It's easy to be distracted by the needs of newborn puppies, but their mum requires attention too, says Tony Buckwell

When your bitch has whelped, it’s all too easy to become preoccupied with the puppies. The anxiety associated with an imminent whelping, the stress of having to deal with the whelping process and the care of the newborn puppies can easily focus attention on the puppies and distract attention from the bitch. It’s important to pause occasionally and remember to consider her requirement for comfort and care through lactation.

Start final preparations about a week ahead of the expected date of whelping. Bath the bitch and trim the long hair from around her vulva and along the line of her teats, particularly if she’s a long-coated breed and especially if she is “well-feathered”. Whelping is a messy process, so this will make it much easier for you and her to clean up afterwards and for newborn puppies to access her “milk bar”.

Make a courtesy call to your vet to inform him of when you’re expecting the bitch to whelp. You should find that this is appreciated by the receptionist and nursing staff, who can provide you with all manner of free advice and let you know how best to make contact should you run into any difficulties.

Many bitches will eat the afterbirths

Once the bitch has finished whelping, many vets will wish to give her an oxytocin injection to close down the uterus and promote milk “let down”. This will also help to ensure that all the afterbirths have been expelled. These are remnants of the placenta where the foetus attaches and from where the developing puppy derives its nutrients during pregnancy. Many bitches will eat the afterbirths, which is natural and will do no harm, so long as you ensure the cord is broken to leave a good length attached to the puppy.

Don’t be alarmed to see the bitch pass dark stools, which are often quite loose, for the first 24 hours or so after she’s whelped. It is also normal to see a dark discharge from the vulva for 24 hours and, in some bitches, a brownish- red bloody discharge for several weeks. If it changes colour and becomes very dark and foul smelling, it would be wise to have the bitch checked by your vet.

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If you have any concerns about your bitch’s health, have her checked over by your vet

Uterine infection is unusual after whelping but it can happen if, for instance, whelping has been difficult and contamination has occurred. The consequent infection, which is referred to as metritis or post-partum endometritis, needs to be treated by a vet who is likely to prescribe antibiotics.

Make sure the bitch has milk by expressing some gently from each of her teats and check that the litter is suckling successfully. Agalactia, where a bitch produces little or no milk, is relatively uncommon. It can be due to a variety of causes so is best diagnosed by a vet, who may give the bitch an injection of posterior pituitary extract to help stimulate milk production

Happy puppies “paddling”

You can tell if she has sufficient milk because puppies that have “latched on” can be seen making contented “paddling” movements with their front feet and typically their tails will stick up suddenly once they start to suckle. Give the bitch an easily digested meal and plenty to drink — she will need extra fluid to produce milk. She will be reluctant to leave her litter, so feed her and give her water while she’s in the bed with the puppies.

As the litter becomes established and the puppies start to put on an appreciable amount of weight each day, give the bitch more food — perhaps an extra meal, rather than larger amounts at normal mealtimes. The daily food energy intake during lactation has been estimated for the typical Labrador.

lactation table for bitches

The feed energy requirement will start to increase until it virtually doubles, peaking at three to four weeks after whelping. At this stage, the puppies should start to be weaned, after which the requirement will decline. Make sure you provide good-quality food and, unless prescribed by your vet, avoid over-supplementation, especially with vitamin D. While vitamin D promotes calcium uptake (essential for milk production), it will also, in excess, promote the removal of calcium from the body via the urine. Lowered blood calcium levels from having to produce more milk to cope with a big litter can cause a condition called eclampsia.

eclampsia in bitches

Look out for signs of mastitis. Infected mammary glands are warmer to the touch, and hard lumps can be felt in or around one or a number of the teats. The puppies may stop suckling from those that are affected. Treatment with antibiotics is usually required.

Trim puppies’ nails if necessary. This is relatively easy to do and avoids scratching delicate skin around the teats, which can then become sore and infected. Cut below the pink “quick” with small scissors; remove no more than the sharp points at the tip of their nails.

Vizsla dog

Once the puppies are weaned, give the bitch a trim

Time to wean

The bitch will cease producing milk once the puppies are weaned at around three weeks old. Try not to let them continue to suckle. Allow the bitch space away from the litter that she can easily access but the puppies can’t so she is not disturbed. Feed her separately and keep her away from weaned puppies for about an hour after each meal. This will help to prevent her regurgitating her food, the natural process whereby wild canines wean their young on to solid food. Reducing her food intake two to three days before weaning will also help dry up her milk.

Finally, once the puppies have left the bitch, give her a bath, a trim and strip out any dead coat to stimulate the growth of new hair as soon as possible.