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Northwest Notes / THE LABRADOR QUARTERLY - Spring 2011

Diann Sullivan

When ? The length of gestation in bitches cannot be reliably measured starting from days of breeding. Breedings are done before ovulation and for some daily and others, every two days. Conception is considered from the third day after she reaches 5.0 ng/ml progesterone level. The length of gestation is sixty days; begin counting from conception. A fantastic way to confirm pregnancy as well as 'somewhat' count puppies is to do an ultrasound 27-30 days from conception.

If the bitch is mated slightly before her fertile days, her litter size should really depend on how many eggs she ovulated that became mature enough for fertilization. A large litter can influence when birthing will start, occurring earlier than expected and the reverse can be true for very small litters. If the bitch has good food intake and comes to her last week before her due date without looking very large, an x-ray could be done to count skulls and or spines. I'm not finding it very helpful counting puppies in bitches carrying large litters.

This whole amazing process from successful mating to expecting the litter nears. Hormones are the designer of the heat (estrus) cycle, the development and ovulation of the eggs, the holding of and growing of the developing puppies and soon, birth. And again, hormones will orchestrate the beginning of labor in the (normal) delivery. The day before labor will begin, the stress hormones increase which triggers another hormone release from the placenta, which in turn causes the ovaries TO STOP PRODUCING PROGESTERONE. Incredible hormone ! It is primarily responsible for holding the uterine contents until 'it's time' and to maintain the bloody uterine lining that the placenta is attached to . (In humans, the ovaries make progesterone for a few days after the release of the egg and until implantation of the diving embryo in the uterine lining; the embryo then becomes responsible for making the uterine-supporting progesterone). The placentas produce a significant amount of progesterone in some animals but NOT IN DOGS. In the dog, the drop in progesterone level is totally caused by the end of the ovaries producing it. The amount of estrogen in the blood rises a few hours to a full day before whelping in many animals but this is not relevant in dogs.

Many have heard of taking the bitch's temperature days before she is due to watch for a significant decrease. This is caused by an sudden drop in progesterone levels. If rectal temperature is measured when she is at rest every twelve hours and recorded, it should be easy to see drop in temperature (drop should be 98.0-99.5 degrees) to signal labor, usually beginning within twenty-four hours.

Many females will show loss of appetite or even refuse a meal. I do have one though that will eat anytime ! As the time approaches, she may try to sneak off to herself and even showing a nesting behavior. This is when the cervix is dilating and softening and will last for many hours (maybe less in the bitch who has had previous litters).

The next stage of labor really begins to show increasing discomfort. She is likely to pant and then rest and this stage can last hours as well. As times passes, she will become more restless and her uneasiness will increase as the hours do pass. When she is ready to produce a puppy, she may grunt or groan and if you look carefully, you should be able to see the first contractions. The feeling when a puppy moves into the birth canal feels very much like her feeling of needing to have a bowel movement. She may get up and act as she needs to go out. IF and WHEN you take her out to walk on lead (!) or under direct supervision, throw a towel over your shoulder. (Once in a summer birthing, I forgot to do that and ended up taking off my shirt to clean a puppy until I could get us back inside !) Some bitches will throw up and others not partly depending on when they did last eat.

As you watch for contractions, they are usually up to ten minutes apart and there may even be two or three in a row before she rests. When a puppy enters the birth canal, it puts pressure on the wall of the vaginal toward the back and causes the hardest contractions. You may see the presence of mucous from the cervix's plug of old. It is not always seen and not important if missed.

Soon the puppy reaches the vulva, the outer opening and it's likely to see the fluid filled sac pushing through. It is just as common to have the bag of waters rupture the fluid gone before the puppy comes forth. The only time it would be dangerous to the puppy after the water does rupture and the puppy doesn't come within a few good pushes, puppy may dry as well as the vaginal lining. The bitch otherwise may strain and need help if the puppy is stuck part-way.

WHEN THE PUPPY IS AT THE VULVA, the bitch begins to lick and lick the area and usually breaks and laps up the fluids. The licking will remove anything over the puppy's mouth and nose and stimulate it to breathe. Many new bitches may not be eager to eat the fetal membranes and placenta and next brings her to cutting the cord with her teeth. It becomes instinctive as they desire to hide the smells from any potential predators; it also serves as in incredible protein eaten and nourishing mom and enriching the milk. It seems like they really pull sometimes but it really doesn't cause any umbilical problems and actually is thought to stimulate breathing. Puppies are born either HEAD OR FEET FIRST; a little more than half are head first.

The length of time between puppies is a huge concern for so many. I have and still do watch this carefully. It can be a half hour or so up to hours between puppies. I like to have them walk after an hour-and-a-half to stimulate contractions and see them deliver within three hours of the last. Most seem to deliver completely in eight to ten hours.

We also worry and hear many things about the color of discharge, especially blood. Red blood from birthing and placental detaching should stop with future contractions. Green colored fluid is sign of placenta somewhere along the uterine horns that has detached and is breaking down. This may or may not indicate any problem. Discharge that is really dark green and very dark even black-ish means a fetus detached some time ago and the placenta has been breaking down for a while ; it should all pass with the other birthing contractions.

Trouble ? There are bitches with their uterus lacking good 'tone' (as in muscle). If she doesn't go into labor within a day-and-a-half from obvious temperature drop, have her checked. IF steady and hard contractions continue without a puppy in half-an -hour, the puppy is either positioned in a bad way or too large.

DO inform your veterinarian after confirmation of pregnancy, when she is due and discuss his availability to you. Call him or her when contractions don't seem to progress to hard labor; don't wait any longer than three hours. Steady and continuous hard contractions for near thirty minutes without a puppy even at the vulva opening. Definitely watch for more than five hours of rest between puppies without another and you know she has more.

Every whelping is different. It changes as the bitch ages and as she has litters. As you feel more experienced in progressing through a litter being born, your confidence increases as you try to do more things yourself. The more inexperienced should seek a check up with their veterinarian a week in advance of the due date to again, discuss 'your plan'. Soon to enjoy the miracle of new creations and, new hopes and new dreams.


CANINE REPRODUCTION The Breeders Guide, 2nd edition, Copyright 2000, 1985, Phyllis A. Holst, MS, DVM

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