Overview of the Birthing Process
There are three recognized stages of labor in domestic dogs, although some authorities combine stages II and III. Before a dog enters labor, her temperature typically drops. A dog’s temperature normally is somewhere between 101 and 102 degrees Fahrenheit. About 24 hours before labor begins, the female’s temperature usually drops below 100 degrees. It can fluxuate for a day or two, but when it stays low – often between 97 and 99.5 degrees – labor is probably imminent. Many breeders start recording their dog’s temperature religiously one to two weeks before her due date. It’s best to take her temperature twice daily, in the morning and evening, at roughly the same times each day.
Stage I labor starts with mild uterine contractions and ends when the cervix is fully dilated. This stage typically lasts from 4 to 12 hours but can last longer. Uterine contractions can be hard to recognize in dogs. Signs of stage I labor are restlessness, panting, pacing, nesting, nervousness, anxiety, inappetence, shivering, nausea, vomiting, reclusiveness and digging or scratching at the floor or ground. Normal vaginal discharge during this phase is clear and somewhat thick. The dam should be encouraged to stay in her whelping box in the warm, quiet nursery, with fresh water and food, and should otherwise not be disturbed.
Stage II is active labor. It starts with full cervical dilation and ends when all of the puppies are born. The dam has strong abdominal contractions and may be on her side or squatting. Puppies are delivered every 30 to 60 minutes on average, although this varies widely. In a normal delivery, the waterbag (fetal sac containing amniotic fluid) appears first, looking like a bubble with a puppy in it coming head first, with its back facing up. Sometimes, the sac breaks during delivery. Hours can pass between puppies, but 3 or more isn’t considered normal.
During stage III, the placentas (“afterbirths”) are expelled. This usually happens shortly after the birth of each puppy, which means that normal labor alternates between stage II and III as each puppy is born. The mother generally removes the sac covering the puppy’s face and stimulates its breathing by licking vigorously. If she doesn’t do this right away, the owner should tear that membrane and rub the puppy’s face and body with a soft towel until it vocalizes loudly. If the mother hasn’t severed the puppy’s umbilical cord, most authorities suggest that the breeder clamp, tie and sever it as specifically directed by their veterinarian, possibly using thumb and forefinger, hemostats and/or dental floss. Never cut or pull on the umbilical cord. Rarely, a dam will mutilate or even eat her newborn puppies. This usually is accidental and happens when she is cleaning the puppy; it is more common in pups born without full closure of their abdomen (omphalocele). It is extremely rare for a dam to intentionally kill or cannibalize her puppies. If that happens, she should never be bred again.