Medical Problems At Birth


The incidence of birthing problems is around five percent in dogs, less in cats. Problems are most likely to occur with individuals in these circumstances:

  • First pregnancy
  • First pup or kit to be delivered in any pregnancy
  • Overweight
  • Elderly
  • Nervous, anxious or excitable
  • Small mother with a small litter or very large fetus
  • Dog breeds such as the Bulldog with large heads
  • Father was considerably larger than the mother
  • Mother with previous pelvis injury

Don't hesitate telephoning us, even if you think it is a false alarm. Call us if any of the following are happening.

  • Water has broken but there are no contractions within two hours.
  • Contractions have continued for over 30 minutes without producing a kitten or puppy.
  • More young are expected and it is over two hours since that last delivery.
  • Contractions are weak or intermittent
  • There is a green-yellow (purulent) discharge.
  • The mother is apathetic, pale, shivering or twitching
  • Rectal temperature is below 37.5 degrees or over 103 degrees
  • Blood or green fluid is passed before the first pup is delivered.

Failure To Contract - Uterine Inertia

A pregnancy usually should not last longer than 67 days without the mother showing signs of impending labour. Lack of contractions, called uterine inertia can occur with single fetus litters, faulty hormonal activity in the mother, altered muscle tone to the womb or low circulating calcium levels. Although it should be physiologically virtually impossible to do so some bitches, particularly small nervous individuals, can temporarily inhibit the "involuntary muscles" that cause uterine contractions. In addition to this form of "primary" inertia, the uterus may fail to contract after it has been contracting for some time and has become tired. This is called secondary uterine inertia.

Any pet that has reached 67 days of pregnancy and has not started contractions should be examined by us.

Difficult Labour - Dystocia

Young should be delivered head first in a "diving" position. Backwards (back feet and tail first) is normal but the elbows may get caught inside on the pelvic rim. The most common reasons for difficult labour are a fetus too large to pass through the birth canal or one in the wrong position for delivery. "Wrong positions" includes:

Two fetuses presented simultaneously, one from each horn of the uterus

Breech (backwards but with the hind legs flexed forwards)

Forwards but head turned to the side

Forwards but with the front feet flexed backwards

Back first

We can rectify some "wrong positions" with fingers and delivery forceps in medium and large dogs. For others a Caesarean is the only option.

Caesarean Section

A Caesarean section is, technically, a "uterotomy". The womb is opened, young are removed and the womb is sewn shut. A Caesarean is a relatively common procedure and is the treatment of choice for difficult labour where fetuses cannot or will not pass through the birth canal. The decision to carry out a Caesarean is influenced by many factors.

  • The length of labour
  • What x-rays, ultrasound and digital examination reveal
  • Response to oxytocin injection
  • Condition of the mother
  • Condition of the pups
  • Anatomy of the mother


Individuals in litters die at birth either because of lethal physical defects that prevent survival once the umbilical cord is severed or because of a prolonged length of time in the birth canal after the life-sustaining activity of the umbilical cord has ended and breathing on its own can begin. Entire litters may be affected by infections such as herpesvirus or toxoplasmosis.


Infection can occur during milk production. Infection gets into active mammary tissue from skin scratches or punctures. The local area is hot, inflamed reddish-blue and tender. The mother may be lethargic, refuse to eat and run a fever. Squeezing the teat canal may produce stringy, blood-tinged milk.

Acute mastitis is treated with pain control, antibiotics and warm compresses applied for 15 minutes several times daily. Suckling pups and kits should not suckle from infected teats something they are unlikely to do because of the unpleasant smell and taste. If a mother is generally unwell because of mastitis, take the young away and feed by hand until antibiotics have cured her.

No Milk Letdown

Prolactin and oxytocin are necessary for milk production and milk letdown respectively. Agalactia is caused by failure to produce milk or failure to release it. The reasons for failure to produce milk are poorly understood. Nervousness and fear stimulate the fight or flight response and epinephrine release. This inhibits the milk letdown action of oxytocin.

Pups and kits not receiving enough milk cry more. Examine and squeeze each teat to see if it is anatomically correct and producing milk. There is no treatment for failure to manufacture milk. Young will need to be hand fed. We will show you how. If milk is present but not released, massage the teat to stimulate milk flow. If some teats are flowing and others are not, place a good suckler on the poorly-producing teat. This is the best natural stimulus. Oxytocin by injection may be useful within a maximum 48 hours of birth. For nervous bitches tranquillisation or mild sedation may be useful.

Maternal Care Problems

Three maternal care problems can occur, neglect, clumsiness and exaggerated care. All are potentially lethal to newborn young, especially pups .

Maternal neglect is obvious. She may fail to remove the membranes at birth. Later, without licking, cleaning, nuzzling and nursing, maternal bonding does not take place. Mothers take no interest in their youyng. This occurs most frequently with first-time mothers and dogs deeply attached to their human family.

Clumsiness may occur at or after birth. A mother can injure her young while chewing off the placental attachment or roll on them while they are sleeping, a considerable problem with large dog breeds that produce large litters.

Exaggerated care is a particular concern with the bull terrier breeds. Maternal licking becomes so exaggerated it damages the skin around the umbilicus or head. In some distressing circumstances it evolves into cannibalism with the heads being consumed.


This potentially life-threatening condition develops, usually two to four weeks after birth when milk production drains too much calcium from the mother's system. Initially the mother is restless and pants but soon she is anxious-looking and breathing more heavily. Her panting becomes deep and intense with her lips pulled well back. Now, jerky movement and incoordination develop, followed by seizures.

Diagnosis is made according to clinical signs. Rectal temperature is frequently very high. Eclampsia is more likely to occur in poorly nourished individuals, small dogs and those with large litters. Calcium supplementation during pregnancy does not reduce the risk of eclampsia.

Urgent veterinary treatment with intravenous calcium gluconate is necessary. Pups are temporarily removed from the mother and fed by hand while she recovers. Subsequently their nursing is restricted to three periods of approximately 20 minutes each day, with additional hand feeding according to age and needs. Mothers are given oral calcium. Corticosteroid are also sometimes given.

Prevention Of Problems

Ensure the whelping pen offers protection for pups from the weight of the mother.

Monitor all mothers carefully, both at birth and immediately after birth. Give whatever assistance is necessary.

Keep visitors away to reduce distractions and allow the mother to concentrate on bonding with her young.

Bull terrier mothers should be monitored 24 hours daily for the first several days to ensure care does not become excessive.

Tranquillisers or sedative may be useful. We will advise.

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