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Dystocia in dogs derives from the Greek words dys (difficult) and tokos (birth). The term dystocia is therefore used to describe a dog's difficult birth or inability to expel fetuses through the birth canal.

 It is estimated that approximately five percent of all canine births involve a medical problem. 

Some breeds experience few problems while in other breeds the incidence of problems is particularly high. Following is some information about dystocia in dogs from veterinarian Dr. Ivana Crnec.

Causes of Dystocia in Dogs 

The causes that lead to dystocia in dogs can be either related to the female dog or to the fetuses. Fetal causes for dystocia include: oversized puppies, abnormal presentation ( the abnormal position or posture of the fetuses in the birth canal) fetal death.

Maternal causes for dystocia in dogs instead include: poor or absent uterine contractions, uterine inflammation, pregnancy toxemia (a condition in pregnancy, also known as pre-eclampsia) uterine torsion and pelvic, reproductive abnormalities (inherited or acquired).

Dystocia and birth related medical problems in dogs are most likely to occur in the following circumstances: in female dogs that are pregnant for the first time, during the delivery of the first pup, no matter how many times has the dog been pregnant, in pregnant dogs that are fat or overweight, in female dogs that have become pregnant later in life and in pregnant dogs that are nervous, anxious or excitable.

Dystocia in dogs may also be seen in small mothers with only single pup or a small litter, in breeds in which the pups have particularly large heads, when the father is considerably larger than the mother, in female dogs that have previously suffered an injury to the pelvis and in brachycephalic breeds (dogs with smudged-in faces).

Did you know? English bulldogs are notorious for having great difficulties giving birth. This is because there is a significant mismatch between the size of an English bulldogs’ birth canal and the sizes of the pups.

Basically, the puppies have large heads while the mothers have relatively narrow pelvises.

This means that natural birth is difficult. Indeed, according to research by Evans & Adams (2010) 86 percent of English bulldog pregnancies end in delivery through caesarean section.

To further complicate things, English bulldogs, often have pre-existing breathing problems due to their distinctive brachycephalic head shape which causes problems coping with all the stress and physical exertion required to give birth

Dog Whelping Stages

Caring for a whelping dog is particularly stressful especially for first time dog owners. Therefore it is advisable to understand the different whelping stages taking place when a pregnant dog is giving birth.

Stage one entails preparing for labor. Mother dog displays the imminent beginning of the birthing prpcess by pacing nesting, refusing to eat and vomiting.

Stage two is the beginning of the actual birthing process which entails the pregnant dogs developing the first contractions and straining. This stage encompasses the actual delivery of the puppies.

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Stage three entails mother consuming the afterbirth (if allowed to) and severing the puppy's umbilical cord, while stage four encompasses licking the puppies. In stage five, mother dogs ensures the litter stays together for warmth and to allow nursing. And stage 6 entails the puppies suckling.

When to Call the Vet 

Knowing when to call the vet and ask for assistance is of critical importance. Generally speaking, the vet should be contacted i the following scenarios:

  • The female dog is not into labor after 64 days of pregnancy
  • The first stage of whelping (pacing, nesting, refusing food) lasts longer than 36 hours
  • The water has broken, but there are no contractions for more than 2 hours
  • There is no pup 30 minutes after the second stage of whelping (contractions) have begun
  • Blood or green fluid is passed before the first pup is delivered
  • The contractions stop with a visible pup and do not resume within 10 minutes
  • A pup is not expelled after 20 minutes of contractions
  • The contractions are weak or intermittent and pups are still retained in mom's uterus after 2 hours since the last delivery

Monitoring the condition of mother dog is also important. A vet should be contacted as well in the case the mother is apathetic, has pale, white gums, is shivering or twitching, the mother’s rectal temperature is below 97.5⁰F (37.5⁰C) or over 103⁰F (39.4⁰C) and there is foul-smelling bloody or black discharge or greenish-yellow purulent discharge. 

In all of the above stated situations, the vet should be contacted immediately.

At the Vet’s Office

At the vet’s office the dog having trouble giving birth will be thoroughly examined. The vet will first check for obstructions in the birth canal and fetal malposition because these two conditions require immediate intervention.

To asses these conditions the vet will perform digital palpation and radiographs. Then, he will use ultrasonography to count the fetal heart rate and ascertain the pups' survival and wellbeing. More often than not, the vet will take blood samples to evaluate the pregnant dog's electrolytes, glucose and acid-base abnormalities.

Exactly what happens at the vet’s office with a dog having trouble giving birth depends mainly on the exact reason why the dystocia occurred in the first place.

If the dystocia is due to lack of uterine contractions, the vet will give medications (oxytocin, calcium gluconate) that help stimulate contractions. 

If it is due to the pup being in wrong position, the vet can try to rectify the wrong position with fingers and delivering forceps. If the puppies are too large though or the mother has some anatomical abnormality, the vet will perform a Caesarian section.

Caesarean Section in Dogs 

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A Caesarian section is a relatively common procedure in which the womb is opened, the pups extracted and then the womb is sewn shut. It is the treatment of choice for difficult labors where pups either cannot or will not pass through the birth canal.

The routine Caesarian section takes place in a clean environment. Any contamination of the area, for example from the death and decomposition of a pup, makes the surgery more difficult and exposes the mother to greater risk of infection.

Before deciding to perform a Caesarian section, the veterinarian will consider several important factors such as how long has the expectant mother dog been in labor, what the X-ray, ultrasound and finger examination revealed, how well the uterus responds to oxytocin stimulation, the overall medical condition of both the mother and her pups and whether the anatomy of the mother has any peculiarities.

Additionally, the vet usually asks the owner how important it is to have as many live puppies as possible. 

If that priority is high, a Caesarean section will be carried out immediately. If, on the other hand, it is low, and there is a greater priority to avoid surgery, then the vet may decide to allow the perspective mother dog more time to regain her strength and give her medications that will stimulate the contractions.

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