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Female Pets and Reproduction: What Can Go Wrong


Pet Column for the week of September 26, 2011

Related information:

Related site - Emergency Services at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Brittany Way Rose
Information Specialist

Uterine infections, difficult deliveries, and postpartum nutritional deficiencies are a few of the problems that could affect your female pet if you decide not to spay her. Unspayed females are also at greater risk for some types of cancer.

Dr. Mauria O'Brien, a veterinarian at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, is board certified in emergency and critical care. She recommends early spaying, before 6 months of age or before the first heat cycle, to eliminate or minimize problems of reproductive health. However, if you plan to breed your pet, she explains several risks that you should know about.

"The most common reproductive problem affecting female pets is a pyometra, or uterine infection," says Dr. O'Brien. Signs that your pet may have a pyometra include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, and vaginal discharge. Often you may notice these signs three to four weeks after your pet was in heat.

"If your dog or cat is showing these signs, an immediate trip to the vet is in order," says Dr. O'Brien. Left untreated a pyometra can result in severe infection that can lead to death. The most effective and common treatment of a pyometra is an ovariohysterectomy, in other words, a spay.

Estrus, or being "in heat," refers to the period when the animal is receptive to breeding. In dogs, signs of estrus are vulvar swelling and blood-tinged fluid from the vulva. Cats typically become overly friendly and vocal and may display the "lordosis position," a prayer-like position with the tail off to the side.

The gestation period lasts about nine weeks after the heat ends. Signs of labor include nesting, restlessness, pacing, and panting. Often the pet's appetite will drop off also.

"It is important to offer your pet a quiet place during labor in order to minimize stress, which can increase the likelihood of problems," says Dr. O'Brien.

Dystocia—a difficult, often dangerous, birth—is a reproductive emergency. "If your pet shows visible effort and abdominal pushing for more than 30 minutes without giving birth, or if you see a green discharge and there has been no puppy or kitten after 2 hours or a fluid filled sac is expelled with no fetus, your pet should be taken to a veterinarian," advises Dr. O'Brien.

Big-headed, narrow-hipped dogs, such as English and French bulldogs, Chihuahuas, and dachshunds, are predisposed to dystocia. If you are considering breeding this type of dog, you should thoroughly research their delivery needs. Your veterinarian should radiograph your pet after 45 days into the gestation period to determine the number of puppies present.

If newborn pets are having difficulty breathing or are not breathing after delivery, you can use a clean bulb syringe to clear secretions from their mouths and noses and stimulate them via vigorous rubbing.

Another reproductive problem, eclampsia, or "milk fever," occurs when nursing pups deplete the mother's calcium level. This is more common among small dogs that have large litters. Signs of eclampsia include tremors, panting, hyperexcitability, increased heart rate, red skin, and increased temperature. To prevent this problem, Dr. O'Brien recommends feeding the mother a puppy diet for three weeks before and after whelping to ensure adequate nutrition for lactation.

To reduce the risk of reproductive problems and the risk of mammary cancer, spaying your pet early--before the first heat cycle--is the best option. If you breed your pet, learn all you can and be sure to work closely with your local veterinarian.