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This time of year, I always begin thinking about breeding, but not in the context of my own dogs, since I had Janice spayed after her last litter. My personal belief is that a bitch should never have more than three litters, because at a certain age an intact female begins to run an increased risk of health issues if not spayed. One of the least problematic is mammary cancer, since most of the time a dog will die with it, but not of it. Spaying can prevent mammary cancer in dogs, but once it’s diagnosed it has to be treated, usually by means of surgery, and it often recurs. By far, though, the worst potential health hazard for an intact bitch is pyometra. I talked about this in Pyometra – The Uterine Cancer That Can Kill Your Dog. The title really says it all.
So why is breeding on my mind right now? It’s because Janice always (as do most bitches) had two heats per year – one in the late fall or early winter, and another right around this time of year. In the fall I’d separate her and Leroy, which I hated having to do, but the alternative was a winter litter with all the attendant mess in the house, it being too cold to keep Janice and her brood outside. Instead, I’d let them breed this time of year and have the puppies ready to go to their forever homes in late summer.
I also found the dog gestation period easier to get through once the days started getting longer. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I’m one of those “seasonal affective disorder” types, but I do feel more energetic and happier once the sun makes its presence known for the better part of the day, and better equipped emotionally to deal with the dog gestation period.
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This is a question that, if you Google it, you’ll get close to 11 million results. There’s really only one answer, though – forever! At least that’s how it seemed to me during Janice’s first pregnancy, as I agonized over every little burp and fart, took her temperature 47 times a day, and constantly second-guessed myself as to whether I was making sure she got the best possible care. I took her to Dr. Kim for regular checkups, and obsessed over her diet. Finally, Dr. Kim told me “You can put her on a supplement if you like, but personally I think it’s overkill. Janice is a healthy dog.”
I put Janice on a supplement anyway, just to be sure.And I settled in for the longest wait of my life.
The dog gestation period is actually only about 63 days, but I felt as though it was never going to end. With Janice’s second litter, I was a lot more laid-back. Once you’ve been through it, and you come to realize that dogs have been breeding and birthing since time immemorial, and usually without supplements and checkups and overly obsessive owners, you kind of learn how to chill a bit.
That being said, I sure could have used a voice of calm reason to tell me what I needed to know about the dog gestation period, and how to get through it with my sanity at least no more in question than it usually is. So I’m going to try to be that voice of calm reason for you. I’ll tell you everything I know about the dog gestation period, and with any luck, you’ll have an easier time of it than I did.
Before getting into the dog gestation period, let’s talk a bit about what happens before the actual pregnancy. If you’re thinking about breeding your dog, you’re going to want to look for signs that she’s coming into heat. The heat cycle has four phases, and it’s important to know which stage your dog is in if you expect to have a successful breeding.
Knowing how the heat cycle works can help you to determine your dog’s gestation period. Sometimes, it’s hard to know if a breeding has actually occurred, especially if the male is inexperienced. During Janice’s first heat, she was perfectly willing to stand for Leroy, but the poor guy had no clue as to what he was doing. I’d end up having to move him around, saying “No, buddy, this is the right end!” Then he’d try, and fall off, and Janice and I would both be frustrated. Finally I just gave up, and decided to let nature take its course.
I didn’t think there had been a breeding, because they never seemed to achieve “the tie.” I was thinking, though that there might have been what’s known as a “slip breeding,” which occurs when the dogs don’t lock up, but the male’s semen still finds its way to where it needs to be.
Whether they’d tied up or not, Leroy obviously got the job done, because 63 days later, Janice gave birth to 9 beautiful little Boxers! So the lesson here is that you should watch the four cycles, and unless you have good reason to think otherwise, assume that something happened at some point during the estrus stage. This will help you to determine the dog gestation period as it relates to your bitch. It also makes it easier for your vet to do a pregnancy test if you aren’t sure a successful breeding has taken place.
If you’re new to breeding and don’t keep a male dog, and aren’t sure about how to identify the heat stages, there are ovulation test sticks that you can buy to help you determine if your bitch is ready to accept a male. These can also be helpful even if you’re an experienced breeder, but your bitch has “weak” heats.
A friend asked me this recently, concerning her Havanese. I responded with another question: “Did they tie up?” My friend told me that they had, and I said “Then unless the male was firing blanks, she’s pregnant.”
Most of the time, the answer is just that simple.
Unfortunately, you can’t just go out to your local drugstore and buy a home pregnancy test for your dog. They’ve been available for humans for years, and I have a great many female friends who have either sobbed in horror or screamed with delight depending on what color the stick turned when peed upon.
In order to get a home pregnancy test for your dog, though, you will have to see your veterinarian. He or she will be able to provide you with a kit that you can take home, but honestly, I advise against it. First off, they’re too likely to deliver a false positive or negative. Secondly, you’re just going to end up having to go back to your vet to have the pregnancy confirmed, and all the test will buy you is, at most, a few days’ advance knowledge. If you think your girl has been successfully bred, and you want to determine the dog’s gestation period, you’re better off to simply go to your vet, inform him or her of the estimated date of breeding, and have a proper, in-clinic test done.
Veterinarians use four methods to determine pregnancy in a bitch – hormone tests, palpation, x-rays and ultrasounds.
It is practically impossible to determine the dog gestation period unless you are absolutely sure that the dogs have achieved “the tie,” and even then, there can be quite a bit of variation. As previously stated, the typical gestation period is 63 days, but keep in mind that a bitch’s eggs can be fertile for 48 hours, and sperm can live even longer than that inside the bitch. That’s why it’s so hard to determine the dog gestation period without veterinary assistance.
Now, being reasonably confident of a breeding, you can begin to agonize over…
…The Stages of the Dog Gestation Period
A dog’s gestation period is actually reasonably short when compared with human gestation, although it might not seem that way. In utero, those little zygotes will transform very quickly into puppies, in just a few months.
This is the stage where you’re wondering if your dog is pregnant. Or, as I like to refer to it, “The one glass of wine per day stage.” You’re nervous, but not completely beside yourself, and a little libation at the end of the day settles your nerves nicely. After all, those little zygotes need a bit of time to find their way to the uterus (usually about 7 days), and then about another week to become embedded in the bitch’s uterine lining. The fetuses won’t even start to take shape for about three weeks, and the vet won’t be able to use an ultrasound to detect heartbeats until the end of the first month.
Of course you’re still going to be concerned, and watch your dog for any symptoms, like enlarged nipples, an increase in appetite, a clear discharge from the vagina, and a bit of sluggishness. You’ll probably also be beside yourself if she vomits, but it’s normal – dogs can actually have morning sickness just the same as humans!
Month 2 is the “two glasses of wine” stage. At this point, your girl may be eating as though she thinks she’s never going to be fed again. She’ll be constantly at the door wanting to go out to pee, and she’ll be putting on weight. If you reach down and hold your hand on her tummy, you might even feel the puppies moving. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably obsess when you don’t feel movement, but just remember, those little guys aren’t going to be active all the time.
There’s a lot going on right now – the eyelids and claws will be forming, and by about day 40, the skeleton and coat will begin to develop. The bitch may become agitated at the latter part of this stage – she’ll be looking around, trying to find a place to give birth, and you’ll be able to experience all the stress of deciding whether to let her have her litter wherever pleases her, or try to introduce her to a whelping crate or pen.
Now you’re wondering where Janice gave birth. Well, it was on my bed. What can I say? She wanted me with her. I had to buy a new mattress, but I didn’t mind – Janice and the puppies were doing fine, so I just dragged the mattress off, put it next to the bed, and got myself a new one. We all stayed together.
It’s showtime! Or, as I like to think of it, the “3 glasses of wine” stage, since by this time I’m usually so far beyond stressed it’s unfit! She’s gearing up to whelp, with the puppies being fully developed at about the 58th day and forming up to come down the birth canal. Pull the cork and calm yourself down – it will all be over soon.
At this stage, your girl’s waist will begin to thin out, and she’ll lose her appetite. She’ll probably be restless (although I have heard of dogs that have simply wandered off to the whelping pen with sort of a “Meh” expression on their faces, and dropped the puppies without any fuss). If you’re taking your dog’s temperature at this stage of the dog gestation period, you’ll notice a drop from her usual reading.
Now you’re ready for the three stages of birth, or, as I like to call it, the “NO glasses of wine” stage. Right now, you need to be stone-cold sober. Your rattled nerves don’t matter right now – what does matter is that you’re there for your dog.
If you’re thinking that the first stage of labor is the one that throws you into a panic, when she hunches up and drops that first fluid-filled sac on the floor and starts to lick it off, you’re mistaken. The first stage actually occurs anywhere from 12 to 24 hours before you’ll even notice that anything is going on. Her uterus will begin to contract, but she’ll be the only one knowing what’s happening.
You will see signs, though – she’ll probably be off her food, wanting to be by herself, and panting more than she usually does.
This stage is when the puppies will actually be delivered, and depending on how many she has in utero, this stage could last anywhere from an hour to 24 hours. She’ll birth them one at a time, and you might think it’s all over only to be presented with another little bundle of joy, and another, and another!
Don’t worry if there’s a fair bit of time between puppies, unless the gap is more than two hours. You can usually expect a puppy every 30-60 minutes. This is where it’s helpful to have had an x-ray or ultrasound done – that way, you’ll have a good idea of how many puppies you should expect, and you’ll have a better chance of knowing if you need to seek veterinary assistance.
In stage 3, the bitch delivers the placenta. This may occur very quickly after the birth of the final puppy. Much of the time, the bitch will gobble up the placenta immediately after the final birth, and you might not even notice it happening. The bitch does have to pass the placenta, though. If she hasn’t, she could become ill, and surgery might be needed to remove the retained placenta.
Okay, there really isn’t a stage 4 for whelping – this is the stage where you can have 4 glasses of wine if you like, because it’s all over!
What Happens if You Don’t Have a Normal Whelping?
Most whelpings go off without any trouble. But there can be problems. This is why you should always be absolutely certain that you really want to breed your dog. A healthy bitch will usually get through the dog gestation period with no difficulty, but there are risks. It’s always a good idea to have your vet take an x-ray about a week before the due date, so that you can have a good idea of how many puppies are going to be born, and to identify any potential problems before the bitch delivers.
The following are the main complications that can occur during labor.
If the bitch has an abnormally narrow pelvis, due to an injury or breed characteristics, it may be difficult for the puppies to pass through the birth canal. This condition is called dystocia, and the problem is more common in breeds that have a head that is large in proportion to the rest of the body. Boxers are one of these breeds, and I’ve been very fortunate that Janice has always delivered without complications.
If the uterine muscles are weak, dystocia can be the result. Sometimes, the muscles begin to weaken during labor, and the condition can occur at any point during the delivery.
If the puppies are exceptionally large, that can also lead to dystocia. In rare cases, there may be only one puppy in utero, taking all the nutrition from the bitch that would normally be divided amongst several puppies, and growing larger than normal. In such a case, dystocia is more likely than with a normal litter.
Other causes of dystocia can be enlarged body parts, improper positioning (sideways or upside down) in the birth canal, and a dead puppy that is abnormally positioned and unable to move through the birth canal.
If the bitch has been pregnant beyond the normal dog gestation period, you should suspect dystocia. Other symptoms include too long a period between puppies, lethargy, vomiting and/or a bloody, foul-smelling discharge. Of course bleeding is normal during delivery, but there should not be a strong odor.
If any of these symptoms should occur, you should get in touch with your veterinarian. I would also strongly recommend trying to arrange a house call, as it is not a good idea to try to move a bitch when she is in labor if there is any alternative. If the vet feels that the bitch can continue to deliver normally, there are medications available that can work to strengthen the uterine contractions. If normal delivery is not possible, the alternative is a Caesarian section.
Eclampsia is also known as milk fever, and usually occurs with large litters. It is the result of low blood calcium, with the bitch’s body being unable to cope with the need for increased calcium production. However, the condition can occur even with smaller litters, and small breeds are the most vulnerable. The condition will not affect the puppies, but can have serious consequences for the mother.
If your dog appears to be nervous, restless or disoriented, is walking with a stiff gait, trembling, or panting excessively, you should suspect eclampsia. If the condition is left untreated, she could develop seizures and die.
Fortunately, eclampsia is very easily treated by means of intravenous supplementation to boost the calcium levels. During this time, you should not allow the puppies to nurse – instead, feed them a milk replacer.
The likelihood of eclampsia can be reduced by changing your bitch’s diet during the dog gestation period. Calcium supplements are not recommended, since using them can actually lead to a blood calcium level that is too high. Instead, feed your bitch puppy food – the nutrients in puppy food are properly balanced with high (but safe) levels of phosphorus and calcium, so this is a very effective way of making sure that your girl gets the proper amount of this very important nutrient.
This is by far the most serious complication post-whelping. As I’ve already pointed out, you should expect to see some blood throughout the delivery. If the blood flow seems excessive, though, don’t waste any time calling the vet. Haemorrhaging means that something has gone very wrong, and every second is going to count. The last thing you want to end up with is a motherless litter of puppies, and the loss of the dog you love so much.
Usually, the bitch will pass the placenta normally once the final stage of the dog gestation period – the delivery – is over. As I’ve stated, chances are she’ll eat the placenta, which contains valuable nutrients. If you’re overwhelmed with the excitement of the delivery, you may not notice her doing this, and you may not be sure that she has, indeed, passed the placenta.
If the bitch has not passed the placenta, signs could appear almost immediately. However, there is also the possibility that several days could pass before there are any indications. Signs of a retained placenta include lack of appetite, repeated vomiting, weakness, depression, lack of appetite and a green discharge from the vagina. These signs could also indicate the presence of a dead puppy in the uterus.
A retained placenta is a very serious matter. If you notice any of these signs, contact your vet immediately.
This is an inflammation of the uterus, usually due to an infection. Any uterine infection can be fatal if left untreated, so if you suspect metritis, veterinary attention is going to be required. Signs of metritis include weakness, depression, dull eyes, dehydration, fever, a foul-smelling vaginal discharge, and decreased milk production.
Mastitis is an inflammation and infection of the mammary glands. Usually it is bacterial in origin, and may be caused by unsanitary conditions in the whelping pen. The condition will not be immediately apparent, usually manifesting a week or two following delivery.
Symptoms of mastitis include hot, hard, swollen mammary glands and sometimes a discharge of pus. With severe infections, the glands may blacken and could even rupture. The condition is easily treated, but if left untreated, could kill your dog. If you suspect mastitis, contact your vet right away.
Infrequently, the mother may cause harm to her puppies. Most of the time, it’s accidental – the bitch is eating the placenta, and accidentally damages the puppy’s umbilicus.
In very rare cases, the damage can be intentional, with the mother biting or even eating her puppies. Nobody really knows why this happens – perhaps some dogs, like some humans, are simply not cut out to be parents. I need to stress that this is highly unlikely to happen, but if it does, you should not breed the bitch again. In fact, you should have her spayed once she has fully recovered from the delivery – the last thing you want is an accidental breeding with a bitch that is a menace to her own litter.
Most of the time, you won’t have to worry about complications from whelping. Dogs, as I’ve pointed out, have been breeding and delivering litters for a very long time, and they’re pretty good at it. So don’t obsess over what could go wrong – just be prepared in case something does.
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The dog gestation period is usually a lot harder on the dog’s owner than it is on the dog. Most of the time, with proper care and feeding, your girl will come through the process with flying colors. You, of course, if you’re anything like me, will probably be an emotional wreck from time to time. If that happens, shoot me a message – I’ll be happy to recommend a nice Zinfandel!