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Dogs Postnatal Care: Caring for Your Dog

Nicole Cosgrove

Good postnatal care, also called postpartum care, helps ensure that your dog recovers from the rigors of giving birth so that she can nurse her puppies and ensure her own physical and mental health.

In most cases, there are no complications following birth, but they do happen, and as well as making sure that your dog and her litter are perfectly happy, you need to keep an eye out for conditions like metritis, mastitis, and eclampsia.

Below, we offer a guide on how to care for mom to ensure good physical health. We also include some information on the early days of caring for your puppies.

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Dog Births

Although we consider young dogs to be puppies until they reach 12 months of age, most female dogs reach sexual maturity at 6 months. This means that your 6-month puppy is physically old enough to get pregnant. Pregnancy lasts approximately 63 days, which is three trimesters of 21 days. This does differ according to breed, but the average gestation period is 58-68 days.

It can be difficult to determine an exact due date. Conception does not necessarily occur on the same day as mating. Your vet can examine the cells of the vaginal wall to give you a more accurate estimate, but most dogs are not born on their due date and it is only given as an estimate of when you should expect a litter.

A litter can have as many as 14 puppies, as few as one, and although the average litter size varies according to breed, the average litter is five to six puppies. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the largest litter was 24 puppies.

The puppies themselves are born blind and deaf, only being able to see and hear after approximately 2 weeks. Like people, puppies are also born without teeth. They spend an impressive 16 hours a day sleeping and, initially, they can’t poop without mom’s help. With puppies only reaching adulthood at the age of about 12 months old, mom plays a very important and active role in her puppies’ lives.

So, you need to ensure that she recovers from the birth quickly, so she can clean, feed, toilet, and care for her litter.

In the meantime, you can help. Studies show that puppies respond positively when people talk and sing to them, which also enables you to start to bond with them. And, considering that just looking at pictures of puppies can help people focus better, imagine the positive impact of helping to rear a litter of pups would do.

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Image Credit: namaki, Shutterstock

Before Giving Birth

Good postpartum care starts during pregnancy. In fact, if you’re intentionally breeding your dogs, you can monitor nutrient, vitamin, and mineral levels to ensure proper fetal development, so postnatal care arguably starts months before your dam gets pregnant.

While pregnant, you should provide top-quality care for your dog. This includes feeding her high-quality puppy food during the final trimester, or approximately the last 3 weeks of pregnancy. Mom and puppies will benefit from you feeding puppy food to the mom from this period right until the puppies have been fully weaned. It provides optimal levels of protein and calcium and mom will pass these nutrients on through the feeding of her milk.

Most vets and experts agree that, unless the mom tends to put on weight by eating too much, you can feed her as much as she wants during this time.

You can also use the pregnancy as a time to prepare. Your dog is going to want the canine equivalent of a nest. This should be warm, secluded, and in a quiet spot away from too much noise or activity. Mom should be encouraged to spend time here, and this can be done by offering food and water in the new nesting area.

Also, ensure that you take mom to the vet and any scheduled appointments. These represent a good opportunity to make sure that puppies are developing well and that mom remains healthy.

Increased melatonin production at night means that the puppies are likely to emerge while you’re fast asleep. Check the nesting area every morning as the due date approaches. Check mom is doing fine and look for signs of labor.

How Long Does It Take for Dogs to Give Birth?

Labor can last anywhere between 3 and 12 hours and you should seek veterinary assistance if it reaches 24 hours.

The birthing process occurs in three stages:

  • Stage 1 – Small contractions prepare the cervix for birth. You may not see any of this process because some of the contractions may be quite small.
  • Stage 2 – This stage can last up to 24 hours and is the actual passing of the puppies. The process usually takes between 10 and 12 hours. If it takes much longer than 24 hours, mom and puppies can face an increased risk of complications and veterinary help should be sought.
  • Stage 3 – Stage 3 is the arrival of the afterbirth and placenta. Check how many placentas pass, so that you know if any of them are left inside mom.

An owner rarely has to intervene in the birth. Most times it does occur during the night when you are asleep, because of an increase in melatonin production that occurs in the night that encourages the start of labor in your dog.

Postpartum Care

Because dogs do not usually need to go to the hospital or the vet to give birth, except where a C-section is required and/or complications occur, postpartum care is the responsibility of the owner and is usually considered to start immediately after the birth.

Immediate Needs

Immediately after mom has given birth, you should remove all the bloodied and soiled material from the nesting box. Replace it with clean, warm, comfortable, and safe bedding material. Discharge and bleeding can continue for some time after the birth, so be prepared to keep changing the bedding out for fresh.

Clean mom with a damp cloth. Do not bathe until at last a few weeks after the birth and only use a mild soap that is considered safe for puppies as well as grown dogs.

Immediately after the birth, mom will likely be exhausted. She will sleep for hours after the process is complete and her puppies will usually sleep or nurse during this time. When she wakes up, she should appear ready to care for her litter.

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Image Credit: Pawel Rajtar, Shutterstock

The First Days

The first few days are exciting. Mom will keep her puppies clean and will provide the food and nutrition that they require through food. She will also have to stimulate urination and defecation, which she achieves by licking the genitals. It may be possible to pet the puppies, but only if it doesn’t upset mom.

Within the first 24 hours of the puppies being delivered, you should contact your vet and get an appointment. The vet will ensure that mom and puppies are doing well and are developing as expected.

Monitor closely for 7 days. For the first 7 days, you should be checking on mom and her litter throughout the day and night. Complications can occur and they can occur quickly. Look for signs of distress and make sure that mom is getting brighter and healthier looking, rather than looking increasingly tired.

Feed regular, small meals. For the first 24 hours, mom may not be interested in food, but you should offer healthy and small meals. The puppies will constantly be depleting mom’s source of vitamins and minerals and you must top these up to ensure that all the dogs have their nutritional requirements met. Continue to feed mom a puppy food during this period because it should have the higher protein and fat levels that she needs.

Check her teats. Some swelling should be expected, but you need to monitor mom’s teats to make sure that this is minimal and that mom’s teats do not become infected. Milk should white and have a consistent texture. If it is discolored or appears inconsistent, consult a vet.

Keep others away. Naturally, moms want to protect their puppies immediately. In the wild, this is when mom and puppies are at their most vulnerable, and even the most loving and affectionate dog can become protective over her puppies when they are first born. She may let you approach and even pet and hold her puppies, and she may allow others to do so, but if it causes her any stress or she shows any signs of protective aggression, you should prevent other people and animals from getting too close to mom’s litter.

Provide regular bathroom breaks. Mom may not want to go outside for the first 24 hours and is unlikely to be able to do so at all for the first few hours. Replace soiled bedding and other materials, and try to remove mom from her puppies for a few minutes at a time, so that she can relieve herself as required.

The Coming Weeks

It takes approximately 3-4 weeks before a puppy is fully weaned. Even after this time, mom’s work is far from complete. She will continue to socialize and train her puppies, and the babies should not be removed from their mom until they reach about 10 weeks. During this time, you will still have to provide some support for mom, as well as her litter of little ones.

Monitor for signs of eclampsia. Eclampsia, also known as milk fever, occurs within the first month after birth and it can cause limb deformity, convulsions, and may even lead to death. If your dog shows symptoms of milk fever, you should seek veterinary assistance immediately. Symptoms include anxiety, tremors, temperature, and dilated pupils.

Check temperature daily. A dog’s temperature normally falls between 101 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. A new mom will have a temperature of up to 104 degrees F for a few days before it returns to normal. If the temperature remains high for longer than this or if it spikes, consult a vet.

Food

You should always provide fresh and plentiful water for your dog, but this is especially important when she is nursing. The water helps maintain a consistent and healthy supply of fresh milk. Make sure the water is easy to get to and replace it frequently if necessary.

It is common to feed a nursing mom puppy food. Puppy food is dense in the nutrients and protein that puppies need. By feeding these nutrients to mom, it enables her to pass them on through the milk that she provides.

Should I Get Postnatal Veterinary Checks?

If there are any complications during a dog’s pregnancy, you should seek veterinary help. This will be necessary if you believe there are any puppies or placentas that have not been birthed.

If everything went well and the puppies were delivered safely and healthily, you should still arrange for a postpartum checkup, typically occurring within 48 hours of final delivery. Monitor your dog’s health yourself so that you can report on behavior and physical attributes, and so that your vet can check for things like an increase or decrease in temperature.

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Image Credit: boyphare, Shutterstock

Is Mom Producing Enough Milk?

Colostrum is the name given to the first milk that a bitch provides for her litter. It is packed with antibodies and it helps protect puppies from illnesses and diseases. If mom is not producing, and you have provided plenty of fluids in the shape of water or chicken broth, you will need to consult with your vet who may be able to provide a colostrum supplement.

You will also need to check that mom is providing enough milk for all of her puppies.

Puppies cry, but if they are constantly crying, they could be hungry. Place the smallest by the hind teats, and if you notice that one or some of the puppies are constantly getting less than the rest of the litter, speak to your vet about supplementing with bottle milk to ensure proper nourishment for all of the puppies.

Puppies should double in weight every week. If they are not gaining weight quickly enough, this is another sign that they are not receiving the amount of milk they require.

If mom does not produce enough milk, you may have to supplement it with commercial puppy milk. It is also possible to create a supplement using coconut milk but you should consult with your vet first.

Vaginal Discharge

Some vaginal discharge should be expected in the weeks following birth. It should be reddish-brown and may continue for up to 3 weeks. If the discharge becomes redder or increases in volume, you should call the doctor, however.

It is also worth noting that if your dog was spayed during a C-section birth, there should not be any vaginal discharge following the birth.

Fever

Dogs have a temperature ranging between 101and 102.5 degrees F but this can rise to around 104.5 after giving birth. Monitor your dog’s temperature and look for sudden changes or increases in the temperature. Temperature changes are a good sign of progression or regression and may be accompanied by other signs of fever if mom is unwell.

Conditions To Look For

When monitoring mom, there are certain conditions that you should be looking for:

  • Metritis – This is an infection of the uterus and is caused by a bacterial infection. Metritis usually occurs within the first week of giving birth and can cause sterility, septic shock, and may even cause death if it is untreated. Symptoms include a swollen abdomen, vaginal discharge that smells bad and is mixed with blood or a dark green color. Your dog may also ignore her puppies and become depressed with this condition and it is most common following a difficult birth. A sample of the discharge is usually taken and tested and treatment may require hospitalization of your dog to correct electrolyte levels.
  • Acute MastitisMastitis is inflammation of the mammary gland. This condition is caused by bacterial infection and is usually witnessed in nursing dogs. The most common symptom is pain or discomfort around the teat but other symptoms include lethargy and dehydration in mom. Puppies may also become malnourished because they are unable to get all the milk they require. Treatment varies according to the type of mastitis but may involve withholding water or food and the giving of antibiotics.
  • Eclampsia – Occurring in nursing mothers, eclampsia is a massive drop in calcium levels. This condition usually occurs within the first 4 weeks because this is when she is producing the most milk. Although early symptoms are difficult to spot, this condition can lead to mom being unable to walk. She may also experience spasms and convulsions. Once eclampsia starts, it progresses quickly and needs assistance very quickly. Treatment includes the emergency introduction of calcium to the dog.
  • AgalactiaAgalactia literally means the inability to produce milk, and is a concern in nursing mothers. It can be caused by mastitis but may also be caused by other diseases and conditions. Milk production will drop rapidly and may stop completely, and treatment requires the treatment of any underlying condition as well as the feeding of a supplementary diet. If milk levels are not increased straight away, you may have to feed supplementary milk to the puppies to ensure they remain healthy and continue to get the nutrients they need.

Puppy Care

Although most dogs make excellent mothers, some may require assistance, and getting involved can also start to develop the bond between you and the puppies while socializing young dogs and getting them ready for meeting new people.

Approach Cautiously

However, you should only handle very young puppies if mom is comfortable with you doing so, or if it is necessary. Moms can develop protective aggressive tendencies. This is less likely to occur if the mom has a close bond with the person trying to handle her puppy. If she shows signs of aggression, you should keep handling the puppies to an absolute minimum.

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Image Credit: wanida tubtawee, Shutterstock

Ensure Warmth

The nest you provide for mom will provide warmth and comfort for the puppies, too. Replace bedding and ensure that you offer plenty of comfort especially during the first 3-4 weeks.

Start Socializing

Socialization is an important part of a young puppy’s life. It ensures that they will get along with people and other animals in the future and a well-socialized puppy will be a lot easier to deal with later in life. Whether you are keeping or rehoming the puppies, socialization will help ensure a better life.

Weaning Begins

Mom will continue to feed her puppies until they are between 3-4 weeks old. Once they are weaned, mom will be able to put all her effort into looking after herself and ensuring that she gets back to optimal health. The process will continue for around 4 or 5 weeks, ending when the puppies reach approximately 8 or 9 weeks old.

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Dog Postpartum Care

Looking after your dog after she has given birth is usually quite easy but does require some running around. Ensure that mom is well hydrated and fed, has occasional toilet breaks on her own, and that you monitor things like physical condition, weight, and temperature, as well as milk production. Only pick up the puppies if mom is comfortable with it or if it is absolutely necessary, and start to wean the puppies when they reach about 3 weeks of age.


Featured Image Credit: Colin Temple, Shutterstock

Nicole Cosgrove

Nicole is the proud mom of Baby, a Burmese cat and Rosa, a New Zealand Huntaway. A Canadian expat, Nicole now lives on a lush forest property with her Kiwi husband in New Zealand. She has a strong love for all animals of all shapes and sizes (and particularly loves a good interspecies friendship) and wants to share her animal knowledge and other experts' knowledge with pet lovers across the globe.