The net's most talked about prescription for whelping; importance of cuddle-curl, over-heating the nest, sick puppies, laying-in, hormones, and imprinting.
Rx For Whelping A Litter
Prolonged or difficult labor leads to whelping problems which may lead to a C-section and that can lead to high puppy mortality.
We accept, even expect whelping problems or Caesarian sections with some breeds. That is our choice but a miscarriage of common sense puts dog breeders through weeks of sleepless nights, round the clock tube feedings, constant worry and often, an erroneous decision not to breed the bitch again, to change breeds, or not breed dogs at all!
You may be offended by these prescriptives but it is a culmination of whelping and rearing knowledge passed to me by my peers. This article (and the term cuddle curl) was published here in 1992. This article was later reprinted in Kennel Review and Canine Chronicle magazines as a "prescription" for whelping, from pre-delivery to after-care, whether by C-section or natural birth. Nothing has changed so let's have a basic understanding about breeding dogs. A Caesarian can be necessary to spare the bitch and save the pups but I strongly suggest you avoid today's practice of routinely scheduled caesarians. If delivering puppies is too inconvenient for you or for your veterinarian, one of you is in the wrong business.
Where To Whelp The Litter?
Knowledge our grandparents grew up with is all too often obscured by today’s plethora of teachings. With no human interference, the farm dog has her pups under the porch, in the barn, wherever she chooses - and she chooses well. After all, wolves, coyotes, and foxes still find the right place at the right time. You will select the place but your bitch must be allowed at least two weeks to make her nest her own. Please don’t put her in a fancy square whelping box in the kitchen where the family can watch the big event. Would you be comfortable delivering your first born in the Group ring at Westminster?
See "Digging, Shredding, Nesting" below for the perfect, simple "whelping box" but for now, use simple logic. For toy breeds, buy a round snuggle bed. For bigger breeds, the bottom half of an airline crate is OK. Put the nest in a raised X-pen so you can tend to her without breaking your back. If she's a large breed, accustom her to a round, flexible, child’s wading pool to nest in before she whelps. You'll realize why you don't need a "rail" when you note how she curls up in the circular nest and how the sides give under pressure.
Regardless of breed, the best place of all is the privacy and seclusion of your clothes closet! It is also in the room where you sleep so you can nap there between pups. Stock up on newspaper, rolls of paper towels, and or clean rags. For large breeds, put down several layers of newspaper over Dry Deck to drain fluids. Let her arrange (dig, shred and rip) her bedding. It's part of the process.
How To Avoid Problems With Caesarian Delivery
Whether elective or emergency C-section, a bitch may reject her pups unless you take steps to prevent her confusion. Having allowed her to perform as much of the pre-delivery routine as is safe, insist that the veterinary surgeon save a complete placenta. To emphasize the importance of the request, as you gather the bitch, receiving box, blanket, (and of course, your credit card!) be sure to include a zip lock freezer bag. If the vet is more than a hour from home, ask the veterinary staff to refrigerate the placenta. Also make sure that he has given her oxytocin, the bonding hormone that is naturally produced to contract the uterus during labor, more below.
With as little fuss as possible, settle the bitch and pups and hope she will take notice of them. You can try rubbing them across her vulva but my advice is to take no chances. Warm the placenta by placing the plastic bag in hot water. When she is alert enough to respond to you, dip the puppies rear quarters into the bag, then dump the placenta under her vulva as you discreetly place the pups at her rear. She will lick her vulva, the placenta, and her whelps. The bonding process has begun. With any luck, she will ingest the placenta which is laden with much-needed hormones!
It is how we deal with the aftermath of a C-section that will determine the surgery's effect on the dam and her whelps. When she cleans up the mess you discreetly made, with no hovering interference to disrupt her concentration, she should begin to lick her whelps which now smell "just right" (normal). You can sit back, relax, and admire motherhood functioning as nature intended.
If a bitch is sectioned before the onset of labor, or she's spayed concurrent with a c-section, her body will not produce adequate levels of oxytocin (bonding hormone). Some Veterinarians don't bother giving an oxytocin injection, wrongly reasoning it isn't needed because the puppies are already "born." Stupid! Oxytocin is the most important part of the birth-bonding process.
With uterus removed and hormonal releases cut short, there's also a risk that her milk may not come down. Big bitches that bagged up in the last few days of gestation may slip by the breeder’s notice. As the experienced brood bitch "mothers" her pups, the breeder may not notice that there's no milk!
Here's a red flag warning to complacent bitch owners. Newborns already weakened by anesthesia can just lay there and quietly starve to death. The breeder who weighs or instinctively notes that the pups are not "firm and fully packed" may be puzzled. By the time dehydration becomes clearly evident, even the novice breeder realizes something is seriously wrong. It will take heroic effort to save the whelps at this point.
Any vet who fails to warn the litter owner of the potential side effects of cesarean-spaying should be held accountable. Such negligence is often compounded by an attempted cover up of scientific garble designed to lay blame on the bitch’s “poison milk” or pups that were somehow defective and “wouldn’t nurse and caused the bitch to dry up.” Be forewarned.
Don't Disturb The Whelping Nest!
Who would clean her whelping spot if it were in the barn or under the house? Wait until she settles down to hard labor, then place a wad of paper towels directly under the vulva to soak up the voluminous birth fluids. Discreetly change after each delivery. If it is a large breed, excess fluids drain down through the rubber Drydeck mat you've provided so that the dam is kept clean, quiet, and undisturbed. The perforated rubber matting prevents the dam and her whelps from getting soggy and chilled.
Don't worry about sanitation. Were that a risk, Mrs. Wily Coyote, the Rhodes Scholar of carnivores, would have long ago learned to use disinfectant. For those first few days, put up with a little odor. To your nursing dam, it smells like Heavenly Success. Our well-intentioned interference wreaks havoc on a process that has worked for thousands of years. Were we to believe the confusing array of books, seminars, and "expert advice" on the whelping process, we could only surmise that the dinosaurs became extinct because there were no humans to whelp and rear them!
A small amount of warm raw calves liver can be offered the first time she seems hungry but food should be otherwise limited to milk and broth for the next 72 hours after which she can go back on her regular high quality diet. Offer water free choice.
Hand-Rearing A Litter
Loss of the dam or her refusal to care for the litter can result in puppies that become maladjusted adults. Newborn puppies deprived of the constant licking, rough nosing about, tactile sensations, feeding rivalry, and primordial learning experiences of the first few weeks of life are prone to behavioral problems. Good dams beget good dams for much more than genetic reasons.
Think for a moment. The newborn is instinctively drawn to the warm comfort of the udder, groin, and genital areas of his dam. Getting there however is a learning process that begins with a good mother’s guidance as she rolls and prods him in the right direction. Notice how she breathes on him. She isn’t smelling him, his individual scent was imprinted in her deepest being before she had finished licking the birth fluids away. No, she is leading him with her warm breath back to the perfect environment of her cuddle curl. (More on that later.)
Unless or until mom takes over, you will have to stimulate the whelps to urinate and defecate. Wake them up and rumple them around between feedings. Stimulate them in other ways. Un-pile them and let them wriggle back together. Roll them back and forth to make sure the rib cage doesn't flatten. Be a good mom.
No Tube Feeding For Convenience!
I know it's quicker and more convenient to tube-feed the litter instead of holding each pup and bottle feeding it. Oh, you're too busy? Then don't breed. You'll find instructions elsewhere for tube feeding if you must do it but first, consider this. A newborn learns cause-and-effect behavior in the first few hours of life. Instead of having a tube forced down his throat and his stomach filled with more than it was designed to process at one time, he learns to bump the nipple to demand nourishment when he needs it.
Another life lesson occurs as he performs the food-by-demand ritual and is gratified by the let-down of her milk. He sucks vigorously, aggressively, developing the pushy, survival-at-all-costs attitude which will ultimately determine his adaptability to the hazards of life.
The newborn unable to join to the nipple for frequent small meals, one that never learns to fight for his place but who is instead force-fed according to the human attendant’s schedule, will likely become an adult with a quiescent personality, diminished reasoning ability and a lackadaisical attitude about life in general. Never having experienced the most basic neo-natal struggles and achievements, if at some point in life, he suffers hunger, cold, pain, or fear, he is the poor doggy that will just sit and whimper in befuddlement.
By the way, when pups are hand-fed, we're told to gently stimulate evacuation by cleansing the genital area with cotton balls moistened in warm water. What we are not told is that it should be very warm water. Shocking a newborn puppy with tepid bitch's milk replacer (the “wrist test” is for human babies) and cleansing his bottom with barely warm cotton is a common mistake. "Body temperature" in a human feels cold to a dog whose temperature averages 101.5 degrees.
Heat Lamps vs. Heating Pads
Puppies forced to lay on a dry heating pad or under the harsh light of an equally dehydrating heat lamp are in trouble from the get-go. Puppies are born in dark places. Their eyelids are closed for a reason. Close your own eyes. Shine a flashlight towards your eyes. Got it? The brightness filters through your closed lids. If you won’t allow her to whelp in the closet or a dark, quiet room, at the very least, throw the heat lamps out! If you have orphan pups, give them a hospital quality moist-heat pad or a hot-water bottle in a corner of the nest. Don't cover the entire nest with it.
Pups with their mom will do just fine if the ambient temperature is above 50 degrees. They are in your house, right?
If the artificially heated pup becomes too warm, there's no escape, no way to regulate his barely functioning thermostat. Human hands helpfully put him back in the heated area and the more he cries in discomfort, the more he's placed again and again in the heat. A brand new little body that is just learning how to react to outside stimuli shows the effects. He develops painful stomach cramps, “bird-seed diarrhea”, and breathing difficulties. Improperly diagnosed and treated, he will die. The telltale yellow liquid stool with tiny greenish lumps is undigested milk. Just as a chilled whelp can not digest milk, neither can an overheated one. The trip to the vet wherein he is taken out of the hot environment is often the first relief he has. He quiets down, grateful for the respite. But all too soon, he’s brought home and placed back in the overheated nest whereupon he again begins to crawl and cry.
I used to get frantic calls from breeders who, home from the vet with dutifully medicated pups, find them no better off. A few careful questions usually results in my best prescription, “put them in the bathtub and call me back in five minutes.” The results are nothing sort of miraculous! Hot puppies sprawl achy tummies on cool porcelain, whimper one time and fall (gratefully) asleep.
A word of caution. Should you lay this aside or fail to grasp the overall concept, please be sure the pups are in fact trying to crawl away from the heat source. If they are fanned out like spokes in a wheel, “crying and crawling,” the bathtub trick confirms you must remove the heat lamp or heating pad! If however, they are “piled” on top of each other in the nest, or if after three minutes on the cool porcelain they do not fall into exhausted sleep, the problem is not overheating and you need to find another vet.
The Cuddle Curl Has A Purpose
I first coined the phrase "Cuddle Curl" in 1992, when the internet was in its infancy. Curious, because of reported plagiarism, in 2017 I googled the term. Wow! It is everywhere. Hopefully human mothers are learning the importance :)
The protective, collective cuddle curl is an ingenious tool used by all carnivores; felines, canines, bears, even rodents. Bitches deprived of the natural birth process may never fully develop the nurturing curl that regulates temperature, controls a large brood, and insures the babies are not laid or stepped on. As previously explained, hot pups crawl away from the heat source. Although mom will uncurl, even roll onto her back to allow mammary heat to escape, she can do little to change an overly warm environment. When whelps scatter, they are at high risk of being squashed or smothered as opposed to properly regulated whelps snuggled to the teat or neatly piled.
The Cuddle Curl is high-tech dog stuff :) The snugness of the curl regulates temperature as effectively as does a mother hen’s fluffing of feathers over her eggs. The bitch’s body holds the moist heat resulting from her post-whelping drainage. It traps and magnifies the hormone-laden scents which evoke all sorts of poorly understood mechanisms designed to comfort the whelps, promote healing, and slow down her metabolism so that she will in fact “lay in” for 72 hours.
New Mothers Laying-In
Left to her own devices, she would survive the first few days on the consumed afterbirth. It may be repulsive to you but healthy placenta and birth fluids are laden with enzymes and hormones needed during her laying-in period. We interfere in ways offensive to her and to nature when we deprive her of placenta and then solicitously offer fake food that speeds up her metabolism at a time when she should just sleep quietly for a few days . When she then becomes agitated, we give her drugs or herbs to relax her. Then instead of leaving her alone, we force her into activity, making her leave the nest to empty a bladder that is possibly performing some miraculous recycling job which converts waste fluid into milk! Who knows?
Take her out to eliminate only when she lets you know she is ready. You can encourage her to change sides but if she resists, do not force her but do watch for udder inflammation. Change the bedding only after 24 hours and do so while she is outside with a friend or family member. Be sure to leave some small pieces of her original bedding.
Scientists have spent enough to buy a Pedigree Award in trying to unravel the miracle of mama-bear who gives birth and nurtures young while in a somnambulistic state. It is said that unraveling her medical secretes will benefit society. Does that mean hospitals will quit telling new mothers to immediately "get up and walk around" so they can be discharged on the second day? Your smart brood bitch could teach them something about "laying in."
Successful breeders have already made the acquaintance of a breeder's best friend, Common Sense. Novice fanciers struggling with today’s textbooks can avoid many problems by learning management techniques that have served man and his animal friends for centuries.
You've done it. You are a proud dog breeder with a wonderful, well adjusted litter. Enjoy the puppies. Love them and be proud as they leave for new homes and new adventures. You and she have done this right!
reprinted from ShowSights magazine March 1999
Related Articles: Digging, shredding, nesting and whelping behavior
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