I have bred pedigree Labrador Retrievers for 25 years. Consequently I have sat up many nights holding the paw of a bitch in labour whilst marvelling each and every time another wet and wondrous puppy is licked and nuzzled into life. To date with the aid of their dams I have successfully reared 48 litters of pups.
The early signs of pregnancy may be quite obvious if you know your bitch well but we'll start from the beginning when that first litter of pups is merely a glint in the stud dog's eye. Obviously in order for a bitch to become pregnant in the first place she must be entire and have recently come in season or on heat. Most bitches come in season twice yearly at six monthly intervals. The first season can occur anywhere between six and 14 months depending on the breed. Generally toy breeds come in season for the first time earlier than larger breeds.
Swelling of the vulva precedes the beginning of her estrus cycle followed by bleeding which may be scant or quite obvious. The blood will change to a pinkish hue anywhere between 8 to 15 days after the first day of bleeding heralding the start of ovulation. Flagging of the tail as well as flirtatious behaviour also signifies the bitch is ready to accept the dog's advances. Hopefully you should already know her prospective due date having noted the first day of bleeding and more importantly the dates any matings took place. Typically a bitch will stand for and accept the dog between day ten and fifteen of her season. There are exceptions. Some bitches will stand earlier or later depending on their size, breed and estrus cycle.
A bitch should be fully mature, healthy and physically fit before any decision is made to breed from her. She should also be a good example of her breed and sound both in conformation and temperament. All screen testing relevant to her breed such as hip and elbow scoring, eye testing etc should have been undertaken prior to the mating. Her vaccinations, worm and flea treatment should be up to date. The stud dog should also be chosen carefully, meet the same criteria and compliment the bitch.
I like to achieve at least two matings 48 hours apart. I calculate the due date from the first mating. A bitch is pregnant for 63 days but can whelp a day or two earlier. The first signs of pregnancy may not become apparent until the 3rd or 4th week. These early signs are more emotional than physical. I find my bitches become more clingy and affectionate. A maiden bitch, one that is pregnant for the first time, may show physical signs earlier. She may thicken noticeably in the flanks and her nipples may significantly increase in size.
The physical signs of impending motherhood generally become obvious by five weeks into the pregnancy. Should you be at all uncertain this is the best time to have your bitch examined by a vet in order to have the pregnancy confirmed. If the bitch is carrying a good sized litter her belly will be quite rotund by this stage when viewed front on or from behind. You may even witness or feel movement from the pups as they jostle for space in the bitch's womb. This is less likely in the last week or two as the now rapidly growing pups will have little room to maneuver.
The bitch will become restless in the final two weeks of pregnancy and will seek your reassurance. She will search for a suitable place to prepare her nest. By this time you should have a whelping box set up in a quiet place away from the hustle and bustle of family activities. Commonly made from wood, the box should be large enough to allow the bitch room to lie down fully extended. The sides need to be high enough to keep the pups contained. One side should be height adjustable allowing the bitch easy access in and out of the box. It's also important to include a pig rail. Wooden doweling attached along the inside a few inches from the base works well. This will prevent the bitch accidentally rolling on top of a new born pup.
Introduce the bitch to her new maternity quarters well in advance. Supply plenty of newspaper which she will rip up to make a nest in preparation for the impending delivery. You can be sure she will make her own birthing arrangements if there is no whelping box available. Allowing a bitch to choose her own delivery room is not recommended. Whelping her pups outside in the garden , under the house or on someones bed is not desirable or practical for obvious reasons.
Another essential item for the puppy nursery is a heat lamp particularly in winter as pups need to be kept very warm especially in the first week of life. Suspending a heat lamp securely from the ceiling over one end of the whelping box allows the bitch to move away from the direct heat. The pups although born blind and deaf will instinctively gravitate towards or away from the heat as required.
Your bitch will alert you with her unusual behaviour once labor has begun in earnest. Food will no longer interest her. She will pant heavily and become obsessed with the business end of her body. Her restlessness will increase and she may whine and whimper. Within 48 hours her temperature will drop and her contractions will become stronger. Soon after she will begin to actively push. The actual whelping can last any where from 3 or 4 hours to over 12 hours. Pups may arrive 10 minutes to 3 hours apart. Any longer than this between deliveries may signal a problem which could require immediate veterinary attention. Seek professional advice if the bitch is distressed and has been actively pushing for over thirty minutes. It is essential to stay with your bitch during the whelping. I have spent many a long night comforting a bitch in labor. A healthy litter and contented dam well outweigh the inconvenience of a sleepless night.
The new mother can finally relax once the last of her puppies has arrived. She will be exhausted as quite likely will you! Having cleaned and inspected each of her puppies she will need to rest. As the bitch will have eaten the placentas she may not be particularly hungry at first but will appreciate a drink. I make up a mixture of beaten egg yolk, glucose powder and warm milk. It's important to clean up and replace the soiled newspaper before the bitch settles down for a well earned sleep. Place light, breathable and warm bedding on top of the clean paper. Although the bitch may be reluctant offer her the opportunity to go outside to relieve herself. Once back in the whelping box, encourage the pups to suckle. The colostrum produced by the bitch before her milk comes in provides essential protection and nourishment for the new born pups.
Finally give the dam and yourself a pat on the back for a job well done. Enjoy the next three weeks admiring those beautiful pups. They are the best time wasters in the world! Concentrate on caring for the bitch during these tranquil early days and she will look after the pups. From then on the hard work for you the breeder will well and truly begin.