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How to Care for a Pregnant Dog

Written by FOTP Team

Last updated

Pregnant Chihuahua dog

How to Care for a Pregnant Dog

Do dogs act differently when they’re pregnant? What equipment will you need for the birth? If you decide to breed from your dog, you’ll need to learn about caring for a pregnant dog and her puppies. In this article we’ll explore the health basics for your pregnant dog, how to get through whelping, and how to look after newborn puppies. 

How Do Dogs Change During Pregnancy?

Dogs can smell the change in hormones when their human owners become pregnant. But do they know when they’ve conceived?

While dogs don’t have the same self-awareness as people, hormones trigger their brains to change their behaviors when they are pregnant. Instinct tells them to rest more and eat more; when they reach the 9-week gestation mark, they might start to prepare bedding for pups.

There are many similarities between a pregnant dog and a pregnant human being!

  • Animals and humans can suffer from morning sickness and changing nipples
  • Both will slow down a little as pregnancy progresses 
  • They both have changing nutrition requirements 
  • Both dogs and humans display “nesting” behaviors as they approach their due date 
  • Both are more likely to go into labor during the night – when it’s quiet and dark.

Pregnant Dog Care – The Basics

Your vet should be involved early in your dog’s pregnancy. If you’re not sure whether your dog is pregnant, the vet can carry out blood tests, x-rays or ultrasound. After 4 weeks, your vet will be able to find the puppies’ heartbeat.

So what are your responsibilities as the owner of a pregnant dog?

  • Before breeding, vaccinate and deworm. Visit your vet to give your dog a health-check, including deworming. It’s safer to do it before mating your dog, and deworming is recommended in the third trimester as well. 
  • Make sure she’s getting the right nutritional balance. Pregnant dogs will need up to 50% more than their usual calorie intake! Ask your vet for a recommendation – your dog will probably need extra food 6 weeks into pregnancy, and while nursing her puppies. It’s best to increase her dinner gradually, and you might find she prefers smaller meals more often. There might not be as much room in her stomach for a big meal!
  • Take shorter walks. Similarly, your dog may prefer shorter walks twice a day – you’ll want to keep her moving but limit strenuous activity.
  • Finally – prepare for whelping. “Whelping” means labor and you can make preparations for it, namely setting up a quiet den where Mom can give birth. There might be other equipment that will also be useful – make sure you have the chance to ask your vet before the due date.

What is a Whelping Box?

There’s one important thing you should prepare before your dog gives birth. A whelping box is an uncovered box – like a pen or a run – where puppies can be safely contained in the early days after birth. 

Whelping boxes or dens are designed with sides high enough to keep puppies inside, but with one lower side which Mom can use for getting in and out. 

Commercial whelping boxes also have rails around the edges to prevent Mom from squashing puppies against the sides. They are often supplied with “extensions'' which give puppies an extra area for playing or defecating. If you don’t add an extension, an exercise pen is a useful addition to the box. 

It’s a good idea to protect the floor beneath your whelping box. You can buy a tarpaulin or rubber-backed mat for this purpose. When you set up the whelping den, include your dog in the preparations. Try to help her to feel comfortable there, maybe by bringing in some of her favorite toys and her drinking bowl. 

Want to DIY your whelping box? People have been known to use cardboard or plastic boxes and even paddling pools for whelping. Durable and cleanable materials are best – you can use liners if you want more convenience. Remember to tumble-dry a few old towels so they’re on hand ready for birth. 

If you’re handy with a saw, WikiHow describes how to make your own whelping box!

How Do Dogs Behave Before Labor?

For dogs, pregnancy lasts around 62-64 days. If you know when they conceived then you’ll have a fair idea when labor might happen. But if you don’t know, you can watch your dog for signs. Look for these signals that she is close to giving birth:

1: Your dog may have bodily changes such as enlarged nipples as well as a significantly larger abdomen. You might even be able to feel the puppy bodies in there!

2: Some dogs will stop eating around one day before whelping. 

3: If you want to get technical about it, you can start taking your dog’s temperature. It will probably dip to 98-99 degrees the day before she gives birth (although this isn’t true for every dog). 

4: Many dogs will begin to “nest” when they’re close to whelping. Just like humans, their instinct tells them to gather soft, warm bedding ready for the pups. Your dog might collect leaves or pillows. If you’ve set up a whelping den, provide some towels for her.

5: Panting is a sign that your dog is really close to giving birth, and soon you will notice her waters break. (Check her bedding regularly for moisture.)

What To Expect When Your Dog Is In Labor

Most female dogs will birth their puppies themselves. Although it can be frightening for some dogs, they are guided by instinct to push the pups out and lick them clean of the amniotic sac. 

  • Contractions: These are usually visible, so you will see the sides of her stomach contracting (like human labor). 
  • Birth: After around 20-60 minutes of contractions (definitely not like human labor!), the first puppy should arrive. If your dog is not in the whelping box, place the puppy inside the box. 
  • Cleaning: Mom will clean the puppy. You might need to cut the umbilical cord and remove the amniotic sac (starting with their head) if your dog doesn’t do it (as puppies can’t breathe inside the sac). If you cut the cord, tie the stump close to puppy’s belly. You can rub the pup with a soft towel to stimulate breathing.
  • Puppies may arrive in pairs, and there will usually be breaks between them. Mom will clean puppies and let them nurse, which helps to stimulate more contractions. You can offer Mom some plain yogurt or another calcium-rich food, and ensure she has fresh water.
  • The American Kennel Club says that whelping time usually matches the number of puppies – 4 hours for 4 puppies, and 7 hours for 7, etc.
  • If your dog’s labor stalls and you know there are still puppies to come, it can be a sign of a problem. If it lasts for 2 hours you should call the vet (likewise if Mom seems trembly or upset, or the pups aren’t nursing). 
  • Keep puppies warm. Clean the box when you get the chance, but make sure puppies are warm and secure.
  • Encourage them to feed. If there are any puppies who don’t nurse, hold them at their mom’s teat – you can even squeeze out a little milk to give them the right idea!
  • Check the pups. Before whelping, talk to your vet about this first health-check, since you’ll be doing it. Look for pink gums, a healthy coat and a natural sucking reflex. 

Mother dog with litter of puppies

Helping Your Dog to Care for Her Puppies

Newborn puppies involve a lot of hard work. But much of it will be done by the new mom! Make sure she is eating and drinking enough, since she will be feeding her pups for a while. Watch her for signs of mastitis – an infection which causes red, sore nipples – if she has it, pups won’t be able to feed and you should take Mom to the vet. 

Temperature regulation is crucial for the new arrivals. They don’t yet have the capacity to stay warm, so you’ll need to ensure their environment is warm – use a lamp positioned over one section of the whelping box, so puppies can escape the heat if they get hot.

Your dog will want to keep her puppies safe and secure for at least 4 weeks, and will not accept strange human or animal visitors. It helps if you can keep mother and pups in a safe room where they can have privacy. It is vitally important no other dogs are allowed anywhere near the Mom or her pups, even the puppies father. Whilst some male dogs have some paternal instinct, it’s far more common for the puppies to come to harm. Even if you’re on hand, the best case scenario could be you’ve given a tiny puppy a lifelong fear of being attacked by another dog. 

If the mother is your family dog, you should be able to handle her pups without any complaints. In fact, handling them will help them to become socialized. After they’re vaccinated, puppies should be gently introduced to other people and animals, including walks in lots of different places! This helps your puppies to become well-adjusted to a variety of people and things. 

Weighing puppies is also important – use a baby weighing scales and pop them on soon after their very first feed. Puppies should put on weight and you can record their progress at 12 hours, 24 hours, 48 hours, and then every 2 days. When they reach 6-8 weeks they’ll be ready for their first vaccines, weaning, and new homes. Congratulations!