Welcoming a new litter of puppies is exciting and certainly adorable, but takes a lot of preparation and is a lot of work! Pregnancy in dogs is quite different than it is for humans, so learning about what to expect when your dog is expecting can set you both up for success.
Table of contents
- Heat cycle in female dogs
- How to determine if your dog is pregnant
- Dog pregnancy
- Caring for your pregnant dog
- Preparing for whelping
- Helping your dog through labor
- Preventing pregnancy by spaying your dog
- Bottom line on dog pregnancy
Heat cycle in female dogs
First, it is important to understand the female dog reproductive cycle. When a female dog reaches maturity, anywhere between 6-12 months of age depending on the breed; she will begin going into heat approximately every six months, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. This timeline between heats can slightly vary depending on breed and the individual dog. During heat, a dog is fertile and ready to breed. Merck notes that a typical heat cycle lasts between 18 to 21 days and includes four distinct stages:
- Proestrus—The first stage of heat lasts about nine days and can be characterized by the swelling of a female dog’s vulva and bloody discharge. During this time, she will start to attract males, although she will reject their advances.
- Estrus—During the second stage of a female dog’s heat cycle, she will appear receptive to breeding with males. This stage can last between three to eleven days depending on the dog. A dog in heat will during this period will have a soft, enlarged vulva and her discharge will decrease and lighten in color.
- Diestrus—The third stage typically occurs around day 14 of a dog’s heat cycle. The vulva returns to normal appearance and discharge becomes redder before tapering off. The dog will no longer accept advances from males.
- Anestrus—The remaining time between one heat cycle and the next, approximately six months, is referred to as anestrus.
How to determine if your dog is pregnant
If your dog mates with a male during the estrus stage of her heat cycle, there are several signs you may notice that can indicate that your dog is pregnant:
- Increase in appetite
- Weight gain (usually seen in last half of pregnancy)
- Increase in nipple size
- Swollen abdomen
- Tires more easily
- Nesting behavior
- More affectionate
Additionally, vomiting and a temporary decrease in appetite can be early symptoms of pregnancy, notes AKC. During the first few weeks of pregnancy, female dog hormones are changing, which can lead to these symptoms.
Doggy pregnancy tests
If you suspect your dog is pregnant, your veterinarian will be able to perform diagnostic testing to confirm. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, some tests can also provide an estimate of how many puppies your dog is expecting.
At about 25-to-30 days of gestation, your veterinarian can perform a blood test to measure your dog’s hormone levels. This test will determine if she is producing the hormone Relaxin. Relaxin is only produced during pregnancy, making the test relatively accurate, however an ultrasound is often done around this time as well.
Veterinarians can conduct an ultrasound between 25 and 35 days of gestation. An ultrasound can usually detect fetal heartbeats, giving you an estimate of the number of puppies your dog is carrying. The puppies’ heartbeats are two-to-three times faster than the mother’s heartbeat.
If you know the date your dog was bred, your veterinarian can perform abdominal palpation starting at approximately the 28-30-day mark. At this stage in the pregnancy, puppies feel like little golf balls or grapes depending on the size of the dog. These “balls” are fluid-filled sacks surrounding the fetus. Abdominal palpation should not be attempted without the assistance of a veterinarian, as it could damage the pups. The sacks lose their distinct shape after one month, so the timing of this test is important and will not be a reliable indicator for number of pups.
X-rays are one of the most effective ways to determine if a dog is pregnant, but usually only late in pregnancy. This is best done at 55 days or more, as the puppies’ skeletal systems don’t show up on an x-ray until then. An x-ray at this time allows you to get an accurate count of the number of puppies, which will prepare you to know when your dog is finished delivering.
The gestation period in dogs is much shorter than in humans. Female dogs are pregnant for about 62-64 days, or approximately two months. This can vary with breed and litter size. The Merck Veterinary Manual notes, however, that predicting the timing of delivery can be difficult because the date of breeding does not always align with the date of conception, when the dog actually becomes pregnant. Sperm can live for several days inside a female dog, and eggs can remain fertile for up to 48 hours. This means the act of mating itself is not an exact measurement of gestation.
During the first month of pregnancy, the fertilized eggs travel to the uterine horn. Eggs will embed themselves in the lining at about 15-18 days, according to Noah’s Ark Veterinary Hospital. Fetal growth is rapid during early pregnancy, and these swellings double in diameter every seven days. Towards the end of the month, you may notice your pregnant dog’s appetite has increased in order to provide vital nutrients to her puppies.
Development speeds up into the second month as embryos develop into recognizable puppies. Around seven weeks, your pregnant dog will likely start shedding hair on her abdomen and may start producing her first milk, known as colostrum. Noah’s Ark VH notes that she will be noticeably tired, and her puppies will now be almost fully formed. It’s almost time for puppies!
Caring for your pregnant dog
Dog ownership is a big responsibility. Providing the best care for your dog during pregnancy is not only critical to her health, but also the health of her puppies.
If possible, you should bring your female dog to the veterinarian for a prenatal exam before breeding. Regular veterinary visits can help your dog and her puppies stay healthy throughout the pregnancy.
Pregnant dogs should be up to date on all vaccinations to minimize the risk of dangerous illnesses being passed along to their pups. The Veterinary Information Network (VIN) warns that female dogs should not be vaccinated during pregnancy because there can be ingredients in vaccines that could be harmful to the developing fetus. Ideally, the female should be vaccinated just prior to breeding. She passes on her immunity to her pups in the first milk she produces, so it is beneficial for her antibody levels to be at their peak during pregnancy.
Flea, tick, and heartworm prevention is important during pregnancy. Expecting female dogs should continue using safe preventatives throughout pregnancy and lactation.
If your dog is already eating high-quality dog food and is at a healthy weight, you do not need to make any changes to her diet for the first half of her pregnancy. During the last few weeks of pregnancy, food intake should be increased gradually until she consumes 35-to-50 percent more than usual, according to First Vet. It is crucial for these increases to occur slowly. You should also feed her small, frequent meals, as large meals can cause discomfort.
Normal exercise can be maintained until your dog’s belly is enlarged. During her last weeks of pregnancy, exercise should not be overly strenuous. Trupanion notes that shorter and possibly more frequent walks are more beneficial, as your dog needs her energy to carry the pups and give them the nutrition they need.
Preparing for whelping
When your pregnant dog is ready to welcome her puppies, a process called whelping, you will likely notice significant enlargement of her mammary tissue and nipples. You may also detect some milky discharge from her breasts as the milk glands develop and enlarge. She may stop eating a few days before giving birth and may also start trying to build a “nest” in preparation for her new puppies.
Help your dog get ready for puppies with a whelping checklist:
- Set up a whelping box—Create a safe, warm, quiet, easily cleaned location for your dog to labor. The space should be easy for the mother to get in and out of, but not the puppies. Small plastic kiddie pools work great for whelping boxes! Be sure to set up the whelping space in advance and take time to get your pregnant dog accustomed to it before she gives birth.
- Newspaper to line the whelping box during delivery for easy cleanup and garbage bags
- Non-skid bathmats for bedding
- Dry, clean towels and paper towels for clean-up
- Bulb syringe to clean puppies’ nose and mouth
- Thermometer to check your dog’s temperature before whelping
- Clean, sterilized scissors to cut the umbilical cords that mom does not take care of
- Unwaxed dental floss to tie off cords
- Iodine to clean the puppies’ abdomens and cut cords, if necessary
- Heat lamp set high above the whelping box
- A baby scale to weigh puppies or a cheaper kitchen scale can work for smaller puppies.
- Phone numbers for veterinarian and emergency clinic
Helping your dog through labor
Heavy panting and a drop in body temperature usually precedes delivery by about eight-to-24 hours, notes VIN. Abdominal contractions begin slowly and gain both strength and frequency as labor progresses. Comparable to female human water breaking immediately before labor, a water sac typically comes out of the mother when there is a puppy in the birth canal. From here, VIN notes that the first puppy should be delivered within one hour.
Puppies are born enclosed in their placental membrane. The mother licks the puppy vigorously, tearing the membrane off and sometimes eating it. If this does not happen immediately, dog owners should remove the membrane. Puppies can only survive for a few minutes before their oxygen supply runs out, warns VCA.
Mom should also sever the umbilical cord of each puppy as she cleans them. If she does not, snip the cord and tie it off about one inch from the puppy’s belly. You should also wipe the abdomen of all puppies with iodine to prevent infection. It is very important that puppies are kept warm and comfortable.
How long does dog delivery last?
Some dogs deliver their puppies one right after another. However, others may deliver a few puppies, and then rest before delivering more. Call your veterinarian if a break between puppies lasts longer than two hours. The duration in hours of a normal whelping is about equal to the number of puppies in utero, according to VCA. Be sure to also keep track of placenta. Placenta retained inside the body can cause serious health issues for the mother.
Once delivery is over, offer your dog food and water and bring her outside to go potty. She will need time to rest and bond with her new puppies. Monitor the new family to ensure each puppy is fed properly and everyone is healthy. Consult your veterinarian after whelping, particularly if you suspect your dog or her puppies are suffering complications.
Preventing pregnancy by spaying your dog
While it is important to understand how to care for your dog if she becomes pregnant, having your dog spayed is the most responsible option for pet owners. Spaying—and neutering, for male pets—has many benefits for pets, owners, and the broader community.
Benefits of spaying
- Reduces risk of serious health problems – Spaying female dogs can help protect them from breast, ovarian, and uterine cancer, as well as pyometra, according to animal behaviorist Dr. Ruth Colwill. A potentially fatal infection of the uterus, pyometra occurs as a result of hormonal changes in a female animal’s reproductive tract and effects many mature unaltered pets. These health benefits are particularly prevalent in dogs spayed before their first heat cycle, notes VCA Animal Hospitals.
- Reduces desire to roam – As they are no longer looking for a mate, female dogs who are spayed often exhibit less desire to roam away from home. The Humane Society of the United States notes that staying closer to home reduces their risk of being involved in a traumatic accident like being hit by a car or fighting with other animals. Less wandering also results in lower incidence of contracting contagious diseases that can be costly and life-threatening.
- Responsible pet population control – Unfortunately, millions of unplanned or unwanted dogs are euthanized each year in the United States because there are not enough safe homes to care for them. The American Veterinary Medical Association urges that preventing reproduction by spaying your dog helps limit the stray and shelter dog population.
Spaying helps dogs live longer, healthier lives. According to the Humane Society, spaying your dog can increase their expected lifespan by about 25 percent. While the American Animal Hospital Association indicates that the traditional age for neutering and spaying dogs is between six and nine months, the appropriate age can vary. Consult your veterinarian about the best time to spay your dog based on her breed, age, lifestyle, and health.
Bottom line on dog pregnancy
Caring for your dog throughout her pregnancy is incredibly important for the health of both her and her puppies. Owners of unaltered female dogs should understand canine heat cycles, what to expect when their dog is expecting, and most importantly, the many benefits of spaying. Neglecting to spay your dog can lead to serious health problems and contribute to domestic animal overpopulation. Consult your veterinarian about spaying your dog, and seek professional care if you suspect your dog is pregnant.
Any health or medical information in ElleVet blogs is from a variety of public and reputable sources. This information is intended as an education resource only and is not a substitute for expert professional care.