One of the questions I get asked frequently is, how do I know when to C-section my bitch, or how do I know if she needs a C-section?
These decisions can be made significantly easier if the breeder has carried out a few simple checks along the way and throughout the dog's pregnancy. No one can ultimately answer this question, because nobody has a crystal ball, not the breeder, not the vet, not me.
However, your options can be dependent on the breed of dog, but also your own personal tolerance to the unknown and risk. It is safe to say that novice breeders should, and probably will, always tend to be more apprehensive. A more experienced breeder will already have knowledge of their own historical breedings, litters plus experiences from peers, friends or family. They possibly may also have gained knowledge from books and information available on the internet.
There is no right or wrong to some of the information and the experiences that you'll go through, but you must bear one thing in mind, and that is, your dog is number one. Her health is priority, and if you feel this is being compromised at any point, you must seek veterinary advice. There are a few things that will make this journey easier, whilst also reducing any opportunities for drama and hopefully avoiding any expensive monetary scenarios, by taking the journey step by step.
Step one, ovulation testing your female, in particular progesterone blood testing, will give you exact and precise information. It will tell you exactly when your female has ovulated and therefore an accurate due date can be calculated. Every pregnancy for a dog is 63 days from ovulation, and typically 61 days from mating. Having invested early in to the breeding process will benefit you if successful also at the other end, you will have clearly identified exactly what her due date is whilst also avoiding ‘over mating’ also reducing your due date window.
There are factors that can impact her not going into labour on her due date, such as the size of the litter, whether that be small or extremely large, and down to her own personal efforts and energy levels. However you know, 61 days from mating, 63 days from ovulation, that by the text book, these puppies are ‘cooked’, ready and sufficiently developed to be born. Therefore, should you decide on elective C-section, you have significantly reduced the risk of ‘going in too early’, which is most veterinary professionals fear.
Should you be in any doubt, you can run the same progesterone blood test, which is called reverse testing. Basically, progesterone levels have to stay maintained for a pregnancy to be viable, but the levels start to drop once the puppies are near their due date. This is down to particular chemicals or hormones being released in the body that suppresses the progesterone and actually prepares the puppies' lungs to breathe oxygen. Reverse progesterone test, if you are in any doubt will confirm if the puppies are preparing for birth. Progesterone levels needs to be significantly low number, the lower the better. From my own experience, I've still sectioned at 9ng and 6ng and puppies are ready and have been viable and strong.
When using any Vet Lab (independent or affiliated with your vet practice) for your progesterone testing, make sure you have a copy of the results (figures and scale nmol or ng) for yourself, to keep in your female's breeding records, so if necessary you can refer back to this at a later point.
Another thing to bear in mind, and which I have also done, is given my females, when the Progesterone numbers weren't low enough, a steroid jab. This can induce labour but it will also prepare the puppies' lungs to breath, it was more for preventative treatment and a ‘just-in-case’ which, as a breeder, gave me confidence that I was doing the right thing, and with the veterinary agreement.
Step two, ultrasound scanning. Ultrasound to confirm your female is pregnant is invaluable. It gives you a tonnes of information early on the pregnancy, allowing you to better prepared to make informed choices and take the best path forward. Ultrasound scanning will give you an idea of litter size, as I said before, it's not unusual for small litters and solo puppies to go overdue, and likewise, for large puppies or large litters to have stretched the uterus, so it has difficult contracting when in labour.
A second ultrasound pregnancy scan in the later stages of pregnancy, between the mid-40 - 50 days, will enable the technician to measure the pups (head diameter or body depth) giving you an idea of the overall size of the puppies, if it's a solo pup, whether it's large or not, and also check on their progress. You must remember even a small puppy can get stuck if the bitch has a narrow pelvis, this is unfortunately something you won’t know until an active stage 2 Labour. Heartbeats can be clearly picked up in later scans, they should be at the fast and steady pace. You should be able to see foetal movement, with puppies jiggling around and moving limbs. Bones should be shown as bright white on the ultrasound screen, all of this information helps to build up a picture, providing you, as the owner and breeder with more information to be able to make the right decisions.
I recently scanned a Labrador female that had had an accidental, the scan showed she was in her late 50s. We could see clearly that there was at least four puppies. However, I provided some feedback that bones, could have brighter, which gave us a heads-up that she could possibly have a low calcium level and would need supplements once the puppies are born (not before without veterinary advice) to prevent pre-eclampsia.
Also, when we measured the puppies, they were well over their due date, working out at 68 to 69 days. For me, this was slightly concerning, that either the puppies were big or she'd gone way past their due date, and that she should seek veterinary advice. I'm pleased to say there was actually five puppies, born by emergency C-section, because as we thought, the pregnancy, in the final stages, was developing to be slightly complex. However, mum and puppies were all fine. Low calcium levels, I believe, can also impact contractions, which may have been another issue with regards to her pregnancy and labour.
The third step is stepping back and looking at your bitch and the situation, overall. Is she in good health? Is she struggling with the pregnancy? My main concerning issue is that your female must be able to sleep correctly. If she is finding her pregnancy too difficult to sleep, then for me, nobody (human or dog) can function on no sleep and she must have an emergency or elective C-section. Uncomfortable is a different instance, but as I say, the lack of sleep means basic biological reactions are negatively impacted and ultimately something will be compromised somewhere. Should she be taken poorly quickly you must seek veterinary advice, but because they are willing to action on your decision in a timely matter.
The fourth and I would probably consider the most important step is make sure you have a “breeder friendly” vet. This is a vet that will not get judgmental and feel inconvenienced when you start asking questions in regards to your dog pregnancy. You need to have these conversations early in the journey for you and your girl to avoid any pitfalls as the pregnancy develops. Don't leave it to the point where she's in distress, or even you're in distress, and you're seeking help, but not getting the information or support you need.
The vet you are currently registered to may not be the best vet for you during this breeding process. Speak to other breeders in your area (any breed), other animals professionals such as your ultrasound technicians or even groomers to see what vets they recommend supporting owners and breeders when breeding. Just by Googling dog breeders in your area and asking what vet they use, you may find that they all gravitate to the same one for a good reason!
When it comes to veterinary care, it is effectively private healthcare, so you can register with as many vets as you wish and use them as you wish. So you may find some more favourable for puppy jabs and vaccinations, and others for pregnancy, and others for general health and wormer. So look around and do all of this before you actually need them. If preferable, meet them face to face, go in-branch and have the conversation about your concerns and find out their own personal experience with canine pregnancy. Just because they are veterinary professional does not make them an expert on canine reproduction, particularly the husbandry side. What are their thoughts on ovulation testing? If she goes overdue? What support do they offer out-of-hours?
I would steadily stay clear of any vets that ask you to transport your own dog to a central out-of-hours practice, I would personally avoid any veterinary practice for breeding support that doesn’t provide their own out-of-hours, because this immediately means all your efforts into finding a good vet could be diminished if you require out-of-hours assistance with somebody that has no or little knowledge of you, or your dog, or your circumstances.
By having these conversations upfront with your vet, thinking about ovulation testing, pinpointing exactly when her due date is, looking at her overall health, and having a progress pregnancy scan will all stand you in good stead for what's to come in the future, of course which I hope is stress free and full of puppy fun and frolics.
I truly believe in the phase, “If in doubt, get them out”, if you are not happy with how your girl’s pregnancy or how the birth is developing, after all you know her best, then stick with your gut. I would much prefer to regret the decisions and actions I made, then the ones I avoided or postponed to make. You making the decisions, means you are in control of the situation. Any supporting professionals will be sure to shirk any responsibility if no decisions are made, they certainly won’t’ make them for you and ultimately “something” will happen eventually - that maybe be good or bad.