical cord as it can easily cause a hernia. If the mother dog still does not begin to help, carefully cut the cord about one inch from the puppy’s belly. Tie the cord off with dental floss at the cut end. Then, rub the puppy dry with a clean towel to remove the amniotic fluid and stimulate breathing.

After the puppy is breathing well, place it close to the mother’s belly. The puppy will usually find a nipple and begin to suckle. This is generally enough to arouse the mother dog’s natural instincts to take over.

Apart from a mother dog being unable to deliver a breech puppy, there are two other situations when it is vital to call the veterinarian for help. The first situation is one in which the mother has strong contractions for two hours with no sign of a puppy appearing. This may be due to two puppies blocking the birth canal.

The second situation is uterine inertia, when the mother suddenly appears to tire before or after the first puppy is born. This is different than a dog resting between births. She will seem generally exhausted and distressed, and help will be needed.

Occasionally a mother dog is very protective of her puppies. Carefully observe your foster dog before trying to handle her puppies or before putting your hands or face near the birthing place.

If you feel that your pregnant dog has gone beyond the point when she should have delivered the puppies, please call the veterinarian immediately.

Nursing Dogs
The first milk, called colostrum, is only produced for a few days. It is rich in protein and minerals and contains antibodies that protect the puppies from disease. For this reason it is very important that infant puppies nurse from their mother. The puppies will put on weight steadily, gaining as much as a half-ounce per day during the initial period of rapid growth.

Occasionally, a puppy will be pushed out by another puppy when it is attempting to nurse. This is normal, but if the same puppy is repeatedly kept from the nipple it will fall behind in growth and development. A puppy repeatedly pushed away by the mother may suffer a decrease in body temperature. If this occurs, warm the puppy and attempt to place it back with the mother dog. If this does not work, you will need to call the veterinarian for help. You may need to start feeding the puppy yourself. Careful examination of the puppy may reveal a defect such as a cleft pallet, or it may just be a “runt.”

A puppy will use heat receptors in its nose to find the nipple. Dog milk is high in fat and protein. Puppies will compete for the most productive nipple and by two days of age, the puppies know which nipples are most productive. Puppies that latch onto the most productive nipples grow quickly.

At birth, a puppy is totally helpless, unable to even regulate its own body temperature.  Within four days it is able to find its mother and crawl to her from 2 feet away.  By two weeks old, coordination is sufficiently developed for it to use its front legs, and by three weeks of age the puppies can stand tentatively. By seven weeks of age the puppies leap, run and seem to have developed a perfect sense of balance.