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Thankfully most expectant mother dogs have very few problems or complications in whelping, the actual birthing process of the puppies. This can be helped along by choosing a male that is about the same size as the female and ensuring that the mother to be is in the best possible physical shape prior to breeding and during the entire gestation period. For most dogs this is about 63 days, give or take a few days, and most breeders recommend switching her to high protein, high nutrient puppy food at about the five week mark of the pregnancy.
In addition the female should be given routine, mild level exercise during the last few weeks of her pregnancy and kept as calm and relaxed as possible. Not stressing or changing the female's environment at this time is very important. Preparing a whelping box or area for her is another important step to allow her to feel comfortable and secure as her delivery date approaches. Typically most females will start to "nest" or find a whelping spot about a week or so before she will give birth to the puppies. Providing the box full of towels, shredded paper or other types of soft and safe bedding is very important. Avoid using wood shavings or bedding pellets or anything rough that may be an irritant to the mother or the newborns. This bedding will typically have to be disposed of after whelping is complete so old sheets or towels are a great option.
If you have young children you may wish to consider whether or not it is appropriate for them to watch the puppies being born. Contrary to what they may have seen on TV or in the movies it can be messy and very stressful for the female, which may be difficult for very young children to understand. Some dogs will whine, howl and growl all through the pregnancy while others will be very quiet. Females may also get up and walk about, deliver the puppies in a squatting position or even deliver a puppy when standing up, all behaviors that may be unsettling to kids. Generally older children are better able to handle these issues but if puppies are stillborn or there are some whelping complications even older children may be traumatized.
There is a great deal of variation between females when it comes to delivering puppies. If it is a first litter you will have little to go on as to how she will handle the birthing process and if the puppies will be delivered quickly or more slowly and spread out. Either option is fine as long as the female is not in any distress or signs of pain or discomfort.
Once the female dog's temperature drops by more than two degrees she will start whelping within approximately 24 hours. Most breeders recommend that rectal temperature readings be taken twice a day from about the 58th day of pregnancy to start charting her regular temperature. She may also show signs of increasing agitation and restlessness, needing frequent trips outside to urinate as well as defecate plus she typically will stop eating within this period.
Once she moves into the whelping box area, which she should have been sleeping in for the last week or so, she is preparing to deliver the puppies. She may lay on her side or sit down, just allow her to be comfortable and choose her own position. Once she actually starts straining to deliver it is important to keep a record of the time until the first puppy is born. Do not attempt to move the female if she has started into active labor but is not in the whelping area. Moving her can add stress and make her nervous, leading to possible complications.
For virtually all females the first puppy should be delivered within 2 hours of the onset of active labor. During the time she may get up and move around, make a lot of noise, or even appear a bit anxious and aggressive if you move into her space. Give her room and privacy but check to make sure she is not showing high levels of anxiety or pain. If the first puppy is not born within 2 hours or if you are concerned about her behavior or response immediately contact your vet or an vet emergency clinic or animal hospital.
Generally the first part of the placenta, the water sac, will appear out of the vagina within 15 to 30 minutes of labor. Do not attempt to pull on this membrane, allow the female to push it out of the birth canal naturally. The puppy will be enclosed within this membrane, the placenta, and the female will turn and lick the sac, breaking it and allowing air to the puppy. She may not do his immediately and don't panic, allow her do this at her own pace. If the puppy is not attended to by the mother before the next puppy is born, you may need to break the sac, clear the liquid from the nose and position the puppy for the mother to lick. If she doesn't towel dry the puppy and tie off the umbilical cord about a 1/2 inch from the puppy's belly before cutting it between the tie and the mother. The puppy should cry and whine to ensure that he or she is breathing and has air into the lungs. Dip the end attached to the puppy in a diluted iodine solution and place the puppy in a warm space away from the hindquarters of the female.
Puppies may be born either in a frontal position, front feet first, which is normal or a breach position. Breach means that the hind end comes first, which is also normal unless the puppy becomes stuck in the birth canal. If you can see the puppy gently pulling on the hindquarters in a breach position or front legs in a frontal position may be helpful, however you should never pull forcefully as you can do serious damage to the puppy. Never pull on the front legs if the nose is not visible as the head may be twisted backwards over the neck and back. Unless you have experience in whelping calling your vet is the best option and he or she can either talk you through the process over the phone or have you bring the female in for assistance.
It is essential to keep track of how many puppies are born and how many afterbirth sacs are expelled. Since the female may eat these, which is normal, you won't necessarily have a count after the whelping is completed. If all the placentas don't come out of the female there is a high risk of a life threatening infection developing in the next few days. Your vet will need to examine the female if this is the case or if you have lost count at any point. It is far safer to have the exam completed and start proactive treatment than to assume that all is well.
Always have your vet's number on hand as well as a back up number. If you female has a history of whelping problems or is of a breed known for whelping difficulties you do need to make the appropriate arrangements with your vet to ensure her health and safety as well as that of the puppies.
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