Signs & Symptoms of Labor in a Dog

By Betty Lewis

Professional dog breeders go to great lengths to oversee the birth of their dogs' offspring, building whelping boxes, recording the mother's temperature and logging the arrival time and physical description of each puppy. For the regular pet owner, the arrival of a litter of puppies is a casual affair. Though your dog will instinctively know what to do and when to do it, it's wise to know the signs and stages of labor.

Before Labor

You don't need to build a whelping box for your girl to deliver her brood, but you should have a comfortable, quiet space set aside. If possible, give her a separate room, away from the comings and goings of your home. Whether a box or a corner of the room, the birthing area should be large enough for your dog to stretch out in, but not so large that the puppies can wander away. Line the birthing space with newspaper sections and have more on hand to lay over the soiled papers as she gives birth -- it makes for easier cleanup after she's had all her pups. Make the birthing space comfortable; for instance, if she's high-strung, consider dimming the lights and keeping visitors away.

The Big Day Approaches

The average gestation time for a dog is 63 days. Breeders often try to determine delivery time by taking a dog's temperature, which often drops below 99 degrees within 24 hours of delivery. However, some dogs don't experience a drop in body temperature, so you can look for other signs that the time is near. In the days before delivery, her nipples become larger as her mammary glands fill with milk and her vulva becomes softened and enlarged. If the mother-to-be has long hair, you may want to clip the hair on her hind end and abdomen, which will minimize the mess during delivery and allow her pups to find her nipples for feeding.

Stage One

The first stage of labor may take as few as six hours or as many as 24 hours. Your dog likely will be restless, panting, pacing and getting little sleep and she probably won't have much appetite. At this point, her cervix is softening and dilating, maybe causing her to moan and pant. She may lick at her vulva, where any vaginal discharge should be clear and mucus-like. She'll begin to have uterine contractions during the first stage, which become more regular and frequent as the stage progresses.

Stage Two

When you see signs that she's contracting her abdominal muscles to expel her puppies, she's reached the second stage of labor. She may squat or lie down to deliver. It can take as little as 10 minutes to as long as an hour to deliver one puppy. The puppy is contained in an amniotic sac, which usually ruptures during birth, releasing a straw-colored liquid. The mother typically cleans the rest of the sac off her newborn and chews off the umbilical cord, which is not only an important part of the bonding process, but also stimulates the puppy's breathing. If your dog doesn't begin to tend to these basic bits within a minute of delivery, you will need to step in and act for her, tearing off the sac, clearing fluid away from the puppy's mouth and nose and rubbing him to stimulate his breathing.

Stage Three

The third stage of labor is the period of time between delivering puppies, which is mostly a time of rest. Any remaining placenta, blood and fluid is expelled when the mother's uterus contracts. Otherwise, your dog may relax and allow her puppies to nurse or she may stretch her legs and take a drink of water and bite of food. She may want a bathroom break at this point, which you can allow provided she's on a leash. There's no hard and fast rule as to how long the third stage will last -- some dogs take as long as four hours between puppy deliveries.

Help, Please

The vast majority of dogs deliver their puppies with no assistance, however sometimes it's necessary to intercede. Some dogs, such as pugs, bulldogs and Pekingese, require veterinary assistance to have their pups, however it's possible any dog may need a little extra help. If you think your dog has been pregnant for more than 69 days, she should see a vet. It's a good idea to have your vet do an X-ray before your dog gives birth to know how many puppies to expect. If she has been more than four hours without delivering a puppy -- and you know there's more to come -- she should see the vet. As well, a puppy may become lodged in the birth canal, which also requires veterinary attention. A reddish or greenish brown vaginal discharge after birth is normal, however, if the discharge has a strong odor or resembles pus, your dog should see the vet.