I vividly remember a client who came in one morning in a state of shock.
Overnight, her dog had produced a litter of puppies — the catch being the dog had never gone missing, and the client had no clue she was pregnant.
However, on questioning about this apparent miraculous conception, I learned that the dog’s brother lived in the same house.
This is one of those myths that needs busting straight out. Animals have no concept of “family” relationships, and nature always finds a way to perpetuate the species.
Obvious as it might sound, never leave any male dog with a female in heat — even if they are related — or else puppies will result.
In this expert guide to pregnant dog care, we’ll discuss:
- What happens if your dog has an unplanned (or a planned) pregnancy
- The peak time for a dog to get pregnant
- How to confirm that your dog is pregnant
- Can dogs have an abortion?
- Our best pregnant dog care advice
- What to feed your pregnant dog for best health
- Deworming and preventive care for a pregnant dog
- How long are dogs pregnant? (Around 9 weeks is the average.)
- And finally, our best advice on how to wean newborn puppies
Part 1: How Would You Cope If Your Dog Got Pregnant?
Even the most responsible pet caretakers can be deceived into lowering their guard.
With so many animal shelters full to overflowing with dogs desperate for homes, the last thing we need is more unplanned puppies.
So, how do you avoid facing this situation?
Peak Time for a Dog to Get Pregnant
One ace card Mother Nature holds up her sleeve is to fool you into thinking your girl’s heat has finished and it’s OK to let your guard down.
This false sense of security comes about because a week or so into the heat cycle, vaginal discharge disappears. You breathe a sigh of relief and think seasons aren’t so bad after all.
However, this is precisely when the dog ovulates and when she’s most likely to become pregnant if a male enters the picture. To leave her unattended in a yard now is basically an open invitation for all the neighborhood dogs to come calling.
What’s more, she’s going to be very pleased to see these gentlemen callers.
Pattern of a Normal Estrus Cycle
- On average a female dog comes into heat twice a year
- Estrus lasts 3–4 weeks total
- Days 7–10 she has a vaginal discharge
- Days 10–14 (approximately) the discharge dries up and she ovulates
- Days 14–28 the discharge returns but becomes gradually lighter
Dogs can also ovulate at unpredictable times, so it’s safest to keep yours under lock and key for the entirety of her heat.
Think carefully before deliberately breeding your dog.
It’s not reason enough to say she’s pretty or that a neighbor wants a puppy. If she is a pedigree, she must be an outstanding specimen of the breed and free from genetic diseases.
Remember, animal shelters are already bursting with unwanted dogs.
Another consideration is your pet’s health. There’s always risk associated with pregnancy and birth.
Plus it’s hard work for the mother nursing a litter of puppies. You need to have the finances available to cover the veterinary bills in case of cesarean delivery or other medical care.
As we said earlier, accidents happen.
Perhaps it’s a resourceful dog who breaks into your yard, or your girl slips her leash on a walk. If she’s in heat and gets out or a male dog gets in, there’s a fair chance she’ll get pregnant.
Think carefully about whether it’s appropriate or safe for her to have the puppies.
If, for example, a Labrador Retriever mates with a small terrier, the resulting offspring may be too big for the mother to birth naturally.
Terminating the Pregnancy — Can Dogs Have an Abortion?
After the incident happens, contact your veterinarian. Yes, dogs can be given an abortion.
Some professionals prefer to confirm the dog is actually pregnant before giving drugs to induce abortion, while other professionals may suggest giving the treatment regardless.
Various drugs may be used depending on your dog and the vet’s experience.
- In recent years, the uses of estrogen injections and pills have been reduced because of their side effects. Estrogen injections may be done soon after the mating, but side effects can include bone marrow suppression, anemia or pyrometra (uterine disease). These health issues can be serious or even fatal to your dog.
- One drug commonly used to terminate pregnancy in a dog is Alizin. Once the dog’s heat has finished, the vet gives 2 injections 24 hours apart. This drug almost always successfully ends the dog’s pregnancy.
- Another injection sometimes used is dexamethasone. Side effects include panting, excessive thirst and/or excessive urination.
- Prostaglandin F2 alpha (PGF) is considered a natural hormone your vet might administer. Side effects include panting, trembling, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting and excessive drooling.
- Another option is having your dog spayed. This will remove the fetuses and prevent future pregnancies.
Side effects are possible with any form of treatment. Pain, discomfort and bleeding are possible with any abortion, spontaneous or planned.
Monitor your dog closely for side effects, consider pain management options and have a plan in place to manage future pregnancies or spay your dog.
Be wary of any medication described for ending pregnancies in dogs that are available for purchase. You have no way of knowing what you are getting, and some medications can be absorbed by human skin. This adds the risk of human health issues.
Any treatments are best left to your vet in a clinical setting.
Time to Spay Your Dog
Many female dogs return to heat earlier than normal, within 1–3 months of this treatment.
So avoid jumping back on the same merry-go-round by getting your dog spayed at the earliest opportunity.
And if you’re thinking of starting a breeding project, we hope you’ll read our related article “The Pitfalls of Dog Breeding: Alice’s Story.”
Part 2: Pregnant Dog Care: How You Can Help
Are you planning on breeding from your female dog?
Whether or not it’s right to breed from a pet dog would take up a whole article in itself.
For argument’s sake, let’s assume you’ve carefully weighed all the pros and cons, and there’s a compelling reason — financial gain doesn’t count — to have a litter.
When mating is successful, suddenly you’re responsible for not just the dog but also her unborn puppies. What’s even more sobering is that your actions during her pregnancy can make a big difference in her health and the birth itself.
How to Confirm Your Dog Is Pregnant
Matings are no guarantee of pregnancy. She may have “done the deed,” but is she pregnant?
You need to be patient to find out — it’s only around 28 days later that you can get a definitive answer. Before this, there are no reliable physical changes that give the game away. Indeed, the symptoms of false pregnancy have fooled many a hopeful would-be puppy parent, only to leave them disappointed.
The options for confirming pregnancy are:
- Feeling her belly: The best window of opportunity is between days 28 and 35 after the mating. In lean females, the pregnancy a veterinarian can feel is when the womb has a “string of pearls,” with the developing fetuses inside.
- Ultrasound scan: From day 28, the puppies’ heartbeats can be seen on a scan, which is confirmation of live fetuses.
- Blood test: Again, day 28 is the magic number, with a positive pregnancy blood test meaning puppies. However, there is a slim chance of a false negative result if she’s carrying only 1–2 pups.
Pregnant Dog Care: Helpful Tips
Your care makes a material difference to the health of the mother and pups.
Here are some helpful tips you’ll want to know:
- Most of the fetal growth takes place in the last 2 weeks of pregnancy. Therefore, the mother does not need a whole lot of extra calories early on.
- Do not give a calcium supplement during pregnancy because this increases the risk of eclampsia (milk fever).
- It’s a bad idea to overfeed the mother during pregnancy. To do so increases the chance of a difficult birth.
What to Feed a Pregnant Dog
If you don’t already offer it, switch to a good-quality, balanced adult food.
For the first two-thirds of the pregnancy (up to about 6 weeks), the basis of her diet is a premium adult food. Remember to keep an eye on her figure and avoid overfeeding.
By weeks 4 and 5, start introducing a good-quality puppy food to her diet. The extra protein in puppy food is the perfect answer to making sure Mom gets all the nutrition she needs for healthy pups. Take several days, mixing in small amounts, to gradually change her over.
Then, by week 6 and onward, feed her only puppy food.
Simple as that. Rest easy that a good food gives all the nutrition a pregnant dog needs.
Frequency of Feeding for a Pregnant Dog
For the first 3 weeks, feed at her regular mealtimes.
The puppies are tiny and the womb small, so you don’t need to load Mom up with calories or frequent meals.
In the middle 3 weeks, you might want to go from 1–2 meals a day to 2–3 meals a day, as the womb starts to take up more room in her belly.
In the final 2 weeks, you may need to feed her little and often (such as every 3–4 hours) as the large womb squashes her stomach.
This amazing dog delivered 5 puppies on her own after being rescued:
Deworming and Preventive Care of a Pregnant Dog
Ideally, vaccinate the mother before pregnancy so she passes immunity onto her litter.
However, if the pregnancy was a surprise, avoid vaccinating while she’s carrying pups.
The gold standard for worming is to treat her with fenbendazole daily from day 40 until 2 weeks after whelping. This vastly reduces the number of roundworm eggs that pass from the mother to the pups via the placentas or milk.
However, be aware that not all deworms or parasite products are safe during pregnancy. Before reaching for the product you normally give her, double-check with the vet that it’s safe for expectant mums.
Final Preparations for Delivery of the Puppies
In the final 3 weeks, consider the risk of herpes virus to the unborn puppies. This virus can cause fetal death, so some experts advise isolating Mom during this last bit of pregnancy.
Now is also the time to introduce Mom to the whelping box so she becomes familiar with it ahead of the big day.
All of which makes having puppies sound easy. But remember: Puppies are for life, so they’re a delight but also a big responsibility.
How Long Are Dogs Pregnant?
Dogs are pregnant for an average of 9 weeks before delivering the puppies.
Part 3: How to Wean Newborn Puppies
When puppies are born, they turn to their mothers for nourishment.
In the wild, puppies might nurse on their mothers for months as they slowly transition to eating alternate foods.
In the home, however, the process is a bit different.
Typically, puppies are weaned and then placed with new families, away from their mom. Since puppies can be taken home as early as 8 weeks of age, they need to be weaned from their mother before then.
Because of that, breeders typically start the process within 3–4 weeks of birth.
The Basics of Weaning
Weaning is the process of transitioning from nursing on a mother dog’s milk to eating solid sources of food, like kibble.
Weaning should happen gradually. From start to finish, around 1 month of transition time should be sufficient.
During the weaning process, puppies also spend time learning behaviors from both their mother and siblings, making it a crucial time in a dog’s life. Not only that, but it’s also when a mother’s milk starts to dry up.
It’s important for this to happen gradually to keep the mother from overproducing milk, which can lead to painful mammary glands.
First Steps to Weaning
When your puppies reach 3–4 weeks of age, it’s safe to start the weaning process.
Remember, this is a gradual process, so the transition will be slow and incremental.
- A good rule of thumb is to start by switching 10% of a puppy’s nutrient consumption with solid food instead of milk.
- The other 90% should continue to come from the mother.
Set scheduled feedings several times daily, during which, the mother and puppies should be in separate rooms to encourage the pups to eat their new food source.
You might notice whining or a strong dependency at first, but the puppies will eventually adapt and be perfectly happy with their new food.
- Over the next 4 weeks, gradually increase the amount of solid food the puppy eats compared to milk.
- By the time weaning has taken place for a full month, they should only be eating solid food.
- At this point, there likely won’t be any hesitation on the puppy’s part to eat the new food.
- Continue to stick to your feeding schedule, and keep the mother and puppies separate while eating to establish a new, firm routine.
What to Feed the Puppies
It’s important to choose the correct food when you’re weaning puppies off their mother’s milk.
They need the right nutrients during this time of their lives, so you’ll need to put a little extra effort into preparing their meals.
Since puppies can’t switch from milk to hard food, they’ll need a “mushy” alternative until they can handle regular food. In addition, pick up a container of replacement puppy milk from the pet store, along with dry puppy food.
- To get the consistency right, try combining 12.5 ounces of puppy milk replacement with 2 cups of dry puppy food in a blender.
- Add warm water to fill the rest of the blender, and bring it to a consistency similar to baby food (this can feed up to 8 puppies, depending on the breed).
As the weaning process goes on, start adding more dry food and less milk replacement. You can also start blending to a thicker, chunkier consistency rather than to a puree.
Once the puppies are 7–8 weeks old, the blender and milk replacement should no longer be necessary.
Caring for the Mom
The mother also needs to be looked after and cared for during this time.
Most breeders will start feeding mothers their chosen puppy food once they find out she’s pregnant. Doing so helps the mother gain the right amount of weight for her pregnancy.
After the puppies are born and the weaning process starts, the mother needs to be switched back to her regular dog food. This should also happen gradually to prevent any stomach upset:
- Try replacing 1/4 cup of her puppy food with adult food from the start, and increase for several weeks to a month.
- By the time the puppies are fully weaned, the mom should be eating her regular adult food.
No one ever said weaning puppies wasn’t messy:
What to Expect
Again, weaning is a slow process, so it’s important to be patient, especially if not all the puppies catch on quickly.
Continue with the steps above and keep to a schedule, and each puppy should come out on the other end just fine.
What’s more, don’t be surprised to find that weaning puppies isn’t always the most glamorous process. Mixing curious and unsure pups with pulverized food is just begging for a mess, but that’s all part of it.
Fortunately, the puppies’ mother will help with cleanup by licking the remaining food. Take care of as much of the cleaning as you can on your own. Then let her in to help, too.
If this is your first time weaning puppies, the best thing you can do is schedule regular visits with your vet throughout the pregnancy, birth and after. Your vet will not only outline exactly how to care for the pregnant mother but will also guide you toward the right foods, formulas and supplies.
Taking part in weaning puppies is a rare opportunity to see a natural process in action. Read through the steps above, make sure you consult with your vet and enjoy the experience.
This expert guide to pregnant dog care was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Pippa Elliott, BVMS, MRCVS, with contributions from Kristine Lacoste and Kristen Youngs. It was reviewed for accuracy by Dr. Elliott and was last updated Dec. 17, 2018.