Pregnancy in pets

Pregnancy in pets necessitates special care and attention, and additional veterinary visits. Here’s our vet’s guide to how to care for a pregnant pet, and her puppies or kittens.

Pregnancy basics

DOGS go on heat from the age of 7-9 months for 2-3 weeks. They are fertile in the last week of the heat. Their pregnancy length is approximately two months, but can vary considerably (54-72 days). You can only accurately determine the due date if a vet is monitoring the heat cycle by doing daily speculum examinations and examining the cervical cells.

CATS come on heat at 5-9 months of age but exclusively in spring/summer. They are normally on heat for a week and go off heat for a further week, and then back on again until they fall pregnant. Cats are pregnant for 58-67 days.

Does pregnancy require special food?

Once pregnancy has been confirmed bitches should go onto a puppy food for the duration of the pregnancy until the puppies are weaned. No diet change is required for cats, unless they are on a poor quality diet.

What about exercise?

Most dogs and cats will regulate themselves. Generally during the last trimester they will become uncomfortable and then limit exercise. Don’t force a pregnant dog to go on your daily run; she will determine her own level of exercise.

Health issues to watch out for

If you’re taking your dog to the vet for a checkup and you suspect she may be pregnant, you must tell your vet immediately. This affects the medications we can give.

Small breed dogs or dogs with large litters are predisposed to milk fever (post-parturient hypocalcaemia). This is due to low calcium reserves; you will see extreme restlessness, panting, muscle tremors and seizures within 1-7 days after giving birth. This is a medical emergency and they need to get to the vet urgently. 

How often should we visit the vet?

A first visit to confirm pregnancy should be done at 3 weeks after the heat has ended. An ultrasound examination is done. An estimate of the litter size can be made but it is not 100% accurate.

Approximately two weeks prior to the birth an x-ray should be done to establish litter size. This helps to plan the labour and to know what to expect and when to call the vet.

Start monitoring rectal temperature 3x a day at the same time every day from approximately 14 days before the birth. When the temperature drops by more than 1 degree compared to the same time the previous day, or below 36 deg labour will begin within 24 hours.

Birthing preparations

Make sure you have a comfortable, quiet sheltered place for the animal to give birth. Prepare it at least 3 weeks before you expect the pups/kittens to arrive so that she can become comfortable with it.

For dogs, prepare a whelping box with low sides that the pups can’t get out out but that their mother can climb out of easily when she needs a break. Put it in an easy-to-clean area. Make sure you have clean towels available for the birth, and then lots of newspaper to lay on the floor when the pups come to make cleaning up after them easier.

What to do during birth, and after

Birth is divided into three stages:

  1. STAGE ONE starts 24-48 hours before labour. You will notice that your pet becomes restless or lethargic. This is nesting behaviour. They may also stop eating. Their temperature will also drop (see above).
  2. STAGE TWO starts with contractions. Pets normally lie on their chests or sides and you can see active contractions of the abdomen. The first puppy/kitten should be born within an hour.  If it takes longer than an hour, something is wrong – contact your vet.
  3. STAGE THREE occurs about 20 minutes after the pup or kitten is born. This is when the afterbirth or placenta is passed. Animals often eat the afterbirth so don’t stress  if you don’t see it.

Your pet may then sometimes take a short break and start with contractions for the next puppy/kitten. They should be born within 30 minutes with active contractions.

If she hasn’t had a puppy/kitten within this time sometihng is wrong – contact your vet. 

Sometimes they will take a break of up to 4 hours with no contractions. If she is calm and feeding the babies then there is no need to panic.

If it lasts longer than 4 hours or she looks stressed/distressed, contact your vet. 

Other signs that something is wrong

  • Any green/black or bright red discharge before a puppy is born.
  • Any large amounts of bright red blood after the first puppy.
  • Any distress in the mother, excessive panting, severe shivering.

Most dogs are able to whelp without assistance. But if any of the above warning signs occur, there is something wrong and they may need a caesarean. Cats generally don’t need any assistance but again, if they don’t fit with the above time criteria they most likely need a caeasarean.

At risk cases are bulldogs and other brachycephalics – most will need caesareans. Also litters with only 1 or two puppies or kittens and very large litters.

What to check in newborn puppies/kittens

As soon as they are born the dam/queen will normally remove the sac in which they come and bite off the umbilical cord. If she doesn’t do that herself you will need to remove it. Give the pup/kitten a good rub with a clean towel. Tear or cut the umbilical cord about 2 cm from the abdomen. It doesn’t need to be tied off if it is not bleeding. And then give it to the dam/queen to lick. Gently place the pup or kitten near the teats to encourage suckling.

Check that they all feed well and that they are then content and sleeping after feeding. Pups/kittens that are yowling or very lethargic need to be seen. They may need supplemental feeding. You can start offering puppy/kitten food from 5-6 weeks; puppy/kitten pellets soaked in water to form a slurry works well.

Have the vet check puppies within a day or so for cleft palates and any other developmental issues.

Puppies and kittens should be dewormed at 2, 4, and 6 weeks. Puppies get their first vaccination at 6-8 weeks depending on their mother’s vaccination status; kittens at 9 weeks.

Sterilisation before the first heat is always recommended for pets that aren’t owned by breeders. Sterilisation not only prevents unwanted litters, it also protects your pets against cancer.

RESPONSIBLE BREEDING

Think before you breed. If you are not a registered breeder, please do not breed.

Make sure you are prepared for the cost of breeding – i.e. possible Caesarean section R5000-R10000, supplement feeding the pups/kittens, 6-week vaccinations, food for the mother and the babies.

Don’t breed the animal before a year of age. Make sure all the relevant testing is done for that breed before she gets pregnant, i.e.large breed dogs need hip and elbow x-rays to screen for potential problems, Persian cats need to be screened for polycystic kidney disease, Cavalier King Charles Spaniels need to be screened for heart disease