Are you considering having your female dog give birth to a litter of pups?
Today’s article is the story of a client’s dog who fell pregnant accidentally while her person was debating just this. Once the pups arrived, it was shocking to see how much work the mother had to put in, from delivering the pups to nursing them afterward.
But for this surprise mother, things came to an unexpected head when a few weeks after giving birth, she collapsed. For a while, things were touch-and-go.
A New Mom Having Seizures
The receptionist came through to surgery in the middle of ops. One look at her face and I knew there was a problem.
A client had brought his dog, Queenie, straight to the surgery. Queenie had been acting oddly all morning, then collapsed and started to seize. Now she was unconscious, floating in and out of fits; she was in a bad way.
Side note: This is a great example of why phoning ahead is helpful for everyone. He arrived unexpectedly, and had we known he was on the way in, I wouldn’t have scrubbed up. But that’s a different story.
Queenie is a brindle-and-white Staffie and, apart from seizures, the other obvious thing was she was heavily in milk. Her mammary glands were big, baggy and a little sore and scratched — presumably from an active litter of healthy pups.
The client told me that back home, she had a blooming litter of 8 sturdy 4-week old pups, all of whom were growing well — but at her expense.
A physical exam revealed little other than a fever, which was probably the result of the muscular activity during the seizures. I drew blood, but Queenie’s condition was too dire to wait for the results before acting, so I treated presumptively for milk fever while the blood tests were run.
I placed a catheter in the vein of her foreleg, and slowly, over 10 minutes or so, gave her a bolus of intravenous calcium — then waited. Within a short time of the injection working, she relaxed a little and, rather than seize, her muscles twitched. After about half an hour, she slowly came around and lifted her head, seemingly confused and exhausted.
Queenie developed milk fever (more correctly called “eclampsia”), a condition that can affect any mother dog, especially if she has a large litter of greedy pups.
The mother loses more calcium in her milk than she can draw from her diet or the reservoir of her bones. The net loss of calcium means her blood levels fall dangerously low. Calcium is required to regulate normal muscle activity. Without enough calcium, muscle cells become oversensitive and go into a state of “super-excitability.”
This excitability manifests itself in the early stages as tremors or twitching. If nothing is done, the dog can progress to full-blown fits, and she loses consciousness. This is incredibly dangerous and requires immediate veterinary therapy if the dog is to stand a chance of survival.
Why Milk Fever Happens
The body is amazingly clever at controlling blood levels of minerals such as calcium. The bones act as a storehouse for calcium, and at times of high demand (such as feeding puppies), the tiny parathyroid glands in the neck release a hormone that stimulates bone to give up calcium.
However, when a mother is nursing and loses lots of calcium in the milk, this system can’t keep up. Over the days and weeks she is feeding the pups, her accessible calcium reserves run out. Eventually the “net loss” of calcium reaches a critical level, which is when milk fever occurs.
Treating Milk Fever
If your female dog falls into the risk category of nursing lots of puppies, then watch her carefully. If you notice any of the following signs, contact a vet immediately (it’s an emergency):
- Poor coordination, staggering as if drunk
- Whining for no reason
- Rapid breathing
- Too weak to stand
- Tremors or twitching
The vet will likely act on the assumption of milk fever while waiting for blood work to come back. Other causes that can mimic the condition include very low blood glucose levels or conditions linked to seizures such as epilepsy.
Once the mother has had an episode of milk fever, the pups must be hand-reared using a milk replacer. There is a real risk of relapse if they continue to feed from her.
Learn why this vet thinks you should weigh your options when it comes to spaying or neutering your pet:
Preventing Milk Fever
This is not a rare condition, and people caring for expectant dog mothers are well advised to take preventative steps. However, this may not be the advice you are expecting.
Do not give a calcium supplement during pregnancy. This confuses the glands that controls blood calcium levels and switches off their ability to mobilize calcium from bone. Then, when the body needs those reservoirs mobilized, it is not able to do so.
Instead, feed a good-quality puppy food to the mother once she’s in the final third of pregnancy. Then once she has given birth, consult with your vet as to whether giving her a supplement while nursing is a good idea or not.
A Happy Ending for Queenie
Queenie’s blood results confirmed she had extremely low blood calcium levels. Over the rest of the day, we monitored her calcium levels, but — happily — she did stabilize.
With the pups old enough to be weaned, the client would have a relatively simple job of feeding them himself with milk replacer and starting them on solids. Mom would need a calcium supplement in her feed for a while yet.
Weigh the Risks
If you are debating whether or not to let your female dog have pups, weigh all the risks (and costs, should something go wrong). Giving birth is painful, even for dogs, and takes a lot out of the mother. Even if she gives birth uneventfully, she still faces uncomfortable complications, such as mastitis, and life-threatening ones such as milk fever.
Know that whelping difficulties aren’t the only risks linked to having puppies. Eclampsia, mastitis and infections are just some of the potential complications that can occur after the birth. So make an informed decision about breeding versus neutering, with the female dog’s best interests center stage in your thoughts.
This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Feb. 23, 2018.
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