ABSTRACT: Most veterinary nurses encounter the whelping bitch as an emergency case, usually in the middle of the night with the prospect of a Caesarean section looming. I have been in the privileged position of breeding two litters from my own Briard bitch, as well as caring for several pregnant and nursing bitches over the years.

In this article, I would like to share my experiences of normal canine parturition and the rearing of healthy puppies.

Care of the pregnant bitch

It makes sense to provide the bitch with optimal care during her pregnancy so that she is given the best chance of a stress-free whelping, a viable litter and a plentiful milk supply (Table 1). Ultrasonography to estimate the litter size aids planning and allows an appropriate feeding protocol to be put in place.

Preparation for whelping

Even the most seasoned breeder anticipates the arrival of a litter with a mixture of excitement and apprehension. Sensible planning for all eventualities is of the utmost importance. A checklist should be drawn up to ensure that everything is to hand prior to the expected day of whelping (Table 2).

A quiet, warm and secluded location should be chosen for the birth that will facilitate easy observation of the bitch and her puppies, and she should be allowed to familiarise herself with her birthing quarters well in advance. Sleeping in the same room as the bitch and encouraging her to settle in her whelping box for the last week or so of her pregnancy is ideal.

Disposable whelping boxes, constructed of strong cardboard are gaining favour as an alternative to traditional homemade wooden boxes. In the author's experience, these are robust enough to withstand the rigours of a young litter surprisingly well, whilst providing the advantages of being warm and cosy, and being easily disposed of so that the risk of any cross contamination between litters is eliminated.

A draught-free location for the newborn pups is arguably more important than the provision of direct heat, as the dam or littermates can often provide sufficient warmth if the ambient temperature can be maintained at a steady 28 to 30°C.

Direct warmth can be supplied by an infra-red lamp or heated pad if necessary, but only a portion of the whelping box should be exposed to this additional heat so that the dam and her pups have a cooler area to move to should they wish (Figure 1). Thick layers of newspaper and proprietary fleece bedding should be used to keep the whelping box dry, as excess moisture can quickly chill puppies.

Figure 1: Two methods for providing extra warmth in the whelping area. Left: Infra¬red lamp suspended above the nest – the temperature can be regulated by altering the chain length or asking the supplier to fit a half-dimmer switch. Right: Heated pad for placing underneath bedding – this should be well covered to prevent contact burns. In this example the flex is metal-coated to prevent damage by chewing

Final stages of pregnancy

Viability of the unborn puppies can be assessed by checking for intra-uterine movements by careful abdominal palpation and observation, and foetal heartbeats can be monitored with the use of a stethoscope.

The rectal temperature should be recorded at least three times daily in the last week to pinpoint the transient drop in body temperature that occurs eight to 24 hours before parturition (Figure 2). The lower temperature mirrors a sharp decrease in progesterone levels and is a reliable indicator of impending parturition.

Figure 2: Rectal temperature plot of a pregnant bitch at parturition

Stage 1 of parturition

Outward signs of the first stage of parturition can be subtle in some bitches. It lasts on average six to 12 hours, but can appear much shorter or extend to 36 hours. The bitch may refuse food and become restless. Some, but not all, bitches will display nesting behaviour by pawing at the ground, seeking seclusion or rearranging bedding in the whelping box.

Though not outwardly visible, early uterine contractions will have begun and the bitch may glance at her flanks. Any vulval discharge at this stage should be clear and mucoid. Panting is a common sign that the first stage is underway (Figure 3). Calm reassurance will help to settle the bitch, but she should not feel crowded and a large audience is to be discouraged.

Figure 3: This bitch is exhibiting classical signs of the first stage of parturition. She is panting, shivering and restless, has a 'worried look', and has strings of clear mucus appearing at her vulva. She had earlier refused breakfast and her body temperature had dropped 12 hours previously

Stages 2 and 3 of parturition

In practice these two stages occur alternately, with the birth of each puppy (Stage 2) being followed within 15 minutes or so by the expulsion of the placenta for that puppy (Stage 3). The entire process takes around three to 12 hours, depending on the number of puppies and the experience of the bitch. She will begin to strain visibly as uterine contractions become more forceful.

During this time she may lie on her side or stand in a squatting position.

The amniotic sac of the first puppy will show at the vulva and the puppy should be expelled in its foetal membranes shortly afterwards. To encourage bonding, the bitch should be left to break the membranes, wash the puppy and sever the umbilical cord herself (Figure 4). If, however, she is busy with the arrival of the next puppy, or is not quite sure what to do, it may be necessary to take over and tear the membranes or clear the airway to enable the new arrival to take its first breaths.

Figure 4: The dam has torn the foetal membranes so that this newborn puppy can take its first breath. She will wash the puppy and tear the umbilical cord with her teeth. Her attempts to consume the placenta should be discouraged as this can cause unpleasant diarrhoea

On average, puppies are bor
n at intervals of 30 to 60 minutes. Each puppy will normally seek to feed very soon after birth. It is important that each pup receives an adequate intake of the bitch’s first milk, or colostrum, as soon as possible, and active suckling should be encouraged during the first 72 hours.

Any weak or tired pups may need to be placed on the teat while squeezing a small quantity of milk onto the tongue to ensure early intake of colostrum. Any such puppies should continue to be closely monitored to ensure that they are feeding independently and gaining strength.

The time of birth of each puppy should be recorded and, once all the pups have arrived safely and the bitch has settled, each should be weighed and carefully examined to check for any abnormalities, such as cleft palate.

Care of dam and newborn pups

A devoted mum will be reluctant to leave her new puppies for a few days and she may appreciate being fed in, or close to, the whelping box until she feels more relaxed. Ample supplies of water must be within her reach at all times, taking care to locate the bowl safely away from the pups. She may need to be persuaded to leave the pups for toileting, and care should be taken that puppies are not trampled on in her eagerness to return to the nest!

Healthy puppies will feed from the dam vigorously and regularly, using their front paws to paddle at the teat (Figure 5). Once latched on, they are difficult to remove! In between feeds, the puppies will fall into activated sleep, during which they will twitch and squeak or yelp (Figure 6).

Figure 5: At only a few hours old, this puppy is sucking strongly, using its front paws to knead at the teat

Figure 6: These healthy puppies are clean, dry, warm, plump and relaxed. During sleep, they twitch and can be quite vocal. The dam is content to catch up on some sleep herself in between feeding and washing her pups

The bitch washes each puppy frequently, encouraging urination and defaecation. Most bitches will continue this duty until weaning is well under way. Some bitches are so devoted to this task that they develop raw patches on the tongue, which may result in a reluctance to eat. Checking her over daily will detect early signs of any mastitis, such as pain, redness or hardness of the glands.

Regular grooming of her coat will make her feel pampered and appreciated and, in long-coated breeds, will help to prevent knots forming that could entangle puppies. It is normal for a brick red/dark green vulval discharge, known as lochia, to be present for three to four weeks after parturition. A discharge that is bright green or foul-smelling requires further investigation.

Table 3 summarises the basic features of the care of growing puppies.


The importance of the breeder in the early socialisation of puppies should not be underestimated.2 Time should be set aside daily to make a fuss of each puppy individually. Exposure to new people on a regular basis accustoms the puppies to being handled by strangers, and introduces them to different smells and sounds. Visitors should be asked to wash their hands on arrival and to remove outdoor shoes.

Puppies that are reared in typical bustling household surroundings will have a head start on those who are isolated in a single room of the house or kept in an outside shed (Figure 7). Weather permitting, the puppies should be allowed to spend time in the fresh air to introduce them to outdoor sounds, such as traffic noise, aeroplanes, children playing and other dogs barking.

Figure 7: Puppies that are accustomed to household sounds, such as the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, ringing telephones, will be less fearful of their new surroundings when they go off to their new homes

Where possible, giving each puppy time away from the rest of the litter for a short period daily can help to develop confidence (Figure 8). New toys and other safe objects for the puppies to investigate should be introduced regularly.

Figure 8: Each puppy should be given time away from the rest of the litter and provided with plenty of new objects to explore


It is an honour to tend to a naturally whelping bitch and her newborn puppies, and to watch a thriving litter grow and develop. Recent, well-publicised reports have suggested a place for more involvement of the veterinary profession in taking dog breeding practices forward. The VN may have a role in forming positive relationships between the practice and its breeder clients.

Most breeders love to talk and to show off their breeding stock! There is no harm in asking if you can observe a whelping or spend some time with a growing litter. As well as providing valuable experience, this could prove to be an ideal opportunity for views to be exchanged and greater understandings to develop.


Lou Hayward rvn mbvna

Lou trained and qualified as a Veterinary Nurse in the early 1980s at a mixed practice in St Albans, before moving to take up the head nurse position at a newly-established small animal practice in Milton Keynes. More recently she has been self employed as a pet-sitter and groomer. Currently, she is in the final year of a full-time BSc(Hons) Biomedical Science degree at the University of Bedfordshire.


1.   LAWLER, D. F. (2008) Neonatal and paediatric care of the puppy and kitten. Theriogenology 70: 384-392.

2.   RICCOMINI, F. (2010) G ood socialisation is essential. Veterinary Times 40 (1): 24.

Suggested reading

EVANS, J. M. and WHITE, K. (1994) Book of the Bitch, Henston, High Wycombe ROOT KUSTRITZ, M. V. (2003) Small Animal Theriogenology, Elsevier, St Louis.

SIMPSON, G., ENGLAND, G. and HARVEY, M. (1998) BSAVA Manual of Small Animal Reprod
uction anc Neonatology, British Small Animal Veterinary Association, Gloucester.


Veterinary Nursing Journal • VOL 25 • No7 • July 2010 •