Dog pregnancy – Labour, whelping and complications

Written by Dr Andrew Miller MRCVSDr Andrew Miller MRCVS is an expert veterinary working in the field for over 10 years after graduating from Bristol University. Andy fact checks and writes for Pure Pet Food while also working as a full time veterinarian. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

The big day has arrived, your pregnant pooch is ready to give birth to a whole litter of tiny, adorable little puppies. Luckily, dogs are able to give birth without needing much help or intervention from others, they can welcome multiple bundles of joy into the world all alone with hardly any chaos, confusion or complications. It’s pretty remarkable. Although the mum-to-be will likely be completely fine doing it alone, you should always supervise her, keep her company and offer a helping hand just in case any problems were to arise.

It’s good to know what to expect when your dog is expecting, so do your research, do all the preparations and understand how you can make the birth run as smoothly as possible. Before the birth, preparation is essential, and we have a whole post on how to prepare before your dog’s due date here.

In this post, we’re going to answer all the questions you might have about the big day, how to tell when your dog is going into labour, how the whelping process will play out and what to do if any complications occur.

How many puppies acn a dog have?

Dogs give birth to a lot more babies at once than a human can. There’s no set amount for a litter size, it differs from dog to dog, but breed size does play a role in how many pups your dog should expect.

Typically, a bigger dog will have a bigger litter, whereas a smaller breed might only have around 1-4 pups at one time. On average, dogs have a litter of around 6 pups, but some of the big dog breeds have been reported to be carrying a whopping number of 15 puppies in one litter! Now that’s impressive.

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What are the signs that my dog is going into labour?

The mum-to-be will probably start preparing herself for her new arrivals for a long time before she’s ready to give birth, you might notice that she’s acting out of character for a full 6-12 hours prior. Anxious dogs and first-time mums might even start their preparation a full 36 hours before the birth.

Look out for these common signs of labour:

  • Restlessness

  • Hiding

  • Panting

  • Loss of appetite

  • Reddish/brown mucus around the vulva

  • Vomiting (contact the vet if it’s continuous)

  • Can start to produce milk a full day before the birth

  • Her rectal temperature has dropped significantly low (a low of under 99°C)

  • Drop in rectal temperature about 8-24 hours before the birth

  • Nesting (digging, pacing and circling around whelping box)

  • Abdominal contractions start, but you’ll probably not be able to see them

The mum could begin nesting a few days before she starts whelping. Ideally, you want her to build her ‘nest’ in the whelping box that you got her accustomed to during her pregnancy.

How will the puppies be born?

Typically, puppies are born headfirst with their front legs stretched outwards, which is referred to as the anterior presentation. However, it’s not uncommon or an issue if the pups are born the opposite way round, tail first! Don’t panic, this is totally normal and called the posterior position, expect to see their hindlegs and tail emerge first.

The issue comes if a puppy is born in the breech presentation. This is when the hindlegs are extended right forwards, and it’s only the tail and rear end that come out first. Issues can arise here if the puppy gets stuck, potentially requiring your assistance or even a C-section. If you think your dog is struggling, contact the vet immediately as this is considered an emergency.


The first stage of the whelping process is defined as cervix relaxation, the birth canal relaxes, the cervix opens and the puppies start to move into a position ready for birth. This is when the contractions will begin, although they probably won’t be visible to you as they’ll be slow, sporadic and mild. This is the point where you’ll start to see the signs listed above, the panting, digging, vomiting and inability to settle.

As stated, this stage will last several hours. Once contractions become more frequent and significantly stronger, your pooch is probably ready to deliver their first little puppy. The first baby is usually the trickiest to deliver and takes the longest, unfortunately for your dog, it could take over 2 hours of contractions before they arrive. Straining shouldn’t go on for a while, you’ll be able to tell she’s pushing as her tail will lift. After this, a new member of the remaining litter will likely be born every hour, but it’s normal for the mother to take a short break during delivery. After all, it’s a pretty intense process for her.

However, if she hasn’t shown any signs of delivering a subsequent puppy around 2 hours after the first one, contact the vet. Also, if she has been having strong contractions and straining heavily to push a puppy out for over 20 minutes without any success or progression, call the vet as a matter of urgency as it could mean that a puppy is stuck in the birthing canal. Another sign of a stuck puppy is dark green discharge around the vulva.

When a puppy is born, they’ll be enclosed in a placental case. Typically, the mother will instinctively start to lick the pup quickly to rip this case open. At this point, they’ll probably bite through the umbilical cord too. However, this sometimes isn’t the case. If so, you’ll have to tear the sac open yourself as the puppy’s oxygen supply will be running low and they’ll struggle to survive. All you need to do here is rub the puppies head with a clean, fresh towel quite gently and it should tear.

Also, the umbilical cord will need severing which you’ll need to do yourself if the mother doesn’t. Ideally, get your vet to show you how to do this before the due date so you know, and have iodine on hand to clean and limit the risk of infection. When detaching the umbilical cord, make sure to not pull it as this can cause some internal damage to the pup’s organs.

Just the same as human birth, your dog will pass an afterbirth, or a placenta, for each one of their pups. During the pregnancy, the puppies receive all the nutrients and oxygen they need thanks to the placenta, however, if a placenta is retained after the birth, it can cause the mum some serious issues. Ideally, if you can keep track of how many placentas have been passed to number of puppies born, then you can be confident your dog won’t encounter any problems regarding the placenta. However, this is notoriously tricky for a number of reasons. The placentas appear around 15 minutes after each delivery, however, the bitch sometimes eats the placenta straight away (which is not necessary), or the placentas aren’t delivered in order. For example, several puppies may be born before any placenta is delivered. Therefore, it’s really easy to miscalculate how many placentas have been delivered.

Important things to note

  • Expect your dog to produce a clear or bloody discharge from their vulva during the birth. However, if the blood is excessive, you must contact your vet.

  • Make sure to keep offering your dog water to drink so she doesn’t get dehydrated during the lengthy birthing process. After all, giving birth is thirsty work!

  • Frequently take the mum outside for a toilet break, especially if she’s having a large litter. Just never leave her unsupervised outside in case she was to give birth to another pup.

How long does birth last?

Generally speaking, give your dog about 1 hour per puppy. So, if your dog is expecting a litter of 5, expect the whelping process to take approximately 5 hours.

After the birth

Hopefully, your dog will have given birth in the whelping box that you prepared for her before, so the space will be cosy and snug for the newborn puppies. If she gave birth elsewhere, such as your bedroom, which unfortunately is quite a common occurrence, ensure that there are plenty of clean towels around to keep the pups snuggly. Also, try and place the puppies near the mother’s tummy so they can retain her body heat, and ideally, she’ll start to nurse them in a few hours. You need to be on high alert to make sure the pups are all breathing normally, nursing and they’re not being accidentally suffocated by the mum or the other pups.

Your dog will be hungry, tired and need to rest. She will need to stay with her puppies to feed them and bond with them. Make sure they’re in a quiet space, free from noise and disturbance.

There is a risk of your dog rejecting her puppies if she doesn’t feel relaxed and comfortable. Stress, lack of maternal instinct and a puppy being unwell also play a role in the mother having no interest in her pups. Ways to solve this include relocating the whelping box and introducing the mum to her puppies yourself but continuously placing them near her tummy. This needs constant supervision, and you’ll want to ask for guidance from the vet to help the puppies survive if their mother isn’t interested.

Possible complications

As with anything, there’s always the possibility that something could go wrong. We’re going to list a few of the possible complications that your dog might experience during the whelping process, and if you spot any of these signs get in contact with your vet urgently:

  • Dystocia, which is when labour is abnormally slow, painful and difficult. Flat-faced breeds often struggle with this as they generally have larger heads. If you own a breed like this and you want to breed her, consult the vet to see what the best options are.

  • Your dog’s rectal temperature dropped to 99°C or lower over 24 hours ago.

  • Mother seems exhausted and stops pushing, can happen if labour has gone on for a long time.

  • Shivering and collapse are signs of a significant complication.

  • Excessive bleeding.

  • It’s been over 64 days since the mum was mated and she’s showing no signs of going into labour.

  • You suspect that all the placentas haven’t been delivered, signs of this are the production of a dark green discharge that emits a strong odour. Rejection of pups, loss of appetite and fever are all common symptoms.

  • She hasn’t torn the umbilical cord herself, the vet will be able to advise you on how to do this.

  • The mother rejects the puppies, or some of the puppies aren’t nursing.

  • No signs of a delivery after 2 hours of strong contractions, especially if she’s producing a dark, green-coloured discharge.

  • Stillbirth of one or more of the litter.

  • Hypoxia, which is when the puppies have a lack of oxygen.

Most of these complications are considered to be an emergency, so it’s important to have the vet’s contact details to hand as you’ll need to get in contact with them urgently.

Is a stillbirth likely?

As there are typically so many puppies in the litter, a stillbirth or a puppy dying shortly after birth is sadly quite a common occurrence. It’s usually not possible to detect exactly why a puppy in the litter didn’t make it, it just happens. If a puppy is stillborn, there’s the chance that it could cause disruption to the normal birthing process, so it’s a good idea to be in contact with the vet immediately.

Can puppies be born prematurely?

It’s not common, but a dog can give birth to puppies prematurely, just as it happens in a human pregnancy. A premature pup will be incredibly tiny and probably have barely any hair at all.

In the event that your dog’s puppies have arrived way too early, it’s critical for their survival that you give them all of your care and attention. Their health is so delicate their survival is rarely guaranteed. Often, the mother will totally reject her premature pups, not wanting to nurse, protect or bond with them. This is where your intervention will be absolutely fundamental.

Without the warmth from their mother, they’re at risk of hypothermia (being too cold), so try and keep the temperature in the whelping box warm, with the heat lamp on and ensure that the box is big enough in size for them to move away from the heat source if they do get too warm. Also, it’s likely that premature puppies won’t have the energy and ability to suckle on the milk from their mother, and the mother might be trying to stay well away too, so hand feeding will probably be necessary. If possible, try and get the pups access to the first lot of milk from their mum, referred to as the colostrum, as this is bursting with antibodies to help the pups fight potential illness and infection.

Sadly, premature pups will struggle to survive, especially if the mother is keeping her distance.


Hopefully the birth will run smoothly, and you and your dog will be hit with no complications. Now’s the time to enjoy the process of helping the new mum to raise her puppies, so they can grow into big, strong and healthy adult dogs.