Labor, Delivery and Complications

By Rebecca Wingler

This article will address some of the things you will be facing during the delivery time.  While it will give you some of the basics, by no means will it cover everything that could happen during this time.  It’s always a good idea to be prepared by learning as much as you can, but also have those contact people (breeders and vets) who can help you through the actual process.

Stage 1 Labor

It’s hard to get comfortable.

In an ideal situation, once your dog’s temperature has dropped, she should deliver her litter within the next 24 hours or so.  The temperature drop is the beginning of Stage 1 of labor.  Other signs of Stage 1 labor include loss of appetite, nesting behavior (digging, shredding, looking for a secluded place), panting, not being able to get into a comfortable position and asking to go out to relieve herself quite often.  It is probably a good idea to make sure she is on leash when she goes outside.  This keeps her from going under the house, the porch, off into the woods, etc. to deliver her pups, and it also makes you aware of whether or not she is actually eliminating or just feels the urge to go due to pressure from the pups moving into position.  I have found that my girls tend to completely empty their bowels prior to the delivery.

Stage 2 Labor

Stage 2 labor is when the pups are actually delivered.  Prior to the visible start of contractions, you may see your female have a full body shiver.  I have only seen this happen once over the years.  Unlike human contractions, the time between contractions for a dog does not get progressively shorter in length.  What you will witness is a set of contractions, then a time of rest, followed by another set of contractions.  When you see her tail extend out and then “hook” back under toward her body, you will know that a pup should soon be present.  Don’t forget that delivery is a messy business.  Make sure you have plenty of newspapers, a trash bag and towels handy.

In most instances, the pup will arrive still enclosed inside the Amnionic Sac, although it is not uncommon for the sac to have ruptured during the delivery process.  Once the pup and sac are out, the placenta usually follows fairly quickly.  However, there are times when the pup has been born, but still attached to the placenta, which is still inside the mom.  You may be inclined to try to pull the placenta on out by tugging on the umbilical cord.  Let nature take its course.  As long as the pup is breathing and appears to be doing well, rest easy knowing that the placenta will eventually be delivered.

After the pup arrives, the mom should immediately begin licking and removing the sac from the pup, followed by chewing the umbilical cord into two pieces.  The English Shepherd breed is still a pretty hardy breed, so mom tends to take care of all of this stuff.  In the reference books that you may read, you may be instructed to not let the mom eat the sac and placenta, to remove the pup from the sac and tie off and cut the cord yourself, and to rub down the pup and then place it on one of the mom’s teats.  I am of the opinion that it’s okay for the mom to do all of this stuff herself.  If the pup is born breech, I will usually break the sac from around the pup’s head and possibly suction out the mouth and then the nose to make sure the pup is breathing.  I don’t want to lose a pup due to the sac not being removed from the head fast enough by the mom.  I try to let mom do most of the work so the bonding process will take place.  The only time I do remove placentas is if she happens to vomit them back up, which does happen occasionally.

Don’t forget to make notes when the pups arrive or take pictures of the pups for identification purposes later on.  I have a chart where I note the time of birth, birth weight, sex of the pup, coat color, white markings, and whether or not there are left and/or right rear dewclaws and if they are single or double dewclaws.

Between the deliveries of the pups, your girl may nap or just relax.  This time of rest is not uncommon and may last longer than the reference books imply.  As long as she is not in active labor with contractions yet not producing a pup, then she is probably okay.  The books will say call the vet if it is longer than 2 hours between pups.  At the seminar I attended, it was stated that if she went for more than 4 hours, she was probably experiencing dystocia.  If things are not progressing and you know your girl still has pups to deliver, try taking her on a walk outside.  Sometimes movement helps to restart the contractions.  You can also give her a bowl of vanilla ice cream.  The calcium in the ice cream usually helps put her back into contraction mode, plus the ice cream will usually help give her some strength.  Or you can cook her some eggs with cheese for the same reason.

Delivery Complications – Dystocia

Dystocia is defined as a difficult or prolonged labor and delivery.  There are a number of different reasons why dystocia can occur.  Some of recognized signs are:

  1. Your female has been in Stage 1 Labor for more than 24 hours.
  2. Mild labor contractions have been observed without progressing to hard labor for more than 2 hours.
  3. Hard contractions have been occurring for more than 30 minutes without the appearance of a puppy.
  4. The time between deliveries is increasing, with pups being born weaker.
  5. There has been more than 4 hours rest, with no labor, and you know she is still has pups to deliver.

Any of these are a good reason to call your vet immediately.  You may be instructed by your vet to check and see if there is a pup stuck in the birth canal.  This is where the sterile gloves and lubricating gel from your whelping supply list come in handy.

Other causes of dystocia can include the female carrying a large litter or a litter of just one or two pups.  Whatever the cause, you may be faced with making an emergency trip to the vet and having to make some quick decisions regarding the health and well-being of your girl.

With my Bec’s fourth litter, she was in active labor and started having contractions around 5 am.  It soon became pretty obvious that she was not progressing any further.  So as soon as the vet’s office was open, I gave them a call.  I was told it would be wise to either bring her in there or make a trip to the emergency vet.  Since I trusted my vet more than a stranger, we loaded her up in the van and began the 35-minute trip to vet’s office.  Once there, an ultrasound was done to check on the pups.  This was followed by a shot of calcium, which did help produce the first stillborn pup.  My vet was upfront with me and said that there was a good chance that the rest of the pups might be in the same condition.  I was given the option of a c-section for Bec, which I agreed to pretty quickly.  The life of my girl was more important than the pups at that point.  I was allowed to observe the procedure and watched as pups two through eight were delivered strong and healthy.  The last pup also was stillborn.

There is nothing more heartbreaking than to lose pups during delivery or within the first couple of weeks of life.  As breeders, we often second-guess ourselves, and wonder if the outcome might have been different, if only we had listened to our inner voice.

With our third litter, I kept getting the feeling that Bec was overdue.  The first two litters had arrived uneventfully, so I had no reason to expect any other course of action with this litter.  At that time I wasn’t checking temperatures, nor did I have her progesterone level checked to know when she had truly ovulated.  When I contacted the vet’s office that Friday, I was told that because I didn’t do either of these things, there was no way to know for certain that she was overdue.  However, things just didn’t feel right about the whole situation.  By that Friday morning, the pups didn’t seem to be quite as active, our estimated due date had already come and gone and I just didn’t feel good about things.  The following day Bec finally went into labor with her water breaking late that morning.  Several hours later the first pup finally arrived, followed by a stillborn and then a live pup.  Pup #3 was followed by three more stillborns, plus one weak pup that died before morning.  You can imagine that by this point, I was pretty devastated about the situation.  Pup #8 arrived kicking and screaming.   So we went from a litter of eight pups down to a living litter of three pups in just a matter of hours.  My inner voice had told me things were not right, but the professionals had convinced me that I didn’t know what I was seeing or feeling about the situation.  The main thing to remember is that you know your girl better than the vet does.  If she is telling you things are not normal, then believe her.  This is especially true if this not her first pregnancy.

After the puppies arrive

Mom with 1 day old pups.

Always do a good check on the pups after things have settled down.  Do any have rear dewclaws?  If so, the optimal time to have them removed is the first three days of life.  After that, it is considered to be major surgery.  Some folks are okay with removing the rear dewclaws themselves.  I haven’t reconciled myself to doing such a procedure and usually will take them to the vet to have it done there.  In the past I had a friend who would come over and remove them for me while I held the pups.  The pups don’t scream any less at the vet’s office, but at least I am not the one having to hold them while the procedure takes place.  I do make sure that I carry the pups into the office inside a container, which they stay in until it is their turn.  The tech and the vet never put the pups down on any surface other than back into the container.

You will also want to check for cleft palates and make sure that the pup does have an anus.  I hadn’t thought about checking for an anus until my vet said that she had a newborn come in without one.  Apparently a pup like that can live for several days before dying.  I do check weights for the first two weeks to make sure that everyone is gaining and no one is losing weight.  Also take time to watch the pups while they sleep.  Are they twitching and moving about?  If so, this is good news.  A very still pup is usually either cold or sick.  If it is just cold, you can warm the pup back up by holding it next to your skin.

Sometimes you have to make a hard decision regarding a newborn pup.  One of my friends and I co-owned a female who was bred to my boy.  The agreement on this particular litter was that when the litter was whelped, it would be whelped at her house, since that is the female’s home.  When the litter arrived, there were two very little girls in the group.  Since I had stepped away from the whelping pen for just seconds, I didn’t actually see the pups born, so I can’t say with certainty that they are twins.  However, when I turned back around, there were two tiny, very active girls already out of their sac(s), with the umbilical cord(s) already severed, in front of the mom’s back legs.  I knew from experience that the larger pups would get bigger much more quickly than the little girls.  The larger pups would end up pushing the little pups off of mom at feeding time and away from the litter.

So, the question became how much we would do to maintain the life of these pups.  I am not a big proponent of extraordinary measures, but I will do what I feel is the best that can be done in any given situation.  Some of the options we did consider included tube or bottle feeding and removing the little girls from the litter, supplementing the pups with some formula or letting nature take its course, which would have meant they probably would not have survived.  Since the bulk of the work was going to fall to the other co-owner, we made the joint decision that she would supplement the little girls with some formula about twice a day, but that the girls would remain with the litter and would nurse with their littermates as well.  That way we felt we were giving them a good fighting chance, but keeping things as normal as possible.  I am happy to report that both girls did really well, and although they were smaller than their littermates during those first eight weeks, they still played, slept and grew up with their larger littermates.

I know that I have just hit the high spots of breeding in all three of my articles.  I would encourage anyone who is thinking about breeding to make sure you are ready for the journey you are about to take with your girl.  Sometimes things can go wrong for your girl or the pups during the pregnancy, delivery or even in the weeks following the pups’ arrival.  I would also encourage you to think about and be prepared for all sorts of scenarios.  Find yourself a mentor or two that you can call on whenever you have a question and establish a working relationship with a good vet.  I wish you well on your journey!