The birthing process in dogs and cats is an amazing experience to behold, but it is extremely stressful. Things can turn bad quickly, especially in the hands of an inexperienced owner. It’s very important to know how the process works in pets so you can recognize problems and know when it is time to call your veterinarian.
Normal gestation, or pregnancy length, ranges from 58 to 72 days in the dog and 63 to 65 days in the cat. A number of things may clue you toward impending labor. Breast development and vulvar enlargement tend to occur 1 to 2 weeks before the approaching labor. Milk production in the mammary glands may occur 24 hours to several days prior to the birthing process. A sudden drop in body temperature of greater than 2 degrees generally occurs one day prior to labor. It’s good to monitor that with a rectal thermometer when the time is approaching.
Labor proceeds through three stages. In the first stage, fetuses move to the birth canal and the cervix begins to dilate. This may last for a full day. Signs you will see are nesting, restlessness, panting, vocalization, hiding and lack of appetite. Active delivery of the fetus occurs during the second stage of labor. Once active labor begins, a cat will deliver the first kitten within one hour while dogs will deliver the first puppy within four hours. Subsequent deliveries should occur every 15 minutes to 3 hours. The third stage of labor results in delivery of the placenta. Placentas are usually still attached to the fetus by the umbilical cord when they are born, and the placenta is then eaten by the mother. One placenta should be identified for each newborn delivered.
Lochia, a greenish vaginal discharge, occurs when the placenta separates from the uterus and may be seen during all stages of labor. Following labor, the discharge generally becomes reddish-brown in color and may last up to 6 weeks. This discharge is normal — unless you notice a foul odor and the mother appears ill.
Dystocia is a term used to describe a difficult birth. Problems can arise from abnormalities with the mother or with the young and may occur during any stage of labor. Some breeds are more prone to dystocia than others. In dogs, brachycephalic breeds — such as Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, Pugs, Boxers and French Bulldogs — are at higher risk for problems due to the large head size of the puppies and narrow pelvis of the mothers. In cats, Siamese and Oriental breeds tend to become nervous and high strung during labor and may cause the uterus to stop contracting.
Maternal factors which can cause dystocia are a small birth canal and uterine inertia. Uterine inertia is the inactivity of uterine contractions. Primary uterine inertia occurs when the uterus fails to produce any contractions or only weak contractions from the onset of labor. Secondary uterine inertia occurs when the uterus becomes exhausted after prolonged contractions. Fetal factors that may result in dystocia include abnormal positioning through the birth canal, very large fetuses, birth defects and dead fetuses.
When to you call your veterinarian:
• Gestation (pregnancy length) is longer than 70 days
• Temperature has dropped more than 2 degrees with no evidence of labor within 24 hours
• Lochia (green vaginal discharge) is noted and 2 hours has elapsed without a fetus being born
• If any black or bloody vaginal discharge is noted
• Strong and persistent contractions fail to produce a newborn within 30 minutes
• Weak and infrequent contractions fail to produce a newborn within 4 hours
• More than 4 hours have elapsed since the birth of a newborn with no evidence of ongoing labor (especially if you know there are more fetuses)
• A puppy or kitten is lodged in the birth canal
• If the bitch or queen seems extremely lethargic or in severe pain
Before you decide to breed your pet, please discuss the pros and cons with your veterinarian. If your pet is a beloved family member, it’s not wise to put her at risk for complications just for the sake of “experiencing birth” or “to make money.” A C-section surgery is very costly and places the mother, as well as her young, at risk. Arm yourself with the info in this article, have your veterinarian on-call and ready if need be, and be prepared for a potentially long, exhaustive day.
Dr. April Shattuck is a 2004 graduate from the Ohio State College of Veterinary Medicine, an Army wife and proud mother of two beautiful daughters. She practices small animal emergency medicine at the West Central Ohio Veterinary Emergency Services hospital. Any comments or questions may be directed to her at email@example.com.