Breeding Dogs & Rearing Puppies

Client with puppy

Breeding from your bitch and raising her puppies can be an extremely rewarding experience or it may produce frustration and failure. Pet bitches are often torn between their instinctive desire to be with their puppies and the routines they have acquired with their owners. This can lead to problems and should be borne in mind before breeding is contemplated. Also raising a litter of puppies is an extremely time-consuming exercise and one which should not be embarked upon without due consideration. The following information is provided in order to increase your chances of success.


Bitches may come into season for the first time between 6 and 18 months old. Thereafter they usually come into season about every 6 months (although there are plenty of exceptions that have one or three breeding seasons a year.) Seasons normally last about 3 weeks.


Pro-oestrus in the bitch lasts on average about 9 or 10 days. During this time the vulva swells and there is a bloodstained mucous discharge from the vulva, this is the most notable sign of the season.

Oestrus lasts on average 7 to 10 days, though it may be longer or shorter. During this period the discharge becomes less bloody.


Male dogs are more successful when the environment is familiar. Therefore, it is preferable to take females to the male’s home for mating. The timing for mating is critical. The most fertile time is considered the 8th through to the 14th day of the season.


There is a test that is used for this purpose. The test determines changes in the progesterone level in the blood. This test is very sensitive and can be carried out in-house by the veterinary practice. It gives a good indication of when mating is most likely to be successful and is used for dogs that have a history of unsuccessful mating.


Pregnancy, also called the gestation period, ranges from 60 to 67 days as normal, the average being 63 days. Most dogs deliver (whelp) between days 63 and 65. The most accurate way to determine the stage of pregnancy is to count days from the time of mating, but it is difficult to predict whelping dates because the length of gestation is determined from the ovulation date, not the mating date and canine semen can remain viable in the female tract up to 7 days. With all planned matings the date should be recorded and the bitch then examined approximately 3-4 weeks from the date of mating to detect signs of pregnancy. Ultrasound scans can be carried out at around the 28th day.


It is important that a bitch is in good condition before she is mated, neither too fat nor too thin. Her food intake should not be altered during the first two thirds of her pregnancy, i.e. until approximately 6 weeks and if a complete formula is being fed there is no need to use additional vitamin or mineral supplements. After the 6th week food intake should be gradually increased and high energy, low bulk foods are useful in order that the bitch is adequately nourished without exceeding her capacity. As abdominal pressure increases with the size of the foetuses, smaller meals fed more often is helpful. During the last three weeks food intake will often increase by up to one and a half times the normal level, then at the height of lactation, approximately three weeks after whelping, food intake is often two and a half to three times normal, particularly if she is feeding a large litter.


From the time of mating, many dogs show behavioural changes. Most develop an unusually sweet and loving disposition and demand more affection and attention. However, some may become uncharacteristically irritable. Some experience a few days of vomiting, followed by the development of a ravenous appetite, which persists throughout the pregnancy.

During the last week or so of the pregnancy, the bitch often starts to look for a secure place for delivery. Pet bitches often become confused, wanting to be with their owners and at the same time wanting to prepare for the forthcoming event. It is therefore a good idea to get the bitch used to the place where you want her to have her puppies well in advance of whelping but even then some bitches insist on having their puppies in close proximity to the owner and this is often in the middle of the night. Under these circumstances it is better to let the bitch have her way and then when she has finished; gently try moving her to the place that she should have already been introduced to some days or weeks previously. However, some bitches are very determined regarding the place where they want to nurse their puppies. Under these circumstances less trauma is caused if, within reason, her demands are met or at least some compromise is achieved, e.g. the bitch that wants to nurse the puppies on your bed is quietly moved to a whelping box in a corner of the bedroom. Ideally, you may prefer her to use the whelping box you had prepared for her in a quiet corner of the kitchen. Similarly some bitches need the owner present during the whole time of delivery and if they are left alone they are likely to endeavour to delay delivery of the puppies, which can create subsequent problems – compromise is the name of the game!

Prior to the time of delivery, a whelping box should be selected and placed in a secluded place, such as a closet or a dark corner. The box should be large enough for the dog to move around freely, but have low enough sides so that she can see out and you can reach inside to give assistance, if needed. The bottom of the box should be lined with several layers of newspapers. These provide disposable, absorbent bedding which the bitch can tear up and reorganise according to her own requirements. At the same time they will absorb the fluids which are always more copious than you would expect at the time of whelping. The presence of a dark green discharge is normal and indicates that placental separation has occurred and the bitch should be examined if no progress is being made in producing a pup.

If sufficient thickness of newspaper is laid at the outset, the upper, soiled layers may be removed with minimal interruption to the mother and her newborn puppies.


Most dogs experience delivery without complications; however, first-time mothers should be attended by their owners until at least one or two puppies are born. If they are born quickly and without assistance, further attendance may not be necessary, provided that the bitch is settled, although with a primigravida (a bitch having puppies for the first time) a careful watch should be kept upon her until she has finished, just in case any complications develop. If the owner elects to leave, care should be taken to ensure that the dog does not attempt to follow and leave the whelping box.


These generally include nervousness and panting. The bitch will often stop eating during the last 24hours before labour, although with some breeds this does not apply. All the textbooks tell you that the rectal temperature will drop below 100°F (37.8°C) but this again may only occur an hour or two before she starts producing.

Delivery times will vary. Dogs having slim heads, such as Shelties, Collies, and Dobermans, may complete delivery in one or two hours. Dogs having large round heads generally require longer delivery times. English Bulldogs, Boston Terriers, and Pekinese puppies tend to have sizeable heads that make delivery more difficult. It is not unusual for these breeds to rest an hour or more between each puppy. However, if the bitch does not start to strain in two hours and you think there are further puppies veterinary advice should be sought without delay.


Puppies are usually born headfirst; with the head and fore paws extended. This is called anterior presentation. Posterior presentation is also normal in the bitch. This is when the puppy is born with tail and hind legs coming first. Breech presentation in which the hindlegs are forward and the tail and rump is presented is abnormal. It can result in normal birth however although breech presentations frequently present problems. If a puppy’s rump is presented and the bitch is straining continuously without making any progress, veterinary attention should be sought without delay. Each puppy is enclosed in a sac that is part of the placenta (“afterbirth”). These usually pass after the puppies are born. However, any that do not pass usually disintegrate and are passed within 24-48 hours after delivery. If 24-48 hours after delivery the bitch has a blood stained or smelly discharge consult your veterinary surgeon. Note that it is normal for the bitch to eat the placenta.

If the delivery proceeds normally, a few contractions will discharge the puppy; it should exit the birth canal within ten minutes of being visible. Following delivery, the mother should lick the newborn’s face. She will then proceed to wash it and toss it about. Her tongue is used to tear the sac and expose the mouth and nose. This vigorous washing stimulates circulation, causing the puppy to cry and begin breathing; it also dries the puppy’s haircoat. The mother will sever the umbilical cord by chewing it to about one inch (1.9 – 2.5 cm) from the body. Next she will eat the placenta.

If the puppy or a fluid-filled sac is partially visible from the vagina, the owner should assist delivery. A piece of dampened gauze or thin face cloth can be used to break the sac and grasp the head or feet. When a contraction occurs, firm traction should be applied in a downward (i.e. towards her feet) direction. If reasonable traction is applied without being able to remove the puppy, or the mother cries intensely during this process, the puppy is wedged. Veterinary help may be needed.

It is normal for the mother to remove the placental sac and clean the puppies; however, first-time mothers may be bewildered by the experience and be reluctant to do so. If the sac is not removed within a few minutes after delivery, the puppy will suffocate, so you should be prepared to intervene. The puppies face should be wiped with a damp face cloth or gauze to remove the sac and allow breathing. Vigorous rubbing with a warm soft towel will stimulate circulation and dry the fur. If the puppy does not start to take a breath, gentle blowing down the throat after gently opening the mouth also helps to assist respiration. The umbilical cord should be cut approx. half an inch (1.3cm) from the body so that it is unlikely to be pulled as the puppy moves around the whelping box.

Newborn puppies may aspirate fluid into the lungs, as evidenced by a raspy noise during respiration. This fluid may be removed by the following procedure. First, the puppy should be held in the palm of your hand. The puppies’ face should be cradled between the first two fingers. The head should be held firmly with this hand, and the body should be held firmly with the other. Next, a downward swing motion with the hands should make the puppy gasp. Gravity will help the fluid and mucus to flow out of the lungs. The process may be tried several times until the lungs sound clear. The tongue is a reliable indicator of successful respiration. If the puppy is getting adequate oxygen, it will appear pink to red. A bluish coloured tongue indicates insufficient oxygen to the lungs, signalling that the swinging procedure should be repeated.

It is helpful to have a smaller, clean, dry box lined with a soft towel for the newborn puppies. After the puppy is stable and the cord has been cut, it can be placed in this incubator box while the mother is completing delivery. Warmth is essential so a heating pad or hot water bottle should be placed in the box, or a heat lamp placed nearby. If a heating pad is used, it should be placed on the low setting and covered with a towel to prevent the puppies over heating. A hot water bottle should also be covered with a towel. Remember that the newborn puppies may be unable to move away from the heat source. Likewise, caution should always be taken when using a heat lamp.

The completion of whelping can be difficult to determine and the use of radiography or ultrasonography can assist in confirming the presence of any remaining pups.
Once delivery is completed, the soiled newspapers should be removed from the whelping box. The box should be lined with soft bedding such as a VetBed or other similar acrylic bedding, prior to the puppies return. The mother should accept the puppies readily and settle down to feeding them.

The mother may have a bloody vaginal discharge for 3-7 days following delivery. If it continues for longer than a week, she should be examined by a veterinary surgeon for possible problems. Sometimes antibiotics may be prescribed if there is thought to be any infection present.


Although most dogs deliver without any need for assistance, problems do arise which require the attention of a veterinarian. Professional assistance should be sought if any of the following occur:

1.Twenty minutes of intense labour occurs without a puppy being delivered.
2.Ten minutes of intense labour occurs when a puppy or a fluid-filled sac is visible in the birth canal.
3.The mother experiences sudden depression or marked lethargy.
4.The mother’s body temperature exceeds 103°F (39.4°C) via a rectal thermometer.
5.Fresh blood discharges from the vagina for more than 10 minutes.
6.If a green discharge is seen without any of the puppies having been born.

Difficulty delivering (dystocia) may be managed with or without surgery. The condition of the mother, size of the litter, and size of the puppies are all factors in making that decision, in addition to the breed of the sire and dam.


Occasionally, a mother will deliver a litter several days premature. A puppy born more than 7 days premature is extremely unlikely to survive. The puppies may be small, thin, and have little or no hair. It is possible for them to survive, but they require enormous amounts of care, since they are subject to chilling and are frequently very weak and unable to swallow. Some may be able to nurse but are so weak that they need to be held close to the teat. Puppies that do not nurse can be fed with a small syringe, bottle, or via a stomach tube. The equipment and instructions for these procedures are available from your veterinary surgeon. Premature puppies must be kept warm. The mother can provide sufficient radiant heat from her body if she stays close to them. If she refuses, heat can be provided by a heat lamp, heating pad, or hot water bottle. Excessive heat can be just as harmful as chilling, so any form of artificial heat must be controlled. The temperature in the box should be maintained at 85° to 95° F (29.4° - 32.2° C), but the box should be large enough so that the puppies can move away from the heat if it becomes uncomfortable. In addition, the warmth provided by the mother is moist warmth: she is licking and cleaning the puppies and they are sucking therefore if artificial heat is supplied it is essential that there is sufficient moisture present and a damped towel or wet cotton wool in the whelping box will provide this essential moisture.


It is not uncommon for one or two of the puppies in a litter to be stillborn. Sometimes a stillborn puppy will disrupt labour, resulting in dystocia. At other times the dead puppy will be born normally. Although there is always a cause for this occurrence, it is not easily determined without a full post-mortem examination of the puppy, including bacteriological examination and submission of tissues to a pathologist. Your veterinary surgeon may in some circumstances recommend this procedure and it is worthwhile discussing the cost of this beforehand since sometimes it can be considerable. However, it may prevent future problems.


The mother will spend most of her time with the puppies during the next few days. The puppies need to be kept warm and nurse frequently; they should be checked every few hours to be certain that they are warm and well fed. The mother should be checked to ensure that she is producing adequate milk.

If the mother does not stay in the box, the puppies’ temperature should be monitored. If the puppies are cold supplementary heating should be provided. During the first four days of life the environmental temperature should be maintained at 85° to 90° F (29.4° - 32.2°C). The temperature may be gradually decreased to 80°F (26.7°C) by the seventh to tenth day and to 72°F (22.2°C) by the end of the fourth week. If the litter is large, the temperature need not be as high. As puppies huddle together, their body warmth provides addition warmth. Their behaviour will give a guide to whether they are comfortable. If they are warm and content they will be quiet and gaining weight.

If the mother feels that the puppies are in danger or if there is too much light she may become anxious. Placing a sheet or cloth over the top of the box to obscure most of the light may resolve the problem. An enclosed box is also a solution. Some dogs, especially first-time mothers are more anxious than others are. Such dogs may attempt to hide their young, even from the owner. If the bitch continues to move her puppies from place to place, some attempt at confinement may be worthwhile. However, if she is still unsettled, veterinary advice should be sought since the puppies will certainly be endangered if they are placed in a cold or draughty location. If the bitch becomes too distressed she could kill her puppies as a means of “protecting” them from danger.


Puppies should feed and sleep 90% of the time in the first two weeks. Any “mewing” type of noises may indicate a lack of nourishment or an infection; i.e. they are not thriving. If in doubt consult your veterinary surgeon.

Another good indication of thriving is weight increase. Any available postal scales will usually suffice for this purpose. Puppies may be identified with a fibre tipped pen on the abdomen and careful weight records kept.

When the milk supply is inadequate, supplemental feeding one to three times a day is recommended and should be performed on any litter with 5 or 6 puppies. There are several good commercial formulae available. The directions on the container should be carefully followed before feeding particularly with regard to temperature. One method of testing the temperature is to drop some of the warm formula onto your forearm. It should be about the same temperature. The commercial products have directions concerning feeding amounts. If the puppies are still nursing from their mother, the amounts recommended will be excessive. Generally, 1/3 to ½ of the listed amount should be the daily goal. Supplemental feeding may be continued until the puppies are old enough to eat puppy food.

If the mother does not produce milk or the milk becomes infected, the puppies will also cry. If this occurs, the entire litter could die within 24 to 48 hours. Total replacement feeding, using the mentioned products, or finding a foster mother is usually necessary. The owner of the stud dog, if a breeder, your local veterinary surgeon, or other breeders may be able to help with this. If replacement feeding is chosen, the amounts listed on the container should be fed. Puppies less than 2 weeks of age should be fed every 3-4 hours. Puppies 2-4 weeks of age do well with feeding every 6-8 hours. Weaning in these circumstances should begin as early as possible and certainly no later than about three weeks of age.


For the first month of life, the puppies require very little care from the owner because their mother will feed and care for them. They are born with their eyes closed, but they will open in 7 to 14 days. If swelling or bulging is noted under the eyelids, they should be opened very gently. Cotton wool soaked in warm water may be used to assist opening of the lids. If the swelling is due to infection, pus will exit the opened eyelids and should be treated as prescribed by a veterinary surgeon. If the eyes have not opened in 14-16 days of age, or if there is any pus or discharge, consult your veterinary surgeon at once.

Puppies should be observed for their rate of growth. They should double their birth weight in about one week. Use postal scales as described above. The accuracy of the scales is not important, since it is the weight increases that you are looking for.

At two weeks of age, puppies should be alert and trying to stand. At three weeks, they generally try to climb out of their box. At four weeks, all of the puppies should be able to walk, run, and play.

Puppies should begin eating solid food about three and a half to four and a half weeks of age. As soon as their eyes are open, one of the bitch milk replacers should be placed in a flat saucer, this will allow the puppies to learn how to lap fluids. Repeat this 2 or 3 times per day until they begin to lap; this usually takes 1-3 days. Next, a reputable brand of dry complete or canned puppy food can be placed in the milk until it is soggy. As the puppies lap the milk, they will also ingest the food. The amount of food should be decreased daily until they are eating the food with little or no moisture added; this should occur by 4-6 weeks of age. Once the puppy is happy with a complete formula there is no need to add any vitamin supplements.
There is legislation affecting the sale of any puppy under 6 weeks of age.


Eclampsia, or milk fever, is due to depletion of calcium in the blood of the mother due to heavy milk production. It generally occurs when the puppies are 3-5 weeks old (just before weaning) and most often to mothers with large litters. Good mothers, especially attentive of their puppies, always seem to suffer more severely.

The mother has muscle spasms resulting in rigid legs, spastic movements, and heavy panting. This can be fatal in 30-60 minutes, so a veterinary surgeon should be consulted immediately. This is a major emergency situation.


Diet is extremely important to a growing puppy. There are many commercial foods specially formulated for puppies. These foods meet their unique nutritional requirements and should be fed until 12 months of age. Puppy foods are available in dry and canned formulations. Dry foods are less expensive in the long run and can be left in the bowl for the puppy to eat at will. Canned foods offer a change and are just as nutritious.

We recommend that you buy food FORMULATED FOR PUPPIES. Adult formulations are not recommended, as they do not provide the nutrition required by a puppy. Advertisements tend to promote taste rather than nutrition, so be careful that their influence on purchasing habits is not detrimental to your dog. Table food is not recommended; although often more appealing than dog food, balanced nutrition is not easily achieved.

We recommend that you buy food of a reputable brand.


Puppies are provided some immunity to canine diseases from their mother before and shortly after birth. This is particularly true if the dam’s vaccinations are up to date. Some of the mother’s antibodies cross the placenta and enter the puppies’ circulation, but most antibodies are provided in the first milk or colostrum. These “maternal antibodies” protect the puppies against the diseases to which the mother is immune. This is why it is important to ensure that any booster inoculations are administered prior to mating.

Although very protective, maternal antibodies last only for a few weeks; after this time, the puppy becomes susceptible to disease. The duration of the maternal antibodies is quite variable, depending on a variety of factors. In general, vaccinations for the puppy should be started at 8 weeks of age. Puppies should be vaccinated against distemper, hepatitis, leptospirosis, parainfluenza virus, and parvovirus. Other vaccines are also available for certain situations, and can be discussed at the time of the first visit for vaccinations. For example, Bordetella vaccination against Rhinotracheitis (Kennel Cough).

Maternal antibodies are passed in the mother’s milk only during the first 1-3 days after delivery. If, for any reason, the puppies do not nurse during this important time, their vaccinations should begin about 2-4 weeks earlier, depending on likely disease exposure although some antibodies are transferred throughout the whole of the sucking period via the milk. Your veterinary surgeon can make specific arrangements for each situation.


Intestinal parasites (“worms”) are common in puppies. Sometimes, no signs are apparent but often in poor condition, chronic soft or bloody faeces, loss of appetite, a pot bellied appearance, loss of lustre of the haircoat, and weight loss are seen. Some parasites are transmitted from the mother to her offspring and others are carried by fleas. Some are transmitted in the faeces of an infected dog. Very seldom are these parasites visible in the faeces, their detection depends on the demonstration of their eggs under a microscope. Generally puppies are wormed from about 2 weeks of age and medication is supplied by your veterinary surgeon at the time of postnatal examination. It is well worth consulting the veterinary surgeon or veterinary nurse regarding a worming programme for a litter of puppies rather than purchasing branded products over the counter.

Should you wish to discuss any of these issues in more detail, please consult your veterinary surgeon.