What to expect when your dog is Expecting

At our practice, we often get phone calls and visits from worried owners when they have a pregnant fairy at home.  It can be quite stressful if you don’t know what to expect during the pregnancy, the birthing process and beyond. 


Let’s start at the beginning – the normal heat cycle of the average bitch.  First heat occurs anytime from 6 months of age or when the bitch reaches about 70% of adult body weight.  She will then come on heat every 7 months or so. 


How to recognise when your dog is on heat:

  • Swelling of the genitals (called the vulva) and a watery, bloody discharge – this phase is called pro-oestrus and lasts an average of 9 days.  During this phase the bitch will be sexually attractive to the male but she WILL NOT allow mating

  • The phase during which a dog usually falls pregnant is called oestrus.  The genital discharge and swelling starts to diminish.  Now she will allow mating, also called standing heat.  This stage lasts an average of 9 days.


To ensure your bitch falls pregnant, mate her every second day throughout standing heat.


Mating – the physical process

It is best to take the bitch to the male dog than the other way around.  This saves time the male would spend marking his territory and exploring the new property.  Allow them to sniff and get to know each other.  The male will eventually mount the bitch and start thrusting. At some point the male will dismount and turn around.  In dogs the male and female remain connected to each other through the whole process by means of the ‘coital tie’. 














The coital tie can last anything from 5 to 30 minutes.  Do not ever attempt to separate dogs prematurely form the tie – it is painful and very difficult to do!



A single litter may have more than one father if a bitch is mated with multiple males.  This is called superfecundation.  Pups from such litters may not be registered with breed associations.



Are we pregnant?

Pregnancy diagnosis can best be made 3 to 4 weeks after mating. 

  • The Vet will be able to detect the foetuses by palpating/feeling the abdomen.  It can be described as felling multiple tiny water balloons  

  • Ultrasound is the best way to make a diagnosis.  We are able to see the foetal heartbeats – usually about 230 beats per minute. This can tell us the approximate age of the foetuses and if they’re all healthy

  • X-rays are helpful only during the last 3 weeks of pregnancy (Day 45 and up).  The puppies’ bones are mineralised, enabling us to count the number of babies to be expected.  Knowing the number of pups may be important in small breed dogs prone to difficult birth – the fewer pups, the bigger the pups, the more difficult birth may be

  • Mammary gland enlargement and lactation is seen from 2 weeks before birth.  Be careful: dogs with pseudopregnancy may also lactate and have enlarged abdomens but they are NOT pregnant, the body mimics signs of pregnancy in these cases

  • Foetal heart beats may be heard through the abdominal wall with a stethoscope 5  days before birth


When is the big day?

Duration of pregnancy is 65 days from the day of mating but may vary from 56 to 71 days in length due to the fact that male sperm can stay alive for as long as 4 days in the female genital tract and the female heat cycle is long and variable in length.



Preparing for the big day

To make sure mom and her pups are healthy and the birthing process goes without problems, you as owner can do a few things at home.

  • Start your pregnant fairy on a good quality PUPPY FOOD 4 weeks before her due date.  Her nutrient requirements increase tremendously during late pregnancy and lactation

  • Prepare a whelping box/area and introduce her in the last week of pregnancy



Figure 2: Examples of Whelping boxes















The box should be high enough so the pups can’t get out and low enough so the bitch can get out to eat and drink.  Wash the bitch and the whelping area before introducing her.  Choose an area that is quiet, warm and draft free.  Blankets cut into squares make soft, absorbent and safe bedding for pups.  In cold weather, use a lamp or other heat source

  • When dealing with long haired breeds, shave and wash the areas around the nipples and genitals

  • Record everything!  8 hourly rectal temperature readings of the bitch, the time that she starts pushing and the time of birth of each pup



Recognising labour

  • Body mass increases rapidly and mammary glands enlarge

  • Lactation 2 weeks to a few minutes before birth

  • Bitch becomes restless and secludes herself, shows nesting behaviour 2-3 days before

  • Mucous discharge about 1 day before birth

  • Her rectal temperature will fall with 1°C or more 12 to 24 hours before birth



It’s a 3 stage process:


STAGE 1: Uterine contractions start.  This is uncomfortable and painful and you begin to see excitement, panting, restlessness, seclusion and nesting behaviour


STAGE 2: This stage starts the moment the bitch starts pushing.  The pups are born in this stage and may last up to 24 hours depending on litter size.  Normal progression of labour may be delayed by as much as 24 hours if the bitch is stressed in any way.  This is why it is best to leave her in peace as much as possible.  The first pup may take as long as 1 hour to be born but subsequent pups are usually born in 15 -30min intervals.  Pups may be born with or without foetal membranes – the bitch usually removes them and nibbles off the umbilical cord.  She then licks them dry and stimulates their breathing.  If the bitch does not remove the membranes, remove them manually within 3 minutes to avoid suffocation. Make sure all pups airways are clear of mucous and fluids, rub  them dry with a course towel to stimulate breathing.



  • Strong pushing for 20 – 30 min without any progress.  This could be a sign of a pup too large to pass through the birth canal

  • Weak, intermittent pushing for more than 3 hours without a pup being born

  • Abnormal discharge: dark green, black, stinky

  • More than 4 hours have passed since the birth of the last pup

  • Second stage labour lasting more than 12 hours

  • If the bitch is more than 70 days pregnant, indicating prolonged pregnancy



STAGE 3: This stage happens after each pup is born and is marked by passing of the placenta.  It’s usually released within 5-15min after the pup is born.  Sometimes 2 or 3 pups may be born before all the placentas are expelled together

The birthing process is done when the bitch stops pushing.  She cares for her litter and appears peaceful and calm.  Tiny amount of bloody discharge is seen from the genitals for a time after birth.




  • Vaginal discharge becomes stinky and putrid

  • Continuing severe genital bleeding

  • Rectal temperature of more than 39.5°C

  • Bitch has no appetite and appears lethargic

  • Puppies look ill, lethargic, fail to suckle

  • Placentas are not passed within 4-6 hours.  This can be difficult to see if the bitch eats them





The puppies are here, now what?

In a healthy bitch there isn’t much to do.  She will groom them, feed them and keep them warm.  The normal pup sleeps 90% of the time and cries only when disturbed or hungry.  The normal rectal temperature is between 32 - 34°C and breathing should be regular and even.  Pups are born with closed eyes which open naturally from 2 weeks of age.  Weaning takes place at 4-5 weeks, they will start imitating mom by eating the puppy pellets with her.



Healthy pups should increase in body weight by 5-10% per day!














Puppies have 3 basic but very important needs:

  • Warmth – cannot regulate their own body temperature

  • Food – to keep their glucose levels normal they should suckle every 2-3 hours

  • Clean environment – keep area clean and disinfect whelping area before introducing the bitch

Puppies that fail to thrive must receive supplemental feeding.  If they fail to suckle regularly and normally and keep losing weight, try a commercial puppy milk replacer to help them along.  If in doubt about anything, don’t hesitate to contact us anytime for sound advice and peace of mind.




Although puppies are a great joy and fun to have around, they are a big responsibility from conception to being placed in a loving home.  Remember that they grow quickly and will soon need more food, attention and never forget about vaccination and deworming schedules! 



  • Images from Google images

  • Textbook of Veterinary Internal Medicine, 5th edition by Ettinger and Feldman, pages 1510 – 1527

  • Reproduction of the dog and cat, compiled by Prof. JO Nöthling, Department Production animal clinical studies, Onderstepoort

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Pierre van Ryneveld Vet
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Pierre van Ryneveld

Pretoria / Centurion



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