ABSTRACT: It is common for veterinary nurses to meet clients who have the intention of breeding a litter of pups. These clients may be novice or experienced breeders. In both cases, however, there is often limited input from the veterinary practice into care of the pregnant bitch and care and management of the bitch and pups at the time of whelping (Figure 1). This is unfortunate since management of the parturient bitch can have a significant impact upon the level of neonatal loss.

Figure 1: A bitch settled with her pups

The purpose of this article is to review normal survival rates of pups after birth, and to compare them with those of the Guide Dogs breeding programme, highlighting management practice that may be involved in increasing neonatal survival.

Puppy survival rates

The rate of stillbirth and neonatal death in domestic dogs is depressingly high;1 the few published studies report survival rates at weaning of between 70 and 90 per cent.2-8 A study of the survival statistics from 267 whelpings (1,991 puppies) that occurred at the Guide Dogs Breeding Centre reported an overall survival rate at weaning of 91 per cent accounted for by five per cent of pups born as stillbirths and four per cent born alive, but dying before weaning.

The figures are considerably better than those reported by other authors. Interestingly though, even within Guide Dogs data, lower live birth rates were noted from bitches that whelped in volunteer homes with access to an experienced Guide Dogs breed stock supervisor (92.3%) compared with those that were constantly supervised by the staff at the Breeding Centre (95%). Despite this, the survival rate at weaning for pups which whelped in volunteer homes remained higher than those reported by other authors, at 89.5 per cent (based on data from 1,811 pups from 276 whelpings).

It is possible that the expertise of staff at the Breeding Centre increases the chances of initially keeping alive puppies that are weak and not viable in the long term, demonstrated by the lower stillbirth rates and higher proportion of pups that died before weaning than in volunteer homes. Overall, whether Guide Dogs broods whelped at the Breeding Centre or in volunteer homes, survival rates at weaning were high compared to those reported in the literature reviewed.

Maximising survival rates

Numerous authors have studied methods to improve neonatal survival rates and it is well documented that variations in husbandry and management techniques can affect survival. 6,9-13 Reductions in stillbirth rates to 2.5 to 3.7 per cent have been reported with accurate uterine and foetal monitoring prior to – and during – whelping to assess the quality of labour and viability of puppies.9-14

Prevention of late gestational death can be influenced by minimising exposure to pathogens as neonatal puppies are highly susceptible to infection as well as to environmental stress, malnutrition and dehydration.9-13-15 Until four weeks of age, puppies’ thermoregulatory mechanisms are not fully developed and hypothermia can have an impact on digestion and immunity.9-13-16

Carmichael6 reported a reduction in mortality from 25 to 10 per cent resulting from the maintenance of temperature and humidity levels during the first three weeks of life. Root-Kustritz reported perinatal mortality decreasing from 33 to six per cent when data-based interventions were used as opposed to non-data based interventions.

In addition to precautions which reduce the chances of exposure to pathogens- vaccination regimens- such as the one developed for canine herpes virus- can be used to decrease neonatal losses. Canine herpes virus has a wide distribution which may help explain the relatively high levels of neonatal loss recorded in the UK. The vaccination for the active immunisation of pregnant bitches to induce passive protection in pups has shown to protect pups against oronasal challenge with the virus and- in infected kennels- has reduced the rate of pregnancy loss and increased the number of live pups born and survival until the time of weaning.

Guide Dogs practice

Normally- bitches that live with volunteer families whelp in that environment and are provided with training and support.

In some circumstances – usually those where complications are likely – bitches are whelped at the Guide Dogs Breeding Centre- for instance- where there is a history of whelping complications; when deformities or abnormalities have been identified during pregnancy; or when a large litter or a single pup litter is expected.

At the Breeding Centre- bitches whelp in a specially designed kennel block where the dog care staff are trained in detecting complications during gestation and parturition; have 24 hour call-out access to a veterinarian; and where specialised facilities- such as an incubator- infrared cameras and heat lamps- are available should complications arise (Figures 2 – 5). Bitches are introduced to the whelping block one week prior to their due date to enable familiarisation with the environment and staff. The temperature in the block is maintained at 26.7°C.

Figure 2: A bitch due to whelp

Figure 3: The whelping block

Figure 4 The whelping area

Figure 5: The post whelp area

The whelping area should be quiet- warm- free from draughts and damp- easily cleaned and designed to minimise injury to neonates. It is suggested that the whelping area should be heated to 26-30°C although some authors report that the temperature requirements vary as neonates develop. If heat lamps are used- an area of the box should remain unheated to allow the bitch to move away from the heat should she choose to- and care should be taken to avoid overheating of the pups.

The whelping box should have sides designed to prevent the crushing of puppies and bedding material should not produce dust or cause a suffocation hazard. Prior to parturition- it is recommended that the bitch’s exposure to pathogens is minimised as late gestational abortion and neonatal death can be associated with numerous viral- parasitic and bacterial infections.

Guide Dogs’ staff use several methods of sanitation in the whelping area including a foot dip- overshoes- sanitation surface spray- soap hand wash- hand sanitizer and rubber gloves. Access to the kennel
block is limited for staff and not permitted for other animals. Standards of hygiene in the whelping area should be maintained by regular cleaning and appropriate barrier methods.If applicable- consideration should be given to other animals in the property and their access to the outdoors and the whelping area- as pathogens could accidentally be introduced.20 In addition to the risk from exposure to pathogens during gestation- during the first 10 days of life the pups’ immune system- which is not fully developed- makes them susceptible to bacterial and viral infection-9 further highlighting the necessity for maintaining hygiene standards.

During the final week of gestation- staff at the Breeding Centre measure the bitches’ temperatures at least twice per day. The transient reduction in rectal temperature that occurs approximately eight to 24 hours before parturition can be easily missed by infrequent temperature checks as rectal temperature may return to normal after a few hours.3-12-20 The rectal temperature usually changes from approximately 39°C to below 37°C (Figure 6).

Figure 6: The temperature drop prior to parturition (Tsutsui & Murata, 1982)

Linde-Forsberg and Eneroth describe the temperature drop as the most important clinical sign of impending parturition. Twice daily, or more frequent, temperature checks maximise the chance of observing the decrease in temperature.

The decrease in rectal temperature is mediated by a rapid decline in plasma progesterone concentration to <2ng/ml during the 48-hour period before parturition. In cases where bitches are overdue, Breeding Centre policy ensures that two to four days past the due date (depending on the individual dog) bitches are seen by the veterinarian and have a blood test to measure plasma progesterone concentration.

Although in some cases it may not be possible to calculate a bitch’s due date accurately, where the due date is known it is beneficial for these checks to be completed. A measurement of >3ng/ml indicates the bitch has not reached full term, with the exception of singleton pregnancies where progesterone concentrations can remain higher. Jutkowitz suggests that progesterone assays are useful in confirming primary uterine inertia and in deciding whether a caesarean section may be required.

Breeding Centre staff training involves lectures and observing whelpings. This helps increase knowledge of the normal events of parturition, confidence in recognising dystocia and understanding of the correct interventions in cases of dystocia, which are important to the effective management of a whelping.

During a whelping, if complications arise, staff at the Breeding Centre are trained in the use of ultrasound to scan bitches to check for remaining puppies and puppy health; are able to identify early signs of dystocia; and know after what length of time certain signs should cause concern. For instance, an interval of two hours between the births of pups can be normal; however, if a bitch has been experiencing strong contractions for an hour with no progress, this may not be a normal whelping.

It is recommended that bitches are scanned to assess puppy viability and health, which has been reported to reduce stillbirth rates (Figure 7). Early diagnosis and prompt treatment can help reduce mortality rates in cases of dystocia and prevent unnecessary puppy losses.

Figure 7: Scanning a bitch

Time to intervene

Experienced supervisors from Guide Dogs suggest that the following signs and time intervals should cause concern and require intervention:

   black or green vulva discharge and no signs of parturition

   more than 2 to 2.5 hours between pups being born

   contractions continuing for more than 1 hour

   no sign of contractions 6 to 8 hours after the waters break

   bitch nesting and off food but failing to progress within 36 hours

   no sign of whelping 48 hours after the temperature drop

   bitch being more than 3 days past the due date, especially with a small litter; and

   bitch growling at puppies once born.

Guide Dogs staff and volunteers are trained to look for these signs, and expert advice is available to them 24 hours a day should it be required. In addition to those on the above list, there are many published articles containing information on whelping complications that could be reviewed by a client prior to their bitch whelping.

Guide Dogs staff are trained in the use of resuscitation techniques and post parturition checks and always attempt resuscitation when the situations arise. Three techniques are recommended by the experienced supervisors:

   clearing the airway to remove the foetal membranes and clearing the mouth and nose of foetal fluid using either a dry towel or a small pipette;

   rubbing the pup with a towel to stimulate respiratory effort; and

   gently swinging the puppy in a small arc (this should be avoided unless absolutely necessary because of the risk of brain trauma).

Post-parturition checks should include checking puppies’ airways, checking for sucking efficiency, checking for discharge from the eyes or ears and checking for abnormalities, such as cleft palates.

Post-parturition, monitoring of environmental temperature and humidity in the whelping area by installing air humidity and temperature indicators could help prevent hypothermia and dehydration of puppies.13-19 Should dehydration or hypothermia occur, knowledge of the correct treatments is important. Normally the neonate will gain between five to 10 per cent body weight per day and monitoring weight gain can provide indications of puppy health.

Birth weight should be recorded followed by regular, weekly weight measurements to enable the early identification of problems and monitoring of puppy progress.9 Knowledge of the normal behaviour of healthy, well-nourished puppies can help the observer to identify problems when they arise.


Although the stillbirth and neonatal mortality rate in dogs is relatively high, there have been numerous methods suggested that can help improve puppy survival rates. Several authors have reported reduced mortality rates through managing husbandry and monitoring the bitch and pups before, during and after parturition.

Further evidence of achievable survival rates was reported in this review of Guide Dogs litters, where known husbandry factors at the Breeding Centre have resulted in 91 per cent of puppies surviving until weaning.


Co-authors of this paper were Louise Phillips from the Department of Animal and Land Sciences Hartpury College, Gloucestershire and Professor Gary Eng
land from the School of Veterinary Medicine and Science, University of Nottingham Leicestershire, UK


Rachel Moxon BSc Hons

After graduating with an animal science degree, Rachel Moxon worked for one year on an equine nutrition and exercise physiology research farm in Kentucky, USA. On her return to the UK, she began working as a canine research technician for Guide Dogs at its Warwickshire-based breeding centre.


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• VOL 25 • No3 • March 2010 • Veterinary Nursing Journal