Dystocia is the medical term for a difficult birth. A canine in labor may experience dystocia for several reasons:

  • fetuses are too large for a dog with a small pelvis
  • fetuses are awkwardly positioned, and cannot make it through the birth canal easily
  • the uterus and cervix are not contracting normally

Are you able to distinguish between normal birthing signs and signs related to canine dystocia?

If not, we have compiled a list of 4 normal signs of birthing that owners should know to expect and 9 warning signs that mom may be experiencing dystocia. Please note, normal birthing can vary some from animal to animal, but knowing the signs of normal versus abnormal birthing can help an owner decide if their pet is experiencing a medical emergency. A pet who is experiencing a normal birth should be observed at home in a quiet, stress-free environment. An unnecessary trip to the emergency room could cause stress that would delay birthing. However, if there is any concern that a pet may be having a difficult birth, we encourage owners to contact us for guidance.

Let’s first talk about normal signs of birthing that owners should know to expect.

  1. Signs of lactation can be seen within 1-2 weeks prior to parturition (birth).
  2. Stage 1 of delivery: 12-24 hours prior to parturition, restlessness, loss of appetite, panting, and nesting behaviors may be seen, as well as occasional vomiting. Body temperature will drop below 99 degrees. A clear vaginal discharge may be present.
  3. Stage 2 of delivery: Start of visible abdominal contractions and delivery of fetuses. May last 1 to 24 hours, although shorter times are associated with better outcomes. Rupture of the chorioallantoic membrane (the vascular membrane surrounding the fetus) will produce fluid, resulting in vaginal discharge that may be clear, serous (blood-tinged) to hemorrhagic (bloody), or green. Continued nesting behaviors, grooming, nursing puppies in between delivery, as well as anorexia, panting, and trembling can be seen.
  4. Stage 3, delivery of placenta/fetal membranes: Usually a placenta is delivered between each fetus, often accompanied by green and/or black discharge.

Now we can distinguish between normal birthing behaviors versus signs related to dystocia. The following are 9 signs of dystocia, as outlined by Dr. Cheryl Lopate in Clinician's Brief (2013) and other sources:

  1. Greater than 72 days from when breeding occurred with no signs of labor.
  2. Greater than 4 hours between rupture of the first chorioallantois and delivery of the first puppy.
  3. Greater than 30 minutes of active contractions without delivering a puppy.
  4. Greater than 2 hours between delivery of each puppy.
  5. Significant or increasing amounts of green and/or black discharge before the delivery of the first puppy, without signs of contractions, indicating that the placenta is ruptured.
  6. A significant amount of frank (obvious) blood during delivery.
  7. Signs of acute abdominal pain.
  8. Delivery of stillborn puppies.
  9. Fetuses present in the vaginal canal for more than 15 minutes.

What will we do for your pet who is experiencing dystocia?

  1. The first steps for possible dystocia are to obtain vital signs, history, and have a physical exam performed by a DVM as soon as possible. Dystocia will be treated as a high priority emergency, as the status of the mom or fetuses can change rapidly.
  2. The second step is to perform diagnostics. Initial diagnostics might include abdominal radiographs and/or ultrasound to determine the number, size, and position of the fetuses, as well as the fetal heart rate. Obtaining blood glucose and ionized calcium will be important, as hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) and hypocalcemia (low blood calcium) can both occur during delivery, and can lead to dystocia.

Between diagnostics, and depending on the stability of mom’s condition, she should be allowed to relax in a quiet, private room. Owners can be helpful in observing changes in their dog’s condition, but too much activity can cause stress to the dog, delaying the progression of labor, and hindering the outcome. In the event that natural delivery is not possible, a C-section will be performed. With mom under anesthesia, an incision is made on the abdomen to expose the uterus, and then the puppies are removed from the uterus. To ensure their safe recovery, the puppies are then cared for by an intensive care unit technician. The goal is, with early intervention and medical/surgical therapy, to allow the best chance for survival of both the mother and her puppies.

Written By: Jessica Parry, RVT, VTS (ECC)