Birthing difficulties (dystocia) in brachycephalic breeds

Birthing difficulties (dystocia) is common in some extreme brachycephalic breeds. Although birthing difficulties may be caused by factors such as uterine inertia (failure to commence uterine contractions), abnormally presenting puppies and abnormally large puppies, birthing problems are common in some brachycephalic breeds due to feto-pelvic disproportion. This is where selection for physical features, such as larger heads, results in puppies with heads too large to pass through the relatively narrow pelvises of the bitch without medical or surgical intervention. Substantially increased risks of birthing difficulties are seen in some brachycephalic breeds compared with crossbreed bitches (French Bulldog: 15.9 times more likely; Boston Terrier: 12.9 times more likely; Pug: 11.3 times more likely). Without intervention, birthing difficulties can lead to the death of the puppies and often of the mother. Consequently, caesarean section rates are high in these breeds, up to 86% in the Bulldog. Some breeders opt to have ‘elective’ caesareans in their bitches to avoid inevitable problems during birthing.

What are the signs my dog may have birthing problems?

Dystocia may lead to death of the unborn puppies and their mother, so breeders should be vigilant for signs that birth is not progressing normally in their pregnant bitch. A normal labour has three stages:

  • The body prepares itself for birth with the cervix relaxing and dilating. During this stage the bitch may be restless and try to nest.
  • The uterine fluids are lost, and progressively more vigorous straining occurs, leading to the birth of puppies. Puppies are normally delivered with gaps of 20-60 minutes, but may vary between dogs and breeds
  • The foetal membranes are delivered. This stage can alternate with the second stage, as membranes are sometimes delivered with or between puppies.

In some cases of dystocia, stage two never starts and dystocia is diagnosed once a dog is recognised not to have progressed from stage one to stage two after about 24 hours. Other signs may include prolonged strong contractions without delivery of offspring, long gaps between the delivery of offspring (>2 hours), prolonged gestation period, discharge from the vagina before any pups are born that may be black, green, or red discharge and indicates placental separation and foetal distress.

What should I do if my dog shows signs of birthing problems?

If your bitch shows any signs of birthing difficulties, you should seek veterinary attention to determine the next steps in managing the birthing process. As dystocia is an emergency, you may have to take your bitch to the vet immediately for treatment (this may require an out-of-hours emergency visit). The vet may palpate your dog's vaginal canal and cervix and take blood samples to test a variety of measures. Your vet may x-ray your bitch or perform an ultrasound to approximate the number, size and location of the foetuses and determine whether the puppies are in distress. In some cases your vet may be able to give medical treatment to stimulate birth or may be able to manually reposition and deliver puppies; however, if birthing difficulties are due to feto-pelvic disproportion then caesarean section is likely required to avoid suffering and death of mother and puppies.

N.B. Vets and breeders are requested to report caesareans to the Kennel Club. More information including reporting forms are available here.

Who can I contact for further advice?

The Kennel Club is not a veterinary organisation and is unable to provide general or case specific veterinary advice.  If you have any questions regarding any of the issues discussed in this article then please contact your local veterinary practice for further information.

This article was written by Dr Rowena Packer from the Royal Veterinary College who has given the Kennel Club kind permission to replicate this article.   Dr Rowena Packer is a Research Fellow at the Royal Veterinary College. Her research interests include many areas of canine inherited disease including brachycephalic health and canine epilepsy.

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