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Milk Fever in Dogs: A Potentially Life-Threatening Complication

If your nursing dog is staggering, breathing rapidly and having seizures, call the vet right away.

Milk Fever in Dogs
Milk fever in dogs is a condition that can affect any mother dog, especially if she has a large litter of hungry puppies. Photo: reneeviehmann

The receptionist at my clinic came in during the middle of a surgery. One look at her face and I knew there was a problem.

A client had rushed in his Staffordshire Bull Terrier, Queenie, who 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.

Apart from her seizures, the other obvious thing was Quennie was heavily in milk. Her mammary glands were big, baggy, and a little sore and scratched — presumably from an active litter of healthy puppies.

The client told me that back home, she had a blooming litter of 8 sturdy 4-week-old puppies, all of whom were growing well — but at her expense.

Preliminary Diagnosis: Milk Fever

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 we 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.

Milk fever in dogs
Calcium loss from nursing could affect a new mother dog’s blood levels. Photo: is0crazy

Milk Fever in Dogs

Queenie had developed milk fever (more correctly called eclampsia), a condition that can affect any mother dog, especially if she has a large litter of hungry puppies.

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 in dogs occurs.

Treating Milk Fever in Dogs

If your mom dog falls into the risk category of nursing lots of puppies, then watch her carefully. And if you notice any of the following signs of an emergency, contact a veterinarian immediately:

  • Restlessness
  • Poor coordination, staggering as if drunk
  • Whining for no reason
  • Rapid breathing
  • Too weak to stand
  • Tremors or twitching
  • Fever
  • Seizures
  • Unconsciousness

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 puppies must be hand-reared using a milk replacer. There is a real risk of relapse if they continue to feed from their mom.

This Chihuahua is showing signs of eclampsia (milk fever in dogs):

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Preventing Milk Fever in Dogs

Milk fever is not a rare condition, and people caring for expectant dog mothers are well advised to take preventive steps. However, this may not be the advice you’re expecting.

Don’t give a calcium supplement during pregnancy. This confuses the glands that control 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 dog food to the mother once she’s in the final 3rd of pregnancy. Then once she has given birth, consult with your vet as to whether or not giving her a supplement while nursing is a good idea.

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 puppies 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 food for a while yet.

Weigh the Risks

If you are debating whether or not to let your female dog have puppies, 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.

So please make an informed decision about breeding versus spaying, with your dog’s best interests in mind.

vet-cross60pThis pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS. It was last reviewed Feb. 23, 2018.

If you have questions or concerns, call your vet, who is best equipped to ensure the health and well-being of your pet. This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. See additional information.