Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Planning for Healthy Puppies

Pet Column for the week of March 16, 1998

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
By Theresa A. Fuess, Ph.D.
Information Specialist

"The starting point for a healthy litter of puppies is a healthy, active bitch," says Dr. Thomas
J. Burke, professor of small animal medicine formerly at the University of Illinois Veterinary
Medicine Teaching Hospital. "It is important to have vaccination and deworming programs
updated before the dog is mated. Most drugs and vaccines are not tested or cleared for use
in pregnant dogs. Heartworm preventative, however, is approved and should be continued
throughout the pregnancy." About a month after the breeding, a veterinarian can conduct a
pregnancy exam. False pregnancy, a physiological condition in which the bitch displays all
the signs of pregnancy (except puppies), can fool owners and lead to undue anxiety.

Nutritionally, everything a bitch needs for the duration of pregnancy is in a good quality,
balanced, commercial (not generic) dog food. Supplemental minerals or vitamins will only
unbalance a balanced diet. During the first six weeks of the pregnancy feed the usual
pre-pregnancy maintenance diet. The mother's caloric requirement increases during the last
three weeks of the pregnancy, when the pups grow the most in size, and during the first
three weeks after delivery, when she is producing the most milk. Gradually increase the
daily food intake over this six-week period from maintenance to three times that amount.

Set up a whelping area early so that the mother has time to become comfortable with it. A
whelping box should be big enough for the bitch to stretch out and turn around in, bedded
with sheets or towels that can be easily cleaned, and located in a quiet, secluded, draft-free

The bitch's rectal temperature will indicate when she is about to whelp. A dog's normal
temperature is 101 or 102. In late pregnancy it will run below normal, around 100. Within
24 hours before delivery it drops to 97 or 98. Toward the end of the pregnancy, the dog's
abdomen will balloon out, her mammary glands will enlarge and may drip milk, and she will
display nesting behavior. However, the only sure sign of impending labor is the drop in
rectal temperature. Dr. Burke recommends taking her temperature twice a day (always at
the same times each day) so as not to miss it.

Labor begins with contractions of the uterus and abdominal muscles. The amniotic sac will
protrude, followed by a pup and placental membranes. Puppies are generally born in pairs,
maybe 15 minutes apart, followed by a rest period that lasts up to an hour or, in large
litters, even longer. The mother may take a break and walk around during this rest time.

Each pup is delivered enclosed in an amniotic sac that the mother breaks open. The mother
then chews the umbilical cord and cleans the pup. The placenta is delivered with or right
after each puppy. The bitch often eats the placenta, but it is not necessary for her to do so
and it can cause vomiting and diarrhea. The mother also licks the pups' bottoms to stimulate
urination and defecation, and it is normal for her to eat the babies' feces. If the bitch does
not do these things, you should get the pup out of the amniotic sac so it can breath, tie off
(one inch from the body) and cut the umbilical cord, dry the pup, disinfect the navel, and let
the pup nurse. Use a warm wet hand towel to lightly stroke the pup's anal and genital areas
to stimulate urination and defecation.

Any of the following conditions call for veterinary assistance in delivery. (1) The rectal
temperature drops and labor does not begin within 24 hours. (2) The temperature does not
drop within a week after the due date. (3) Labor contractions continue for more than 30
minutes without producing a pup. (4) All the pups are not delivered within 24 to 36 hours of
(5) There is not a placenta delivered with each puppy.

Healthy puppies will nurse right away and then every few hours. The pups must nurse from
their mother within 12 hours of birth to receive her anitibodies against disease. After 12
hours, their stomachs will not absorb antibodies. After this first 12 hours, if the mother does
not have enough milk, or if her litter is too large, then the pups' diet can be supplemented
with commercial puppy milk replacer. Cow's milk is nutritionally inadequate for puppies.

Supplemental heat should only be used for orphans or if the room's temperature is too cold
for the mother's comfort. A newborn pup can't generate body heat until it develops the
shiver reflex, at about two and half weeks of age. Orphan pups need an environmental
temperature of about 97 the first week, in the mid 80's the second week, then in the 70's. If
the mother is there to keep the pups warm, high temperatures are unnecessary and will
make her uncomfortable.

Good health can be monitored by weighing the pups every day. A healthy pup's weight will
increase daily. A sick pup won't gain or will lose weight, and this will be the first sign of
illness. Good health can be maintained by disinfecting the pups' navels with half-strength
tincture of iodine a couple times a day until it dries up and falls off. The most common cause
of puppy death is infection via the belly button.

Dr. Burke recommends that bitches be given a shot of oxytocin within a day of delivery so
that all placental remnants are expelled from the uterus. Normal discharge can last for two
to three weeks.

"Good planning is the key. Most bitches whelp without a problem," says Dr. Burke.
"However, when a problem occurs, time is critical. Plan in advance with your veterinarian
for the possible emergency at odd hours."

For more information on animal health, contact your local veterinarian.