dog with puppies in basket

Whelping, which is what the canine birth process is called, is something that should only be handled by people with prior experience, but if you ever do find yourself having to oversee the delivery of a litter of pups, here’s what you need to know to assist.

The two most important things to remember before we go into detail, though, are these:

  • The mother dog knows what to do by instinct, so she should do most of the work.
  • More than at any other time, you need to heed Cesar’s advice to remain absolutely calm.

Whelping can be a stressful process for both the humans and animals involved, although dogs are usually perfectly capable of getting themselves through these things alone. Still, it’s a good idea to understand the process in case you ever do wind up overseeing canine birth.

With that in mind, here are some things that every expecting Pack Leader should know about puppy births.

The Signs of Dog Labor

Know what to look for when the time is near. After the 64 (or so) days of gestation are up, start watching for some of the following signs in your momma dog:

  • She becomes restless.
  • She stops eating up to 24 hours before labor.
  • She may paw at her bedding, as if preparing a nest.
  • She starts licking her vulva.
  • She may vomit or discharge mucus.

Some vets see a drop in body temperature as a sign of impending labor while others discount it. Vets who use body temperature see a drop from a normal 101 to 102° F (38 to 39°) down to 99° F (37° C) as the indicator that birth will occur within 12 hours, while others do not think the connection is so clear-cut, so the above signs should take precedence over body temperature.

Supplies to Have on Hand

It’s important to have certain supplies on hand in order to help get the newborns and momma pup through this process. These include:

Whelping Box

A whelping box is necessary for all puppy deliveries. It’s essentially a pen where the mom can go and feel comfortable before, during, and after whelping. You can buy pre-made whelping boxes, but if you haven’t planned ahead, you can use a sturdy cardboard box with the front cut down so the mother can go in and out easily. The sides only need to be high enough to prevent any drafts reaching the pups.

A Laundry Basket Lined with a Heating Pad and a Blanket

This is for the new puppies immediately after they are born. You’ll want to get them out of the mom’s way as quickly as you can — but be sure to leave the basket where the mother can see it and the pups.

Monitor the temperature by listening. If the pups get too hot, they’ll cry, and if they get too cold, they’ll whimper.

A Stack of Clean Towels

These are to clean off the puppies if necessary.

Emergency Supplies

Sterile scissors, rubber gloves, antiseptic solution, and heavy thread or dental floss in case you need to tie umbilical cords. These items are must-haves for a few “just in case” scenarios.

Additionally, make sure you have phone numbers on hand for your regular vet as well as for an after-hours animal emergency hospital — most whelping occurs in the predawn hours.

Ready for Delivery

When you see a grayish sac drop from the vulva, this means that there’s a puppy on the way! The mother should pass the first puppy within an hour of the sac appearing. If she doesn’t, it’s time to call the vet to discuss whether to bring her in. You should also check in with the vet by phone through the entire whelping process to report its progress, generally about every fifteen minutes.

When the Mother Needs Help

Here are a few things that you might have to do following each puppy’s birth if the mother doesn’t do them herself.

Remove the Membrane

Puppies are born in a thin membrane that looks like plastic wrap, which needs to be removed within six minutes so the pup doesn’t suffocate. Normally, the mother will do this immediately. If she doesn’t, then you’ll have to break the membrane yourself.

Rub the Puppy with a Towel

Right after the membrane comes off, the mother dog will normally lick the puppy, which will stimulate it to breathe and cry. If she doesn’t do this, rub the puppy vigorously with a towel until it starts breathing on its own.

Discard the Afterbirth

Within five to fifteen minutes after each birth, a mass of blackish-green tissue called the placenta, or afterbirth, should follow. Once the puppy is born, the placenta is entirely useless. You can discard it.

The mother may try to eat the placenta. If she does, don’t worry. It’s completely natural and won’t cause her any harm, although you should not let her eat more than one or two of them.

It’s also important to keep count of the puppies and placentas, because the afterbirth does not always come out with the puppy. The mother should discharge any unaccounted for placentas after the last puppy is born.

Cut the Umbilical Cord

If the momma pup doesn’t chew through each umbilical cord on her own, you will have to cut the cord. If you do, be sure to use sterilized scissors, cut about an inch from the pup’s belly, and tie the cord off with the thread or dental floss 1/4 to 1/2 inch from the puppy’s body. When cutting, it’s better to crush the cord rather than make a clean cut; this will reduce bleeding. After you’ve tied it off, dip the end in a shallow dish with either iodine or antiseptic solution.

After Each Birth

Put the Pup in the Basket

A newborn pup will instinctively seek out the mother to begin nursing immediately. To ensure their safety, put them in the laundry basket until whelping is finished. Again, they should be where their mother can see them.


Remember, unlike humans, multiple births (and breech births) are the norm in dogs, so the first pup will be followed by others. If you’d like an idea of how many puppies to expect, count your dog’s nipples. Usually, that will be the maximum number in the litter. Ultrasound is actually not accurate at counting the puppies in the womb, although an X-ray at about 55 days after breeding is. Depending on breed, the entire whelping process can last anywhere from two to twenty hours.

If the mother continues to have contractions without giving birth to another puppy for more than two hours, call your veterinarian immediately.

After the Last Birth

Keep Them Warm and Well-fed

Once the last puppy is born and everything seems to be going well for the mother, take her outside to urinate, then bring her and the pups into the whelping box and let them begin nursing. Now the pups need to stay warm and fed. The mother should take care of both, but if she can’t supply enough milk or rejects any or all of the puppies, then it becomes your job.

If the puppies aren’t well-fed, they’ll let you know by complaining, acting restlessly, or sucking at everything. You can feed them yourself with nursing bottles and supplements, available at pet stores.

If any of the puppies are acting lethargic, then it means they’re not warm enough. The puppies’ body temperatures should be right around 97° F (36° C). If their temperature drops below this, it’s time for the heating pad.

They should also show a steady weight gain, and you should weigh each pup often during the first few days. If it’s a large litter or you can’t tell the puppies apart, use a marking system that the mother can’t lick off to distinguish them. For example, you can tie different colored ribbons loosely around each pup’s neck, making sure they stay loose as the dogs grow.

Finally, you must take the mother to the vet with 24 to 48 hours of giving birth. This is to check for any complications or injuries. Your vet will also give your dog a posterior pituitary extract (POP) injection.

Canine whelping, like any live birth, is an amazing thing. But it can be strenuous, both for your dog and you. Hopefully, your dog’s birthing process will be simple and pain-free for every human — and every dog — involved.

Have you helped deliver puppies? Tell us your experience in the comments.

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