If your dog has been spayed, this article won’t apply to you. In fact, 19 out of 20 owners whose pets have puppies may never need this advice. But about 5 percent of the time, dystocia leads to emergencies that can threaten the mother’s life, if you don’t recognize the problem and get her to an emergency room. (Cats almost never have this issue, as we’ll explain later.)

What is Dystocia?

The word comes from the Greek for “difficult childbirth” and applies to all species. In fact, humans and pets share some of the problems and some of the solutions. The drug oxytocin can be used to stimulate labor and the release of milk in either; both veterinarians and obstetricians use cesarean section operations to remove babies that can’t go down the birth canal.

Pet owners can smooth the way to an uncomplicated birth. It’s important to know how many puppies or kittens to look for, and your family vet can do an X-ray to tell you how many to expect. The vet can give you a projected due date, running blood tests to gauge the gestation period and looking at the mother’s skeleton for clues. Canine pregnancies generally run 58 to 73 days, feline pregnancies more like 63 to 65 days.

Owners should give proper nutrition to pregnant and lactating animals, even feeding them puppy or kitten food to provide extra calories. Supply a safe, clean, private area for the birth, such as a whelping box for a dog or a space at the back of a closet for a cat. Try not to stress them during delivery, because their bodies will pause at the wrong times. Most pets will bite through their own umbilical cords; if not, you’ll have to cut the cord.

Causes of Dystocia

The most common problem occurs when the fetus is oversized, positioned inappropriately in the birth canal or stillborn inside the mother. Brachycephalic dogs – those with disproportionately large skulls – most frequently cause problems.

Bulldogs, chihuahuas, pit bulls and many other breeds face this issue, and your vet may want to schedule a C-section in advance. Size discrepancy between the male and female parent can complicate delivery. That’s why cats seldom have dystocia: Kittens don’t have unusually large heads that won’t easily pass through the birth canal.

Elderly and obese dogs may have more difficulty giving birth, as will those who’ve had pelvic injuries. Conditions such as poor uterine contractions, abnormality of the vulvar opening or insufficient cervical dilation create problems, even if fetuses are healthy and well-placed. Dogs and humans differ in one significant way: Subsequent pregnancies don’t lead to easier or quicker deliveries in pets, and dogs who faced dystocia once will likely face it again.

Signs of Dystocia

The first stage of birth, where the dog goes into labor, can last 12 to 24 hours; her temperature should drop below 99 degrees. The second stage, the period of producing fetuses, should not last longer than 24 hours (in cats, it can last longer). More than four hours should not pass after rupture of the chorioallantois, the membrane that produces a yellowish fluid, before puppies appear. They generally come 30 minutes to one hour apart.

The mother is in trouble if she goes through more than 30 minutes of straining and contractions without producing a puppy; if more than two hours pass between delivery of each puppy; or if you see green or black discharge without production of a puppy within 15 minutes. (Green discharge is normal after delivery of a puppy.) Large volumes of bright red discharge mean dangerous loss of blood.

The crucial thing to remember is that any interruption in the normal birth process requires an immediate trip to the emergency room. Once dystocia sets in, owners cannot deal with it effectively at home, but veterinarians can.

Think of CARE as the animal equivalent of a human medical center, providing all forms of treatment for pets through emergency care 24 hours a day,365 days a year. It also offers board-certified specialty care after a referral from your primary veterinarian. Take a visual tour of the practice at carecharlotte.com/tour.

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