Bringing a working bitch's puppies into the world

Preparing for birth
You will need to do some preparation work before the puppies are born, which includes making a whelping box and deciding on a suitable place to locate it. This should be absolutely free of draughts and heated to a minimum of 75°F because a newborn puppy cannot control its body temperature and must be kept warm.

We place shredded paper in the box prior to whelping because bitches like to tear it up and begin “nesting”. As soon as a bitch starts to whelp, however, you must substitute the paper for towels. You will also need to have a pair of sharp sterile scissors to hand.

First signs
Your bitch may be very mothering and capable of doing all the work herself, including cleaning the puppies up, biting through the cord and eating the placentas. Many people get up in the morning to find a litter of healthy puppies suckling on a very happy new mother. However, if you do have to help, here are a few tips you can use to assist your bitch.

One of the first signs of a bitch beginning to whelp is when she either refuses to eat her evening meal, or eats it but vomits it up a short while after. This can mean that she will start having her puppies within the next 12 hours. Panting and looking stressed are other indications that the puppies are on their way. You can also take the bitch’s temperature to see if it has dropped.

Imminent arrival
When the birth is imminent, the bitch may start vigorously licking her rear end, groaning and physically pushing. Her tail will go up and you may be able to see a small bag of liquid. However, this might have already ruptured, spilling the fluid onto the bedding. This fluid can be a variety of colours, ranging from clear through to a bloody brown colour or even green.

puppy umbilical cord

Cut the umbilical cord two finger widths from the stomach

Delivering the litter
If this is the bitch’s maiden litter the first puppy may take some time to be produced. Assist with the birth by gently but firmly easing the puppy out by pulling down, away from the bitch’s tail. This is most important if the puppy is being presented backwards, to prevent it drowning.

Once fully produced, the puppy’s airway should be immediately cleared of any mucus and skin etc. With the puppy lying in one hand, with its head lower than its body, vigorously rub its chest cavity with a towel using the other hand. This should stimulate the puppy into coughing and then breathing.

Cutting the cord
If the umbilical cord appears to be still attached inside, do not pull the puppy, but grip the cord as far away from the puppy as is practical and gradually apply pressure to ease it out. If the puppy’s naval is put under pressure, either by you or by the bitch biting through the cord, a naval hernia can easily develop. Next, you should cut the cord no closer than two inches to the puppy’s naval. The remaining cord will dry up and drop off by the following day.

puppy naval hernia

A bitch can cause a naval hernia on a puppy by biting through the umbilical cord too near the puppy or by swinging the puppy by the cord

If, at any time during the latter part of pregnancy or the whelping, the bitch’s gums become pale, veterinary advice should be sought immediately. This should also be done if, after four hours of obvious labour, no puppies have been produced.

Since 1 January 2012, the Kennel Club will no longer register any puppies born from a bitch that has previously had two caesarean sections. However, we do not often find it necessary to have this operation performed. Using the method of injecting the bitch with oxytocin and calcium usually stimulates the birth of another puppy around 20 minutes later. If one puppy is produced, but no more make an appearance for two hours, it may be worth walking the bitch around outside.

Some puppies may appear to be dead at birth, but it is well worth persevering to try to resuscitate them for a considerable length of time — even up to 10 minutes after the birth.

Suckling the puppies
Once breathing and separated from its placenta, a puppy should be attached to one of the bitch’s nipples. She will probably turn and lick this puppy vigorously. With some gentle persuasion, you should insist on the bitch lying down and the puppy being allowed to suckle. This will induce the release of oxytocin by the bitch, thus making her produce more puppies.

We have found that some bitches are so preoccupied with nursing their first puppy that it can be up to four hours before they produce a second one. With a maiden bitch they may even produce a second puppy without realising.

If any puppies appear to be smaller than the rest, they should be helped to suckle about every two to three hours for the first two days.

bitch retrieval puppy

Some bitches have a strong retrieving instinct and will want to carry the puppies around. This action should be gently discouraged as it can result in accidental damage to the puppies

Vet beds
Puppies are born deaf and blind and so find their way around the whelping box by smell and touch only. We put a rail in after the bitch has delivered her puppies to prevent her squashing them, and to make it easier to help her. We put a thick piece of vet bed under the rail to hold it in place. The puppies can claw their way onto the vet bed and pull themselves from underneath the bitch.

Weaning puppies
At four weeks of age, but depending on the size of the litter and the bitch’s ability to feed all the puppies, we start to supplementary feed them. One sign that the puppies need this additional sustenance is when they become noisier and restless. We give puppy food to bigger litters earlier. This is done by keeping the bitch away from the puppies for around two hours before introducing them to the food. After soaking it for about half an hour in hot tap water to make it soft like porridge, we tip it onto newspaper and let the puppies lick it up. Once they get the hang of it, we put the food into shallow puppy [bowls?].

puppy feeding

Put the soaked food onto newspaper and push the puppies’ noses into it to encourage them to start eating

We aim to have the puppies completely off the bitch by six to seven weeks of age and independently feeding on dry puppy food for at least two weeks before they leave our kennels. This makes the experience of being parted from their siblings a lot less stressful. We would never sell puppies straight off the bitch at eight weeks old.

Puppy aftercare

Flexural limb disorder
Even though you may be using a good-quality puppy food, be aware of the onset of flexural limb disorder. This is a temporary imbalance in growth rates between the bones and tendons of the front legs. It causes one or both of these legs to bow and, in mild cases — which many of us have seen but not given a name — the front legs shake when the puppies begin to walk. Although there appear to be no adverse after effects, it does cause the puppies to look bad for eight to 10 weeks, so it’s best avoided. It’s not common in working dogs —we have experienced it once in 20 years of breeding with three pups in a litter of springer spaniels. We attributed it to encouraging small puppies to eat too much too quickly.

flexeural limb disorder puppy

Flexural limb disorder causes one or both of the front legs to bow

We use Drontal puppy worming suspension at two weeks old and then Panacur 10% suspension over three days at four to five weeks of age. If new owners collect their puppy at eight weeks of age, we advise them to allow the puppy to settle in their new home and worm them after about one week with their own vet’s recommended wormer. The puppies we hold back for ourselves are then wormed at eight to nine weeks with a seven-day course of Panacur or an Advocate spot-on treatment to protect against Lungworm. Once the puppies reach 12 weeks of age, they are treated again with Panacur over three days, and then every four weeks until six months of age.

Flea treatment
At six weeks of age we treat our puppies with Frontline spray to control not only fleas but any other mites that may be present.

Our puppies are vaccinated with a multi vaccine at six weeks old, with a live parvo vaccine at eight weeks, and then with a multi vaccine again at 10 weeks. This is because many people come and go at our kennels and it would be easy for any of them to unwittingly bring in viruses on their clothing or shoes, especially those that have come from other breeders’ premises.

Bitch aftercare

Milk fever
Milk fever occurs when the bitch has become low in calcium through suckling the puppies. It can occur at any time from the birth of the puppies until several weeks after weaning. The symptoms include the bitch looking unwell and not being able to stand — or falling over shortly after standing. In severe cases she will become unconscious and could die very quickly. An injection of calcium is an almost immediate cure and should be sought from your vet at soon as possible.

Great care should be taken to examine a bitch’s teats and udder during the weaning stage. Any signs of reddening or hardness should alert you to the early signs of mastitis. Veterinary treatment should be sought immediately as early treatment can prevent some horrendous looking holes appearing in the bitch’s udder.

Body condition
After weaning their puppies, some bitches will have lost a considerable amount of condition. So once her milk has dried up, she should be wormed, flea-treated and fed on a good-quality diet with a view to building her body weight back up. You may also find at around 12 weeks after the birth of the puppies that the bitch looses a large amount of hair. We have found this not to be a long-term problem because it does grow back in time.