Dogs are on average pregnant for 63 days after fertilisation has taken place. It may be difficult to determine exactly when a bitch fell pregnant if multiple matings took place over a number of days and therefore pregnancy may seem to be longer than 63 days, sometimes up to 72 days. Sperm can also stay alive in the female genital tract for a few days and therefore fertilisation may happen a day or two or even up to a few days after mating.
Pregnancy can be diagnosed from around 3 weeks after mating by feeling the foetuses in the abdomen. Five weeks after mating feeling individual foetuses become more difficult for the veterinarian as they grow and become too big to feel individually, and form a sausage-like structure in the uterus (womb).
Foetuses can be seen with an ultrasound scan at around 18 to 21 days after mating. The foetal heartbeat can be seen when the foetuses are 21 days old. Radiographs can be used 3 weeks before partus (birth) to determine the litter size because the bones of the foetus start calcifying at this point in time. The vet may be able to hear the foetal heartbeats with a stethoscope placed on the bitch’s abdomen 5 days before giving birth.
Bitches can produce milk as early as 2 weeks before giving birth, but it may also only be present a few hours before. Your bitch’s food requirement increases by 30 to 50 % in the last 3 weeks of her pregnancy. It is advisable to feed her puppy pellets for the last 3 weeks of pregnancy, as well as when she is nursing the puppies.
Dogs may sometimes have a false or pseudopregnancy. It looks like, and the bitch behaves exactly like during a normal pregnancy, without the physical foetuses being present in the uterus. The bitch’s womb will swell up and she may produce milk. Some studies have even shown that the bitch can have contractions at the time of “giving birth”. This condition also occurs in cats but is not as prevalent as in dogs.
Pregnancy in cats is virtually the same as in dogs, but they carry the foetuses on average for 66 days.
Parturition (Giving Birth)
It is very difficult to predict exactly when a bitch is going to whelp. The best indicator is a drop in her temperature of 1°C, 12 to 24 hours before she is due to give birth. Her rectal temperature can be measured 3 times a day starting a week before you suspect that she is due to give birth. Bitches should have a nest in a quiet area where they can whelp. They should be left alone as much as possible while giving birth. The puppies “decide” the day of birth and the mother “decides” the hour.
The bitch will start to get contractions after which a puppy will be born. Puppies can be born inside or outside their foetal membranes. If a puppy is born inside the membranes, the mother normally bites these open and starts licking the puppy. This licking stimulates the puppy to start breathing. If your bitch is either too weak to do this shortly after the puppy has been born (1 to 3 minutes) or does not seem adept at what to do, you may step in to help. You should rupture the foetal membranes with your fingers, remove the puppy from the sack and start rubbing the puppy with a towel. The umbilical cord can be cut 3 cm from the puppy, but do not be too hasty to do this. The placenta (afterbirth) will be expelled after the birth of each puppy. Your bitch will eat it which is considered quite normal.
Situations in which you need professional help and need to call the vet
- When you see a green, yellow or black discharge before the first puppy or kitten is born
- When your bitch or queen have active strong contractions for 30 minutes and no puppy or kitten is born
- When a bitch or queen has intermittent contractions for 2 to 3 hours without the birth of a puppy or kitten
- Four hours have elapsed after the last puppy was born and you think there may still be more to come (with queens the time between births are longer)
- When there is a black or pussy discharge or excessive bleeding during whelping
Queens give birth exactly the same way as dogs. Cases of queens delivering kittens 24 hours apart have been reported, so keep an eye on her for a while after the first birth.
Caring for the new mom and puppies or kittens
A bitch or queen must get as much food and water as she wants while she is feeding her new babies. The new mother might refuse food just after she gave birth, but try to tempt her with something nice like cooked chicken. Remember to feed her puppy or kitten food while she is lactating (producing milk). The puppies or kittens must suckle on their mother within the first 6 hours after birth for the passive immunity to be transferred from the mother to the baby via colostrums (the first mother’s milk.) This thick sticky milk contains large numbers of antibodies which offer the puppy or kitten prevention against a number of diseases in the first stages of life. A puppy or kitten which has not suckled within 24 hours, has a much lower chance of survival than puppies or kittens that suckle early.
The mother will stimulate the babies to urinate and defecate by licking their bottoms and tummies. Without this stimulus, elimination does not take place. The puppies’ or kittens’ eyes will open at around 10 days at which time they will try to stand and will begin crawling. They will start walking at 21 days and usually start consuming solid foods at this time as well. The mother will start to wean them from 4 to 6 weeks of age and this is also the time when they are due for their first vaccination and deworming. After the first vaccination at 6 weeks of age, the second and third vaccinations should be done 4 weeks apart. Puppies and kittens which have had their vaccinations and first deworming are then ready to go to their new homes at 8 weeks of age.
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