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. It’s important to speak to your vet if you have any queries about your dog or her puppies, or if you think they’re not doing well, as early veterinary treatment is crucial.
Although we consider young dogs of large and giant breeds to be puppies until they reach 12 months of age or even more, most female dogs reach sexual maturity between 6 and 9 months. This means that your 6-month-old puppy, depending on the breed size, may be physically old enough to get pregnant. Pregnancy lasts approximately 63 days, which is roughly 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 and perform hormone testing to give you a more accurate estimate of ideal breeding time, 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, or 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, and are only able to see and hear after approximately 2 to 3 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 most puppies only reaching adulthood at the age of about 6 to 12 months old, the mother dog 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.
Before Giving Birth
Good postpartum care starts before or 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 or has a small litter, 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. A vet visit before the intended pregnancy is also crucial to make sure the mother dog has received all of her required vaccinations and worming.
In humans, melatonin concentration at night reaches its maximum towards the end of pregnancy, often meaning that women are more likely to give birth between 2 and 5 o’clock in the morning. However, when it comes to dogs, there is no current scientific backing to confirm if melatonin has any impact on their cycle or pregnancy at all. Check the nesting area several times per day and overnight as the due date approaches. Check that the mother 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:
An owner rarely has to intervene in the birth. Most times it does occur during the night when you are asleep, and science still doesn’t have an evidence-based explanation for this or an answer as to whether melatonin plays a role. Nighttime tends to be quiet, and this may be a part of the reason birth may happen during this time.
Postpartum Care for Dogs
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.
Immediately after mom has given birth, you should remove all the bloodied and soiled material from the nesting box. Replace it with clean, dry, 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.
Clean mom with a damp cloth. Do not bathe the puppies until at least a few weeks after the birth and only use a very mild vet-approved dog shampoo that is considered safe for puppies as well as grown dogs, or just stick to water.
Immediately after the birth, mom will likely be exhausted. She may sleep intermittently after the process is complete, and her puppies will usually sleep or nurse during this time. She will also regularly clean her puppies, which helps to stimulate their toileting and enhances their bond.
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 milk. She will also have to stimulate urination and defecation, which she achieves by licking their abdomen and 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 frequently 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 of high-quality puppy food and make sure mum is eating as much as she wants to, unless she has a very small litter of just one or two puppies. For the first 24 hours, mom may not be as interested in food, but you should still offer small healthy 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 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. The milk should be white and have a consistent texture. If it is discolored, contains blood, 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. Give her plenty of space and privacy, and do not interrupt her bonding with the puppies.
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
Weaning begins at around 3-4 weeks, and it takes approximately 8-10 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, and the minimum is 8 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 muscle tremors, panting, restlessness, stiff gait, and convulsions, and may even lead to death if left untreated. If your dog shows signs of eclampsia, you should seek veterinary assistance immediately.
Check temperature daily. A dog’s temperature normally falls between 101 and 102.5 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is higher than normal or the mother dog is feeling unwell in any way, consult a vet.
Water and 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 or even just doubts 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.
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 form of water or chicken broth, along with high-quality puppy food, 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.
Some vaginal discharge can 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, becomes smelly, or your dog is not herself, refusing to eat, vomiting, or having a fever, you should call the vet immediately.
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.
Dogs have a normal rectal temperature ranging between 101 and 102.5 degrees F. 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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mom will continue to feed her puppies until they are around 8-10 weeks old, at which point weaning should be finished. 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.
Dog Postpartum Care
Looking after your dog after she has given birth is a big responsibility and 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, behavior, 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 to 4 weeks of age. Consult with your vet about the whole process from breeding to weaning for valuable first-hand advice and tips, and ensure that the mother dog and puppies are getting their preventative health checks, vaccinations, and wormings.
- You may also want to read: Postpartum Eclampsia in Dogs
Featured Image Credit: Colin Temple, Shutterstock