Whilst the natural process of birth is in no way an emergency, and if normal does not require any assistance or first-aid measures, a number of variations of, or from, the normal may arise. Some of these may amount to actual abnormality and need professional attendance, or perhaps assistance from the owner. The following comments are intended to help the inexperienced to distinguish between normal and abnormal, between the natural physiological process and pathological complications. Even quite experienced breeders often find this aspect of whelping difficult to grasp. The uncertainty of risking the puppies’ lives and the danger of harm to the bitch, creates a large problem in their minds. Generally speaking, it is better to consult your veterinary surgeon too early rather than to delay too long as the chance of survival of mother and young will then be proportionally greater. If surgical interference is necessary, it is the fit animal which will stand the best chances, not the exhausted bitch. Any surgical action which is required should be left strictly to the veterinary surgeon; on no account should the owner attempt, or permit anyone else to attempt, delivery by the use of forceps, etc.
The first signs of parturition are restlessness, “bed-making”, and often, refusal of food. There is usually a pronounced fall in body temperature (about 98F.) twenty-four hours or so before whelping. Shivering and panting are usual, and these signs are all quite normal. Within several hours of the beginning of these symptoms actual labor will begin. The contractions of the womb or uterus will start and at this stage the bitch will show signs of periodic acute discomfort, heaving, straining and panting. These spasms will become more frequent and sustained as the whelping process goes on. It is important to note the time when the first real labor pains (i.e., straining) are seen as much depends on the intervals between beginning of symptoms and appearance, or non-appearance, of puppies.
The first thing that is noticed in a normal whelping is the water bag, which may be seen only as a sudden expulsion of fluid, as it ruptures, or is ruptured by the bitch. If this sign has not been seen after 1 hour from time of labor it is wise to make sure that all is going well. This can be done only by a vaginal examination with a well-scrubbed and soaped finger. Gently insert the finger into the vagina, and the puppy should be felt in the pelvic cavity, i.e., within a few inches of the vulva. Do not push or probe about if the puppy can be felt.
Leave the bitch for 15-20 minutes; then, if no puppy has been born, re-examine the bitch. If the puppy has not moved further down towards the vulva, or if at the first examination no puppy or water bag could be felt, call your veterinary surgeon. These time limits are conservative; some bitches are slower than this but are nevertheless quite normal. Generally speaking, however, the time limits stated should not be greatly exceeded. The first puppy is usually followed within 20 minutes-1 hour by the second, and so on until the whole litter has arrived. The bitch may rest for a few minutes after having, say, 2 or 3 puppies, and of course this time should not be counted when deciding how matters are going. Complications are therefore best assessed by judging the time delays involved, supplemented when necessary by gentle vaginal exploration.
One complication, uterine inertia, is seen occasionally. If this is suspected, your veterinary surgeon should be informed straight away.
This takes two main forms:
(a) The bitch will go through all the routine of bed making, etc., and then, after a little abdominal discomfort, show no further signs of labor or uterine contractions. This is known as primary uterine inertia.
(b) The bitch may show signs of straining, often quite good to begin with but becoming weaker and fewer, without the appearance of the puppy. This is called secondary uterine inertia. Both these types of uterine inertia require skilled attention, which may or may not involve surgical assistance. One of the predisposing causes of uterine inertia, or “going to sleep on the job”, is over-fatness, and bitches should be kept in a fit, properly exercised state right up to the actual day of whelping. Certain medical conditions also predispose or cause this lack of uterine tone, but search for the cause and the necessary treatment should be left to the expert.
Attention to puppies
Puppies will not usually require attention from the owner of a normal bitch, who has whelped successfully by herself. However, in short-nosed breeds, e.g., Pekinese, King Charles spaniels and English Bulldogs, it is sometimes necessary to attend to the umbilical cord, if the puppy is born intact, or attached to the fetal sac (or “puppy-bag”) as the membranes in which the puppy lies when in the womb are called. The cord should be tied off about some length from the puppy’s navel with sterile cotton (i.e., boiled cotton) and the membrane or “bag” side of the cord cut with sterilized scissors. The stump should then be dabbed with tincture of iodine.
Occasionally a puppy that has been delayed in birth does not gasp when born. The mouth should be opened with a finger and the spine given a brisk rubbing with a dry towel. A little cold water on the nape of the neck will help to stimulate a reflex inspiration. If mucus is in the mouth wiped this away with a little moistened cotton wool and blow sharply into the opened mouth. A drop of brandy on the tongue will also produce a reflex inhalation and is a useful stimulant for a weakly pup. When the puppy is breathing regularly, but not before, place him on a towel or blanket, near a hot water-bottle. A drop of brandy may be given every 20-30 minutes until he can be suckled by the bitch.