By Dr. Dave Erlewein
Are you anxiously awaiting the pitters and patters of tiny Lab feet? Your female has had that romantic weekend, she’s back home, and you’re responsible for her care. Now what? Fortunately, one of the things that dogs do quite well is reproduce, and providing the optimal health care is not difficult or time consuming. While things can go wrong with any pregnancy and delivery, by paying attention to just a few small details, you can optimize the chances that all will go well with both mom and pups.
The very first thing you will want to know is, “Did the breeding work?” Is she really pregnant? How do I find out? Currently, there are four main ways to determine pregnancy, and each has its own merits as to accuracy and expense. The simplest and least expensive method of pregnancy determination is abdominal palpation by your veterinarian. This method is most accurate around 28-35 days after breeding and simply involves the doctor feeling the lower abdomen for enlargements of the uterus. Around the 28th day, uterine swellings about one to two inches in diameter can be felt. After day 35, the uterus becomes evenly enlarged, and it is difficult to differentiate between a pregnancy and false-pregnancy or infection. Later, around 44-55 days, the puppies can once again be palpated. The main drawback to palpation is that in some nervous dogs, obese dogs, or those with very small litters, palpation is just not possible.
A blood test that checks for the presence of relaxin, a hormone that functions to relax the pelvis prior to whelping, is available. Relaxin is not present in non-pregnant dogs and appears in pregnant dogs around 24-26 days after breeding and peak levels are present after 40-50 days. A blood sample is usually taken 25 days after breeding.
Ultrasound examination is a safe and non-invasive method for determining pregnancy and is becoming very popular. While uterine enlargements might be detected as early as 19-20 days after breeding, examinations are more commonly performed 25-30 days post-breeding.
Abdominal radiography (X-rays) is the fourth means of pregnancy determination and is usually not recommended until 44-46 days after breeding, as the fetal skeletons are not usually visible until this time. The main advantage of x-ray examination is that it is the most accurate means of determining the number of puppies in the litter. In addition, comparing the size of the fetal skulls and body with the shape and diameter of the mother’s pelvic canal might predict a difficult labor.
The average pregnancy is 63 days and fitness is very important for the pregnant dog. She will have to carry around some extra weight during the pregnancy and labor is hard work!! The more fit she is, the less likely she will have trouble during the delivery. If the labor is prolonged, an out-of-shape female will be much more likely to require a C-section due to fatigue.
Most experts agree that pregnant dogs should not participate in intense exercise such as agility, herding, jumping, vigorous ball chasing, diving, etc. The preferred form of exercise is regular walks, on a daily basis, at the dog’s own pace. As walking becomes more difficult in the last few weeks, walks should be shortened in length but increased to two or three times daily. Gentle swimming in shallow water is allowed in the first three to five weeks of the pregnancy.
There is some evidence that pregnant dogs that are stressed to the point of being “nervous” will whelp offspring that are “nervous” and react inappropriately in stressful situations. Keeping your dog’s “lifestyle” as normal and relaxed as possible will promote healthy, well-balanced pups.
Just as in humans, nutrition and what-to-feed and what-not-to-feed, is becoming more and more controversial. Dry foods, canned foods, “organic” foods, vegetarian diets, raw foods, and so-called premium diets all have their advocates and doubters, and the arguments are noisy and intense. My personal experience, after 40 years in small-animal practice, is that it is much harder to find a commercial diet damaging to health than one that is not harmful. The vast majority of available dog foods are not injurious to your dog’s health, and I recommend that you talk with someone you trust, whether it is your veterinarian, your breeder, or your trainer and follow their recommendation as to brand. The following are recommendations for feeding pregnant dogs that nearly everyone agrees with and are easy to follow.
A good feeding program for pregnancy is designed to provide enough nutrition to support the 14-25-percent weight gain that will occur during the pregnancy and allow her to maintain her normal weight during the nursing period. Pregnancy is not a time for dieting. Feed a performance or growth diet containing around 26-29-percent protein and 15-18 percent fat measured on a dry-weight basis.
At around three weeks into the pregnancy a period of nausea and reduced appetite similar to morning sickness in women usually occurs. This should not last more than 1 week.
There is no need to increase the size of the daily feeding during the first four to five weeks as only about one-third of the pups’ growth occurs during this period. The last three to four weeks of the pregnancy, when two-thirds of the puppies’ growth occurs, is the time to start increasing the daily ration. As by this time there is less room in mom’s abdomen for a full stomach, divide the feedings into two or more smaller feedings. By the time she is ready to deliver, her daily food intake will be around 15-25-percent more than before the pregnancy.
Most dogs will quit eating around 12 hours prior to whelping, and there will be a one-to-two-degree drop in body temperature. At this time encourage water drinking, and give her frequent opportunities to urinate and defecate, as a full bladder and colon can delay the delivery process.
After delivery, most mothers are reluctant to leave the puppies, so you may have to bring food and water to her. In addition, some will have a poor appetite for a few days, so you may have to “spice-up” the food with such things as eggs, cottage cheese, meat, etc. Just be sure to mix these supplements into the regular food so she cannot just eat the goodies! This may require adding some warm water to the dry food and making it into more of a gruel. Call your veterinarian if your dog will not eat.
Vitamin-mineral supplementation is not necessary in most pregnancies. You should only use a supplement with the guidance of your veterinarian. Excess calcium, vitamin A, and vitamin D have all been shown to be harmful.
Heartworm preventatives are safe to administer during pregnancy, and most of them also prevent some of the intestinal parasites such as roundworm and hookworm that can infect the puppies.
Most flea- and tick-control products are not safe to use during pregnancy. One product approved for use in pregnancy is Capstar®. Consult with your veterinarian before using any other products.
Vaccines, especially modified live vaccines, should not be given during pregnancy. If any vaccinations are due, they should be given after the delivery.
Prenatal care is easily summarized by good food, proper exercise, and paying close attention to your pet’s general well-being. Don’t be afraid to call your veterinarian if something doesn’t seem right.