How To Tell If Your Bitch Is Whelping & When To Call The Vet!

Before we start, if you are concerned about your whelping bitch and need to speak with a vet, we are available 24/7. Our vets can talk you through the birth process via video and if we decide you need to go to a clinic we will tell you immediately.

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two newborn puppies

Newborn puppies.

In this article, we cover all the questions you might have about your dog giving birth, from what the first signs of your dog going into labour looks like, to how long between puppies is normal or how you can help your dog give birth if they are struggling.

For the majority of dogs, the birth of pups occurs without any difficulty.

However, certain breeds are predisposed to issues, and you should attempt to learn as much as possible about these prior to breeding your bitch.

It is worthwhile forming a close relationship with your veterinarian, not only to ensure that your bitch is healthy prior to whelping but so they are on-hand if things go wrong.

Your vet can also assist once puppies are born. Remember, emergency surprises can be expensive.

You will need to keep a close eye on your bitch throughout her late pregnancy and labour. It is a good idea for you to know what is a normal stage of whelping so you can spot signs of trouble (dystocia) early.

Let’s cover some basics first:

How Long Are Dogs Pregnant For?

Before we even get started, we do need to understand how long the gestation period of the dog is.

There is, of course, a range, with most bitches giving birth around day 63. However, the number of days until birth can range anywhere from 58 to 68 days.

What Happens in the Last Week of Pregnancy?

Having bred dogs before, I know how exciting it can be when the pregnancy due date is imminent!

Speaking from personal experience here are my tips for you:

Get An Abdominal Xray

Most veterinarians will recommend that you have your girl radiographed in the last week of pregnancy.

This is to determine exactly how many puppies to expect.

In the last week to 10 days of pregnancy, the skeletons of the puppies are ossified enough so that we can count the number of pups.

I can’t tell you how much peace of mind it is knowing when the last pup has been born and you can head to bed!

Radiograph of puppies in a dog's abdomen.

Radiograph of the abdomen of a pregnant bitch. How many puppies can you see?

Give An Allwormer Parasite Medication

Roundworms and hookworms can be transferred to pups from the bitch via the bloodstream and milk.

Tapeworms can be transferred if there are fleas in the environment (there are always fleas in the environment!).

It is recommended that you worm your bitch in the last week of pregnancy with an all wormer that will kill all types of worms including tapeworm.


Build A Whelping Box

During the last week of pregnancy, your girl may start to look around for a suitable place to have her puppies and show signs of nesting.

It is a good idea to get her used to the place where you want her to have her puppies well in advance of whelping. However, if she does start to whelp in an area other than the one you planned, it may be less stressful for all concerned to allow her to continue in her chosen place.

Pregnant dog in whelping box

A whelping box in a quiet place provides the bitch with a safe area to give birth.

Once you have decided on an appropriate nesting area, make sure you spread lots of old newspaper and if possible, cover the carpet with a polythene sheet. Birth can be a messy experience with green birthing fluids!

Provide Wholesome Nutrition

Most dogs lose their appetite in the last week or so of pregnancy. Therefore it is extremely important that the food you have on offer is nutritious and provides everything she needs even if she is only eating a small amount.

Please feed your bitch a puppy formula biscuit as this has all the appropriate ingredients to support not only the health of her, but also the pups when they arrive.

A puppy formula kibble has the correct mineral and vitamin balance required for growth.

Check out our article: The Best Dog Food To Give Your Dog: Challenging The Mythical One And Only Safe “Traditional” Canine Diet  to learn how to choose an appropriate dog food for your breeding dogs.

Some bitches will stop eating completely during the last 24 hours before labour. Often they appear restless and may start nest making.


Preparation For Birth – The Whelping Bitch

Pregnancy gestation in the bitch lasts between 58 and 68 days with an average of around 63 days.

It’s a wise idea to keep a calendar with all the important dates:

  • when she joined with the dog
  • forecast birthing date
  • when to organise vaccination, worming, xrays

As previously mentioned most bitches will whelp without any issues. The less you interfere the better.

There are some occasions when you may have to step in and assist your bitch.

Make sure you have the following items on hand:

  • Thermometer
  • Prepared whelping box/area (out of high traffic areas)
  • Lots of clean newspaper and towels.
  • Hot water bottles
  • Lubricant (Ky Jelly)
  • Gloves

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What Are The First Signs of a Dog Going Into Labour? Whelping Stages

By understanding the signs and stages of gestation, you will be able to assess how the whole birthing process is going and when you might need assistance.

If you are concerned, remember our team of vets are available 24/7.

First Stage Labour

The following signs of dog labour start about 24 hours prior to birth.

Your bitch will show nesting behaviour, she may become very picky about food (or stop eating) and her body temperature drops (37.8°C).

In most bitches, the rectal temperature will drop below the normal range of 37.8°C to 39.5°C (100.04°F  to 103.1°F)  but this may only occur an hour or two before she starts labour.

For most bitches, a temperature drop of 1.1 – 1.7°C often occurs 6 to 18 hours before birth.

These signs may last for up to 24 hours and are part of first stage labour.

Second Stage Labour

The second stage labour usually begins with a clear or mucous-like discharge from the vulva.

Your dog will start to strain.

If straining continues for two hours without any signs of a watery discharge (“water breaking”) or puppies, you MUST contact your veterinarian or talk to us immediately. 

There will be more discharge, and the presentation of a round, golf-ball-size membrane sac of water.

water sac with no puppy is a bad sign

Here we can see that the puppy is being born. The water sac is still attached.

This sac is still the 2nd stage of labour. This is usually just the horn sac.

After the presentation of this sac and active straining, the puppy should be born in about 30 minutes. If you see a water sac with no puppy and the bitch continues to strain hard for 20- 30 minutes, please call your vet or contact us.

Likewise, if there is a sack present or the ‘waters have broken’ and there is no active straining for more than 2 hours then please contact us.

First-time mothers should be attended by their owners until at least one or two puppies have been born. If there are no problems, further attendance will depend upon the desire of your pet and the situation.

It is worthwhile checking every couple of hours as if there is no progress then your bitch is likely to need help.

Remember if your bitch is overweight or has a lot of puppies to birth, she will tire. Please keep an eye on her.

Some dogs prefer you to be present while others prefer to be alone.

signs of whelping bitch

Having puppies is exhausting work!

When Do I become Concerned About My Bitch?

Contact your vet if

  • Your dog goes into labour and you notice that more than two hours have passed without any puppies being born.
  • There is a green discharge from the vagina without puppies having been born.
  • It is more than two hours between puppies.
  • If she is continually straining for up to 20 minutes with a puppy or fluid-filled bubble stuck in the birth canal.
  • Your dog has intense contractions/straining for more than 20 minutes without a puppy being delivered.
  • If your dog is depressed, lethargic or her body temperature is more than 39.5°C.
  • If she is bleeding from the vagina for more than ten minutes.
  • If a puppy’s tail is seen hanging from the vulva or alternatively there is a lump just behind the vulval lips and your bitch is straining, it is probably a breech delivery. Some breech presentation can be delivered without assistance, but often complications occur.

If you are concerned about your bitch and need to speak with a vet, we are available 24/7. Contact Your Vet Online 

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What Can I Do If Birth Stops?

Sometimes you can see that a puppy is present in the vulva and seems a little stuck.

With clean or gloved hands, gently take hold of the puppy.

Gently pull the puppy at approximately 135° downward angle to her vulva (verticle).

Keep a constant pull even when your bitch is not straining, as gentle traction will stimulate her to keep straining. If the puppy does not move or if it appears to be painful to your bitch, contact your vet urgently.

Be careful that the bitch doesn’t bite you! Birth is painful!

If you have any concerns, contact us for further help.  We can talk you through the process and in most cases, you will not need to go to your vet.

If you do need to take your bitch to the vet, we will often advise leaving any puppies already born, at home.

Make sure any puppies she has already delivered are in a secure box with a hot water bottle or heat pad to keep them warm. Ensure the hot water bottle is well wrapped in a towel or similar to prevent overheating or burning the puppies. Your vet will advise whether to bring them in or leave them at home.

If your bitch does require a caesar we recommend desexing at the same time.  Most bitches don’t need to stay in the hospital for long and are able to go home an hour or so later.

How Long Does The Birth Process Take?

The length of the birth process can vary depending on breed and fitness of the bitch.

Dogs with fairly slim heads such as Collies and Dobermans may deliver all of their puppies within 2-3 hours.

Brachycephalic breeds, i.e. those with large, round heads such as Bulldogs and Pekingese, tend to have more difficult deliveries and sometimes will produce one or two relatively quickly and then rest for a while before labour starts again.

Bitches that are fit and healthy give birth faster than bitches who are overweight and unfit.

The larger the litter…the longer the process.

Remember if there is no sign of active labour for longer than 2 hours between pups, please contact us or your vet.

After Birth

Each puppy is enclosed in a sac that is part of the placenta or after birth. This sac is usually broken at birth and passed after each puppy is born.

You may not see all the placentas as it is normal for the bitch to eat them. The bitch normally chews at the umbilical cord and breaks it about an inch from the puppy.

Keep a close eye on your bitch as sometimes that can be over-enthusiastic and injure the puppy.

pup still in birth sac

If the birth sac doesn’t break, or the bitch doesn’t break it you will need to remove it from the puppy’s face so that it can breathe.

If a puppy is born within the sac and the bitch does not break the sac within a few seconds, carefully break the sac yourself and then clean the puppy’s face and nostrils to allow it to breathe.

Ideally give the puppy straight back to the bitch, however, in some cases, you may find that the bitch is more interested in delivering the next puppy in which case gently rub the puppy dry with a clean towel and place it in a box with a warm water bottle covered by a towel. Cover the puppies to keep them warm.

Between births you can place pups on the bitch to begin feeding, however, sometimes the bitch is too restless, so if you think she will hurt them, be sure to monitor feeding and then keep them separate until after the final pup is born.

Whelping Bitch

Ensure all pups get a good feed. Settled, well-fed pups won’t cry. Screaming and crying generally means there is an issue and you will need to call your vet or us to discuss what to do.

Ensure your bitch has lots of TLC and lots of food and water.

Producing milk for her puppies takes up a lot of energy and is thirsty work.

Ensure she has constant access to freshwater and puppy biscuits in at least the first few days after birth. Watch her weight, if she looks like she is losing too much, increase the amount you are offering, or keep adlib feeding for longer.

If you are concerned about your bitch and need to speak with a vet, we are available 24/7. You can contact us here.

Talk To A Vet Now

We love to hear your stories related to breeding dogs.  Tell us below in the comments. If you have any questions, please ask.

Further Related Reading

Should I Titre Test or Vaccinate My Dogs?


top tips dog giving birth