What Causes Puppies to Be Born Dead?

It's heartbreaking if puppies in a litter are born dead, but it's also important to find out why it happened. The reason affects the future breeding health of your dog and possibly its surviving littermates. Getting to the bottom of the problem requires veterinary testing of the mother and a necropsy of the dead puppies. The vet should also examine any surviving puppies. Avoid potential heartbreak by having the female dog thoroughly examined before pregnancy and issued a clean bill of health.

Norfolk Terrier Puppy
What Causes Puppies to Be Born Dead?
credit: Caroline Kuhn/Moment/GettyImages

Dystocia in dogs

Dystocia is the term used for difficulties during delivery. Pet MD says that common causes of dystocia in dogs include oversize puppies stuck in the birth canal, abnormalities of the vagina or vulva, and uterine infection. If labor is prolonged, veterinary intervention is necessary to save the puppies and the mother. Bring the mother and any surviving puppies to an emergency veterinary hospital.

Poor mother dog health

For a successful pregnancy, the mother should be in good condition. A pregnant dog who doesn't receive sufficient food or who is in poor physical condition can easily lose her puppies. Older dogs, even those in good condition, are predisposed to having puppies develop abnormally in the womb and die.

Brucellosis in dogs

If a pregnant dog carries the bacterium Brucella canis, she will generally abort the puppies late in the pregnancy. Sometimes, the mother might actually deliver the puppies, but they are stillborn. Any puppies born alive die a short time later.

There's no cure for brucellosis, which affects both male and female canine reproductive organs. Dogs infected with brucellosis are often asymptomatic, so have the vet conduct a blood test for these bacteria before breeding. The mother should be spayed, as she'll never deliver a live litter.

Other causes of stillborn puppies

Veterinary Partner says certain canine viruses can cause fetal death, including the herpes virus, parvovirus, adenovirus, coronavirus, and the distemper virus. Bacterial culprits include E. coli, streptococcus, and staphylococcus. The protozoal parasite Neospora caninum infects the brain and spinal cord of fetuses and newborns, eventually killing them. In most cases, the mother shows no signs of illness.

Genetic and physical defects

Fetuses with genetic or physical defects, such as abnormal organ development or chromosomal abnormalities, will likely die in utero or shortly after birth. The mother's reproductive system could also suffer from physical defects, such as scar tissue that doesn't allow proper placental development, resulting in fetuses not receiving sufficient nutrients for growth.

Drug exposure

During your dog's pregnancy, do not give her any medications or supplements before checking with your vet. Some common drugs, relatively safe to use in non-pregnant animals, can cause abortion or kill puppies in utero. These include dexamethasone, often prescribed as an anti-inflammatory.

Time to call the vet

The website Medic Animal says that there is little that can be done to prevent dystocia in dogs and other problems during labor, but it is helpful to know when it is time to call the vet. Pregnancy continuing over 63 days is a concern, as are signs of labor continuing for a day with no signs of a puppy coming. It is normal to have a resting phase in between puppies being born, but if the resting phase continues for more than four hours with no more puppies being delivered, that's a sign of a problem.

According to Barrett Weimaraners, a website dedicated to the Weimaraner breed, puppies born with a green placenta is not anything to worry about. A little green tinged fluid or a green tinged bubble of fluid at the vulva is not a big deal. The website says that green is not a sign of fetal distress, it is simply the color of the portion of the placenta that is next to the puppy's skin.

Fetal collection

As difficult as it is, if you have a stillborn puppy, collect it and put it in a plastic zip-lock bag to take to the vet for testing and necropsy. Include the placenta, if possible. If necessary, put the remains in the refrigerator if you can't get to the vet immediately. Wear gloves when picking up the stillborn puppy and placenta, since certain diseases are transmissible to people. You have to work fast, even through your grief, because it is the nature of dogs to consume dead fetuses.