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  • Writer's pictureDr. Wenny Wang Bauman

Canine Labor – Stages and Information

by Susan Paterson

Canine Birth is a process that can take days. It is not a singular ‘event’ that happens very quickly at all. For people who are used to the human birth of ‘singletons,’ and having a very prescribed protocol that is followed by most of the medical community, the idea that giving birth is such a long process can be very stressful. However, even human childbirth can easily take 24 hours from first contraction to delivery.

Our mindset tends to be in production mode, and this production mode is generally “A puppy must be born every 1-2 hours or there is trouble with a capital T”. And when our whelping does not fit into that comfy box we tend to panic and do these:

· Administer oxytocin, which can cause the release of placenta tissue from the wall of the uterus. Placentas deliver oxygen to the puppy, so if one is released from the wall of the uterine wall prior to birth...the puppy has about a six minute window of time to live.

· Agree to do an unneeded “emergency” C-section

What we often fail to do is “Listen to our Bitch” and understand the canine birth process properly. We need to re-visit exactly what Canine Labor is so that our mindset is geared to the process of whelping, and so that we can relax and become in tune with our whelping bitch. This will allow us to keep our reproduction vet in the loop, and to know when we need to load our girl up for that peace of mind office visit. It will also allow us to stay calm and focused on what is happening, by knowing the true stages of labor.

Whelping occurs when the progesterone falls below 2ng/ml. We also find that a drop in rectal temperature to 99-100F, or less, may be detected approx. 10-14hrs post progesterone fall. Sometimes the temperature drop is so fast that we miss it, and some girls never seem to read the book and have that temperature fluctuation. Needless to say, using the temp drop alone to determine time of birth is a sure pathway to the birth of premies who weren’t ready to be born. Getting the rectal thermometer in stool in the rectum is a sure fire way to see the temp drop because stool is always cooler than core body temp. This is why using progesterone timing for your breeding can give you a more accurate window for whelping, 61-63 days post ovulation = whelping. Remember a singleton may go longer and a larger litter may come sooner.


When labor begins, most dogs start to become restless. They dig, they pant, they want to toss their bedding around or even steal your towels to create a nest.They can want to be alone to nest, or conversely they become even more clingy and not want you out of their sight. It is truly an individual process and dependent on the bitch. Some bitches will stop eating and may even vomit. Again, conversely some dogs continue eating and remain sociable all the waythrough labor and delivery.

Stage one is started by the hormone cycle which triggers uterine contractions to start and occur at progressively more frequent intervals, even though they still may be hard for you to see or to feel. There are also strong intrauterine pressures that result from normal first stage contractions. At this stage any vaginal discharge that you see should still look like clear mucus. You may also see some clear fluid leakage along with the clear mucous.

The first stage of labor generally lasts from 10 to 24 hours, and results in cervical effacement (thinning) followed by dilation (opening) of the cervix. It always happens in that order: thinning, following by opening. However, first stage has an extremely variable time frame. It can be short, long or very long, lasting up to 48 hrs. We often do not see the early signals, but when we do recognize them, it can feel like an eternity until that first puppy presents. This is the time for you to throw away your clocks and sit on your hands and simply watch your bitch. It is important to remember that because of the anatomy of most bitches, the dilation of the cervix may not be detectable without the use of a special scope. If ever you doubt this little fact...check out the length of an AI rod cut to fit your breed of dog. Human fingers simply don’t reach that far.

We do not advocate giving any calcium, or any other supplements during Stage One Labor. This is a stage that requires nothing but time and nothing can speed up that clock. We don’t need stronger contractions at first stage of labor, we need time; and lots of it.


Stage two labor is productive and “pushing” labor. Stage two labor produces visible efforts and the efforts to produce a puppy are easily seen by the owner. These efforts can include very strong abdominal muscular contractions and shivering, arching of the back, ‘cupping’ of the tail as if to catch the puppy when it appears, and a strained concentrated look on your bitches face. She can exhibit these in either a standing, squatting or lying position. She may whine or cry or be totally silent. She may be tense or relaxed. Stage two is pushing and while she is pushing, she is using not only the involuntary (smooth) muscles of her uterus, but the voluntary (striated) muscles of her thighs, her pelvic girdle and her abdominal muscles. Now is the time for Calcium. Remember...her body is already producing oxytocin in generous (and safe) amounts or she wouldn’t be pushing! There is a very significant, hand-in-hand relationship between naturally produced oxytocin and calcium at this point in time and one that you need to commit to memory. Oxytocin changes the cell wall of each muscle cell so as to allow calcium to enter the cell and create strength in the contraction of the cell. It is a natural, safe interaction of the two substances and it works in that interactive manner in every mammal and in both smooth and striated muscle.

Remember, as each puppy is pushed out, the uterine horns are shrinking, right behind the last puppy in each horn. Your bitch is working a puppy down a uterine horn, through the cervix, down the relatively (compared to a human) long birth canal and out. This process can take time and it will be dependent on many factors. Normally deliveries occur after approx. 10-60 minutes of such efforts. Puppies can be born inside the amniotic sacs or outside of the amniotic sacs. There are two sacs actually, one inside the other. You may see the first sac emerging from the vagina early on, sometimes as the first sign of impending labor. Just leave it alone and let the bitch tend to it if she chooses to do so. The puppy is still well attached to the placenta and the first sac is “hour-glassing” into the birth canal. If the first amniotic sac ruptures, it will release a green fluid (light green to dark, murky green in color) that is a sign that: 1) the bitch is in labor either stage one or two; and 2) the first sac on a puppy has broken.

The green color is a product of the placenta and consists of dead red blood cells that are produced by the puppy during the 9 week gestation. Remember the different colors that a bruise on your skin will exhibit? First reddish purple from living red blood cells, slowly turning a light greenish/yellowish color as it heals? The greenish, yellowish color is a result of those red blood cells dying off in the skin. Same with that greenish fluid: Old, dead red blood cells that were being broken down constantly by the placenta. Good thing too or your puppy would be born exhibiting “jaundice”, a sign of liver dysfunction. A bitch doesn’t have one specific, large bag of amniotic fluid as humans do. Each puppy has it’s own little two- membrane amniotic sacs along with random amounts of normal uterine fluids. As contractions begin, you may see a small gush of fluids that normally occurring uterine fluids are “squeezed” out by the contractions. You may see many gushes of fluid during a whelping, or only one or two if each puppy is born inside its sacs. It is unlike a human birth where you have one large sac, filled with amninotic fluid that ruptures at the beginning of labor. Any combination of: bubbles at the vagina, clear or green, no bubble, no gush of fluid, or several small gushes of fluid, puppies born inside both sacs or inside one sac or no visible sac at all is just fine. Normal. Natural. Not alarming.

Puppies can present either head first or tail first, either is normal. Approx 40% of all puppies are born back-feet and tail first. IF you feel that there is a placement issue with the puppy waiting to be born you do have a few choices to help you maneuver the puppy into a better birth position. You can use the Woods Maneuver (SEE FILES FOR WOODS DOCUMENT) to help the puppy up and over the pelvic arch,or you can use the Wheelbarrow Maneuver (SEE FILES FOR WHEELBARROW DOCUMENT) to let gravity help you ease a puppy back up into the uterine horn so that there is no traffic jam trying to be born. In both cases....the Woods or the Wheelbarrow, your goal is to adjust the skeleton of the puppy in relationship to the skeleton of the mom to facilitate birth. You can position the bitch in many different ways: standing, lying, side lying, standing at a stair case upside down (head on a lower stair, back feet on a higher one for larger dogs, hind legs spread apart. What is your goal? It is to change the bony structure of the puppy in relationship to the bony structure of the mom!! Anything at all is better than doing nothing. Keep assessing mom and her behaviors and keep working. Moms can push for two hours if necessary but you had best be very close to the vet for the last hour and a half. As long as she is do not need Oxytocin but Calcium will strengthen the contractions and help mom along.

It is in Stage Two that we advocate the use of Calcium, Electrolytes and a good glucose source for energy to help the bitch with effective contractions. A tired bitch will have a more difficult time whelping. Think of this as running a marathon,all runners use nutritional tools and supplements to help them go the distance, and we are doing the same for our bitches. (SEE FILES FOR CALCIUM A-Z DOCUMENT) Use fluids, sugars, electrolyte solutions like flavored Pedialyte in liquid or frozen “popsicle” form and calcium, remembering that everything you are giving to mom is going to reach the puppies in one amount or the other.

Once your puppy is born remove the remaining fetal membranes and fluids if mom does not do so, rub dry or rub in front of a warm blow dryer to stimulate. Keep your puppies warm. You can also use your DeLee Suction Catheter to remove fluids. Do not forget to clamp umbilical cord and dip into betadine. If your bitch is able to care for the puppy and the after birth, allow her to do so because this will facilitate milk production as well as promote mothering and nurturing instincts in the mom. Continue to check and clean the cord stump regularly until it dries and falls off. This will prevent infection from entering that tissue.


Third stage labor is defined as the delivery of the placenta, which may be attached to the puppy, or the placenta may still be connected to the uterine horns or have detached and could follow later in labor. Bitches normally alternate between stages 2 and 3 until delivery of all fetuses and placentas is complete. The umbilical cord is what connected the puppy to the placenta and thus to the mom’s blood supply. Umbilical cords, have a certain amount of “stretchiness” build into them to facilitate a vaginal birth, followed by the release and discharge of the placenta.

Owners have varying opinions on allowing their bitches to eat placentas, there is no one right way. Placentas contain pure protein in the form of blood and also contain calcium, glucose and oxytocin. They can also cause some pretty remarkable diarrhea the next day. Do what is comfortable for you and your girl. Just make sure you record placental deliveries.

Remember that nursing by neonates during labor causes increased oxytocin release, promoting further effective uterine contractions and milk let down. However, you need to be very observant as during the delivery of each additional puppy the bitch may accidentally cause trauma to the nursing neonate as she pushes out the next one. So placing neonates in a smaller, warm box (a styrofoam ice chest works very well) during actual delivery of subsequent puppies is a good protocol to follow in order to avoid trauma. A warm water bottle or microwaved sock filled with uncooked rice provides warmth to the pups while away from the bitch.


Normal fetal heart rates at term are from 170 to 230 beats per minute (bpm). Changes in heart rates occur with fetal movement of any kind. Fetal heart rates will increase with puppy movement and decrease during periods of sleep. They can also decrease significantly if the head is compressed by uterine contractions or if the umbilicus is pressed between two bony surfaces. True fetal distress, as defined by OB docs and RNs the world over not as a decreased heart rate during labor but as a very slightly decreased heart rate immediately following the contractions. It is never, but never, diagnosed without a uterine monitor for the simple reason that the changes, when there is true fetal distress, are simply too subtle for a human being to count or catch. A monitor will record those subtle changes in relationship to a completed contraction but a doppler (hand held device) is unable to do so. The changes are too subtle and too many vets assume that a monitor is monitoring the activities and well-being of the HEART when in reality a fetal monitor is actually only monitoring the activities of the well-being of the brain and only the brain. A monitor, even when being used by OB docs and RNs, is incapable of diagnosing heart problems in the fetus and even an infant with no brain at all will have a very very steady, and rate appropriate heart rate during the entire labor. Monitors are a tool designed for one uterus and one fetus. They are designed for an abdomen that has NO nipples. Canine vets would do well to leave them alone for diagnosis of the canine fetus unless they have had occasion to learn about how to use them by using them as they were intended: one uterus, one fetus, and months of training bedside at human deliveries. Here are the limitations you must remember:

1. An external Fetal monitor (applied to the abdomen) cannot determine the strength of the contraction.

2. An external monitor cannot determine the well being of the heart or the brain in each individual puppy.

3. An external monitor is incapable of hearing each puppy separately because an external monitor cannot determine position of the fetus. They were designed to be used in conjunction with vaginal exams that include regular digital assessment of the very reachable cervix. They are not appropriate for use with the canine: Two uterine horns and a litter disqualifies them for use with canines.

Remember to LISTEN TO YOUR BITCH and YOUR GUT! Keep your Vet in the loop. There is no such thing as a bad peace of mind visit to make sure all is going well, your vet should be your partner in this. And you should be proactively determining the best course of action for your bitch. Major surgery should always, always be kept in reserve and never viewed as your line of defense.

Please see our FILES for additional documents on Whelping Pause, and Green Discharge for more information that you may find valuable in your whelping.

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