It’s been a while since we’ve added a blog to our page – we typically like to share our trips, and unfortunately haven’t been on any since our trip out west in 2019. But we did have exciting times with the dogs since then, including having Athena’s first litter! This was our first litter too, so we’re sharing what whelping and puppy rearing looked like for us, but who knows what future litters will look like.
Three weeks after breeding, we took Athena in for an ultrasound to confirm if pregnancy had taken, and we were thrilled when it was. Ultrasound is able to give an idea to the number of puppies (we were told at least six were seen) but it isn’t as foolproof, especially since canines frequently absorb fetuses or abortions during gestation. Some folks have had success with tracking gum color – around three weeks of pregnancy, gums may lighten or pale in color as the fetuses implant which can pull blood flow to the uterus – we did check this, but did not see any color change in Athena’s gums.
A week before her due date (which is calculated based on ovulation timing rather than breeding dates, which is part of the importance to have progesterone testing while Athena was in heat) we scheduled an X-ray to get a final count of pups to better anticipate whelping needs. We clearly saw eight calcified skeletons which was more than we had hoped for. Based on this being Athena’s first litter, and the larger size, our vet told us that although her due date was October 31st, we should expect her to whelp sooner than that. The gestation period for dogs is on average 63 days, and puppies barely survive if whelped before day 58, so kept a close eye on Athena. The smallest skull is Ciri – it’s crazy that we have an image of her before she was born!
One of the ways to be determine if whelping time is coming is by detecting a temperature drop. Dogs temperature is typically around 101F and it will drop under 99F when they are soon to whelp – the drop is due to the hormone progesterone dropping to begin the labor process. We started taking Athena’s temperature in the morning and evening on day 54. On day 59 Athena had a temperature drop below 98F and we knew the time for pups was on the horizon. At 7pm that evening she grabbed her favorite hedgehog toy and bolted upstairs into the whelping pen we had made and set up for her the week previous.
She stayed in her whelping pen, was mildly panting, and remained uncomfortable (but not actively pushing in labor with contractions) the rest of the evening. She didn’t eat any food either and in general remained restless. This all continued over the next day (day 60). I stayed with her all throughout this time, and was in contact with the vet and more experienced breeders, to make sure there was no need for alarm. The first Stage of labor – as described above – can vary greatly, so it’s important to make sure there are not concerning signs of distress or need for medical intervention during that time. Athena and I didn’t sleep a wink that night, but I stayed with her as she tried to get comfortable, but neither of us found much rest.
At 7am on the morning of Day 61 (36 hours after she started Stage 1 labor, which a longer Stage 1 is more common for first time moms), Athena started getting more regular contractions and began active labor and pushing. She had her first puppy at 7:03 (Bitterroot, born “breach” which is more common and less concerning for dogs). We gave her some cottage cheese (a much needed calcium boost after all those difficult muscle contractions, and milk production over the last week) to keep her energy up and made sure that the puppy got some colostrum (the first milk the mother produces in the first 24 hours provides which includes antibodies for immunity). Athena continued to whelp and had puppies at 7:33am (Nettle), 7:49am (Vervain), 8:37am (Nightshade), 10:13am (Bloodroot), 10:37am (Wolfsbane), 12:06pm (Foxglove), and the final runt (Witch Hazel, who was much smaller than the other pups) at 1:29pm.
Generally, as long as mom is acting normal and responding, it is okay for her to have breaks during Stage 2 labor. Athena’s longest break between pups was 89 minutes, and the important thing is that she was not actively struggling or trying to push, she was resting well, and eating. There are a great number of things to be aware of during whelping in terms of both the mother and pups health, so we had a lot of items on standby should they be needed, and made sure we had researched how to solve issues should they arise, and fortunately we did not need to intervein ever. We of course monitored both Athena and the puppies very closely though. All pups were born strong and easily latched and fed off mom. None of them needed resuscitation or to be tube fed, and we luckily had all pups alive and well from the start. Athena, to no surprise, was very good even as a first time mom and diligently and instinctively took care of her pups. We did not see any need for a "clean out" shot of oxytocin as we knew the number of pups to expect and counted sacks - Athena finally got some well deserved rest.
We weighed pups daily and those that didn’t gain at the same rate as the others we made sure to make sure had extra nursing time with Athena to get back on track. The two pups that had rear dew claws (Wolfsbane and Witch Hazel) we removed at four days old, making sure they were first growing well and showing no other signs of distress. On day seven we started Early Neurological Stimulation (ENS) with all the pups per the outlined procedures in Puppy Culture, and continue to marvel at how well Athena and her pups were doing. We trimmed nails nearly every other day and at day eleven and twelve everyone had opened their eyes for the first time. We continued to track the pups and do ENS until things really started to change around the 21 day mark. Athena continued to get extra calcium in her diet by means of goat milk to compensate for all the milk she was producing. Pups began to startle and would soon be ready for the next steps in socialization (which we’ll discuss in another post) and were introduced to some puppy mush to start weaning. By day 28 they were ready to move on out of the whelping pen and into the weaning pen to begin their adventures as more independent pups!
We are so grateful to have had an easy whelp and such a great first litter of pups. Athena has surpassed our expectations for her as a mama, and we are so blessed to have her as our matriarch!
Lastly, some of the reading materials we had on hand to best prepare ourselves for whelping and any emergency situations include:
"Advanced Canine Reproduction and Puppy Care: The Seminar" Myra Savant-Harris
"Puppy Intensive Care: A Breeder's Guide to Newborn Puppies" Myra Savant-Harris
"Canine Reproduction and Whelping: A Dog Breeder's Guide" Myra-Savant Harris
As well as a class on Canine Reproduction and lots of YouTube videos :)