Breeding from your dog
A bitch (female dog) can produce 1-2 litters of puppies each year from around 6-12 months of age (depending on breed). If you are not intending to let your bitch have puppies then you might consider having her neutered to prevent unwanted heats (with the ensuring behavioural changes), and to prevent accidental pregnancies. If you do decide to breed from your bitch, this can be a highly rewarding experience. However, there are some important things to consider to ensure that both mother and puppies are strong and healthy.
How do I go about choosing a mate for my dog?
A bitch in season will often attract a multitude of potential suitors from the local dog population and around the time she is most fertile she may become desperate to escape to meet up with them! You will probably want to have some say in her choice and so it is essential to keep her securely indoors and walk her on a lead or away from other dogs during this time. There are already many unwanted dogs and puppies, the majority arising from the consequences of such chance matings. Male dogs who are older and/or who are related to her are all still potential suitors, so keep her away from any uncastrated male during this period if you do not want her mated.
If you have a pedigree dog, you may want to find a partner of the same breed so that the puppies are purebred. In this case, you should speak to an experienced breeder of your breed well in advance of planning the mating. Joining the breed society is a good way to find more information specific to your breed, and to connect with other breeders. Information on local breeders can also be found via the Kennel Club website.
If you are not interested in a specific breed, it is still important to pick a dog of a suitable size - a large dog mating with a smaller bitch can cause problems at whelping time if the puppies are also large. It is also important that your chosen stud dog is healthy, with an up to date record of vaccinations.
What information do I need?
Certain breeds have particular problems when giving birth, so it is advisable to speak to an experienced breeder of these breeds before going ahead with a mating. There is a high incidence of some genetic problems in certain breeds and many breeds operate screening schemes to prevent breeding from affected animals - this is often required by the Kennel Club if you wish to register your puppies, but is highly recommended even if you'll not be registering the puppies, to increase the general health of each breed. Your dog may have to undergo X-rays, eye examination or other tests at your vets before being mated. The Kennel Club, breed societies and the British Veterinary Association have more information on this.
When is the right time to breed from my dog?
Bitches should not be allowed to have puppies until they are fully grown and mature themselves. This age will vary from breed to breed and between individuals. The first season will occur between 6 months and 18 months of age (generally earlier in small breeds and later in larger breeds), but it is not generally recommended to allow a bitch to become pregnant at her first season as her reproductive system is not fully matured. Most breed societies recommend a first breeding from bitches that between 2-5 years at the time of whelping.
How often will my bitch come into season?
Most bitches develop a regular pattern of seasons happening between every 5 months to 1 year. Seasons usually last around 3 weeks and bitches are most receptive to mating around 10-14 days into the cycle.
When should my dog mate?
Bitches are usually mated twice during the receptive period. You can start counting the days of her cycle from when you first see signs of bloody discharge and swelling at the vulva. However, some bitches have very light discharge and you may easily miss the first few days. The best way to find the right time of mating is to do a blood test checking the progesterone levels every 2-3 days, starting around day 7-9. Progesterone is the hormone produced by bitches at the time that they release the eggs (ovulate) ready to be fertilised and this can therefore be used to time the mating more accurately. If the bitch ovulates between days 12-15, as most do, two or three tests should give you the expected result. Late ovulating bitches can require more testing, but it is worth doing these tests as these bitches would not conceive if mated at the normal time. There are other signs to look out for like the bitch standing and turning her tail and her discharge changing from bloody to a lighter colour if you prefer not to blood test. Your veterinary surgeon will have more information about these tests.
How do I know if my bitch is pregnant?
The hormonal changes following a bitch’s season follow a very similar pattern whether or not she is pregnant. Therefore, bitches can develop a “false pregnancy” where they show changes in behavior such as nesting, and may even show mammary development and produce some milk.
It can be very difficult to be certain your bitch is pregnant merely by feeling her tummy. In the early stages the developing foetuses are very small and easy to miss. If only 1 pup is present it might be difficult to locate even at full term. The best way to confirm that your bitch is pregnant with viable foetuses is to ask your vet to perform an ultrasound scan around 3-4 weeks after the second mating. At this time the scan should also give an indication of how many puppies are present; although this is a guide only, as it can be difficult to be fully accurate while the foestuses are small, and some may not make it to full term. There is also a blood test for a hormone called relaxin, the pregnancy specific hormone in dogs. This test can be useful if ultrasound is not available.
Is there anything else I need to do?
In the last third of the pregnancy and into lactation, you will need to increase the amount you feed your bitch by approximately 25-35%. This is to prevent her from losing weight and condition as she will be using a lot of energy to grow and feed the puppies. However, if she has a large number of puppies (or they are large) the distended womb may fill her belly and make it difficult for her to eat larger meals, especially in the last couple of weeks of pregnancy. It is a good idea to split feeding into 3-4 smaller meals throughout the day. Many breeders will switch to feeding the bitch onto puppy food in the last trimester and into lactation, as this has higher energy and protein level as well as more calcium and phosphorus (minerals which are important for the development of healthy bones and teeth in the puppies, and for milk production in the mother). Pregnant bitches should also be wormed in the last days leading up to whelping - speak to your veterinary surgeon for a safe and suitable product to use.
When your bitch has given birth, she will need a secure bed/area in which to raise the puppies. Prepare this a few weeks before the puppies are due so that the mother can get used to sleeping there and is settled for the birth.
When will the puppies be born?
Normal pregnancy in the bitch is 63 days from conception although this can vary from 60-70 days. Smaller breed dogs can have shorter pregnancies. The time from mating to conception can be very variable in the dog and it is possible for conception to occur up to 7 days after mating and therefore care must be taken not to over-interpret approximated delivery dates. Calculation of the delivery date is best based on results of examination of smears taken from the vagina, hormone tests made before conception, or alternatively, the ultrasound in the first few weeks of pregnancy may allow ageing of the foetuses.
Is whelping likely to be dangerous for my bitch?
Most dogs will be able to give birth naturally without human assistance, but some breeds are more prone to problems, such as the French Bulldog and the Pug. Whelping should be observed so that intervention can occur swiftly if necessary. Problems usually occur if the bitch’s birth canal is too narrow, the pups are too large or badly positioned, or if the bitch (or her uterine muscles) become exhausted through a long whelping.
Veterinary intervention should be sought if there has been active, vigorous straining for 30 minutes without any sign of a puppy appearing at the vulva, or if a puppy is visible but has not been born within 10 minutes. Profuse bloody or dark smelly discharge should also be a cause for concern. The bitch may ‘rest’ between birthing puppies for up to a few hours, but she will not be actively straining in this period. If in doubt, contact your veterinary surgeon for advice.
Do I need to help the puppies when they are born?
In most cases, the bitch will attend to the puppy as soon as it is born. If the bitch doesn’t turn to attend to the puppy when it has exited the birth canal and is clearly tired, some intervention may help. Gently pull the birth membranes away from the puppy's nose and tear the umbilical cord about an inch from the body (tearing the cord leaves a ragged edge which doesn’t bleed as much as a cut edge). Gently rub the puppy’s face and sides with a dry towel to stimulate it to breathe. If the puppy has not started breathing it may have some fluid in its lungs. Hold the puppy gently in the palm of your hand with its head toward your fingers, hold your arm straight in front of you and carefully bring your arm down to a vertical position in a gentle swinging motion to expel the fluid from its nose. You can gently clear any fluid or mucus away from the puppy’s nose with a cotton bud. Once it is breathing it should be returned to its mother as body contact is important in keeping it warm.
If possible, observe the whelping but do not intervene unless necessary. Too much human interaction during the process and with the puppies can affect the mother’s bond with her puppies, and so allowing her space and time to bond and feed them is best in the first few days. Handling and socialising can occur later when the puppies are a little older and more independent.
Pregnancy and whelping are natural processes for dogs and are rarely associated with problems in most breeds. Try not to intervene but keep a close eye on her and call your vet for advice if you are worried.