Whelping complications

Most dogs don’t have any problems whelping, but complications can occasionally occur. Issues during whelping can be serious, so delaying or ignoring them can be dangerous for the mother, or can also lead to a loss of puppies. Always make sure that you have an emergency contact for your vet and a plan of what to do, should you need help out of hours. During whelping, if you feel that something’s not quite right, or that labour isn’t progressing as it should, then always contact your vet.

When to contact the vet for advice

We recommend you contact your vet if:

Whelping is not progressing

  • If it’s been more than 24 hours since the first stages of whelping (restlessness, pacing panting) and there are no signs of contractions
  • Her waters have broken two to three hours ago, but nothing has happened

There are puppy delays

  • Your dog is between delivering puppies and she’s not straining, but it’s been longer than two hours
  • Your dog is straining for more than 30 minutes and there is no sign of a puppy
  • You can see part of a puppy or an amniotic sac in the birth canal, but it doesn’t move any further for 20-30 minutes

There’s a concerning discharge

  • If she hasn’t had any puppies yet, or it’s been a while since the last puppy was delivered and there’s a dark or green discharge
  • She is bleeding a lot
  • She has a foul-smelling discharge

Something’s not right with mum

  • She is very tired or seems to be in a lot of discomfort, especially if she is repeatedly licking her vulva
  • She is sick a lot
  • She collapses
  • She shows severe abdominal pain

There are puppy or placenta problems

  • There is something wrong with the puppies once they’re born, e.g., they are lifeless or won’t suckle
  • You’re concerned that not all the placentas have been passed

If there are issues, your vet may be able to come to you, as this will be a lot less stressful for the bitch, but if you need to take your dog to the vet, bring along any puppies that have already been born. Take them in a separate box with something to keep them warm, such as a heat pad or a hot water bottle. If you do use a hot water bottle, make sure there is no way that the puppies can burn themselves on it and that it is wrapped in something to protect the puppies’ skin.

Dystocia in dogs

Dystocia is a general term that means problems giving birth. There can be lots of different causes of dystocia, but it’s usually either caused by an issue with the mother, problems with one or more of the puppies or a problematic puppy position along the birth canal. 

What are the causes of dystocia in dogs?

Dystocia can be caused by:

  • Problems with the uterus (womb) – This includes issues with the muscles of the uterus wall not contracting properly, possibly due to exhaustion, incorrect levels of calcium/glucose or hormonal issues. Other problems could include twisting of the uterus, a tumour or a rupture.
  • Issues with the birth canal – Sometimes difficulties during whelping can be caused by problems with the size or shape of the bitch’s birth canal, such as a narrow pelvis, small vulval opening or a previously fractured pelvis.
  • Puppy problems – Whelping problems can be caused by a large or very small litter size, puppies with developmental defects or large puppies (often as a result of a very small litter size or from a prolonged pregnancy).
  • Puppy position – Puppies are usually born either head first or legs first, but they can become stuck if they pass along the birthing canal sideways or bottom first.

What is a breech puppy?

Puppies are usually born head first (anterior presentation) or back legs first (posterior presentation). Both of these are normal. If the puppy begins to come out bottom and tail first (breech presentation) it can cause difficulties. If you see the puppy’s tail dangling out of your dog’s vagina, or if your dog seems to be finding it difficult to push her puppy out, and there is a lump behind her vulva, contact your vet immediately.

Green discharge

A puppy’s placenta is greenish-black in colour. Sometimes during labour, there may be a little bit of green discharge after a puppy has been born. But, if there’s an excess of green or dark discharge from your dog’s vagina, particularly if a puppy hasn’t been born yet or it’s been a while since a puppy was born, it could mean there is a problem. This unusual discharge can mean that a puppy has separated from their placenta or has a damaged placenta, which could affect their oxygen supply. Contact your vet if you see any green discharge that you are concerned about.


During a normal birth, you may see a very small amount of blood, but if your dog is bleeding a lot or for a prolonged period of time, contact your vet at once.

How long do you leave a dog with an amniotic sac?

Puppies are often born inside a thin membrane or sac. Your dog will lick and clean her puppies to remove the membrane. She won’t usually need any help, but some first-time mothers may not know what to do or may focus on the next puppy being born. If you need to help, make sure that the sac is broken and that the puppy’s mouth and nose are clear. If the mother hasn’t removed the sac quite quickly after birth, then you may need to help. Tear a hole with your fingers and make sure the puppy’s mouth is clear and that they can breathe (paper towels can help you to grip slippery surfaces). Don’t be tempted to use anything sharp, such as scissors, as it could hurt the puppy.

Umbilical cord problems

After a puppy has been born, most mothers will chew through the puppy’s umbilical cord. An umbilical cord doesn’t need to be severed straight away, but if they’re left for too long, they can become infected.  If your dog hasn’t nibbled through the umbilical cord after a few hours, you may need to cut the cord yourself. Talk to your vet or an experienced breeder about how to do this.

Are stillborn puppies common?

In animals with large litters, stillborn puppies are not usual. These puppies are usually born normally, but they may sometimes cause birthing problems, especially if they’ve taken a long time to come out. If there are any problems, it can put the rest of the litter at risk, so always contact your vet for advice if you’re concerned about the health of the puppies.

If you have lost puppies and are affected by it, read our article about coping with the loss of a dog.

Problems after pregnancy

Birthing a litter can be a tiring experience for your dog.  After she’s given birth, you’ll need to make sure she’s able to relax, recuperate and care for her puppies. Unfortunately, after she’s given birth there are still a few things that could go wrong, so keep a close eye on your dog and her puppies and watch out for the following issues.

What is eclampsia in dogs?

Eclampsia is a life-threatening condition caused by dangerously low calcium levels. It can occur in any breed but is more common in smaller dogs.

Eclampsia can occur during the last part of pregnancy but usually happens in the first few weeks after birth. Mothers that are producing milk are at higher risk of eclampsia because they redirect much of their own calcium towards making milk for their puppies. Having low levels of calcium can be caused by not having enough in their diet, or, unexpectedly, by having too much. Talk to your vet, breeder or pet food manufacturer about feeding a dog during and after pregnancy.

Symptoms of eclampsia may include:

  • Panting
  • Drooling or dribbling
  • Restlessness
  • Weakness
  • Walking differently
  • Tremors, shaking or stiffness
  • Collapse
  • Fitting

Dogs with eclampsia need to be seen by a vet urgently and without delay

What does mastitis look like in dogs?

Mastitis is a painful infection of a dog’s mammary glands. It usually happens to dogs that are producing milk for their puppies. These infections can quickly become worse, so it’s important that you speak to your vet urgently if you notice that your dog:

  • Has a hard, swollen, painful or red mammary gland
  • Doesn’t seem herself
  • Is off her food
  • Feels hot
  • Has unusual coloured milk (this could be blood or puss in her milk)
  • Is reluctant to feed her puppies
  • Is very tired

What is metritis in dogs?

Metritis is an infection of the womb lining that usually affects dogs that have had whelping difficulties or may have retained placentas or puppies. Metritis is a rare, but very serious, condition. You should urgently contact your vet if:

  • Your dog is off her food
  • She doesn’t seem herself (weakness, depression and lethargy)
  • She feels hot
  • She has a smelly vaginal discharge
  • She’s not producing as much milk as usual