Unsure at what point of your dog's pregnancy you should add Calcium? Or even take it away?
Hoping to avoid a mid-labour trip to the vet if puppy delivery slows
Want to know how to encourage a fast and efficient whelp?
Worried about your girl coping with a large litter and milk supply?
One thing to bare in mind as a breeder is that you never stop learning.
I recently had a client contact me for some insight, an established Labrador breeder who also owned a Boarding Kennel so I would consider an experienced dog owner with high competence and experience when breeding. They had a female who had whelped a litter of nine pups. They weren't even 48 hours old, but she drove them crazy, persistently moving the puppies out of the whelping box.
My first question was, "Have you given her Calcium?". Their response was negative because she had nursed previous litters without ever needing supplements.
I strongly recommended they supplement her with Calcium as quickly as possible. All they had to hand was a block of mature cheddar cheese. Given she was a Labrador and they would happily devour almost anything and seem to have iron stomachs, I suggested it would be a great way to increase her levels immediately.
Within a few hours, the female had settled down with her puppies and was comfortable and content and no longer moving them around. This example shows how crucial calcium levels really are when rearing puppies. If she hadn't supplemented, not only would the puppies be negatively impacted, but the health of the Dam could have seriously deteriorated. So, let's look at Calcium in more detail.
What is Calcium?
Calcium is essential in various bodily functions, including canine pregnancy. It is necessary for maintaining a pregnant dog's overall health and supporting the puppy's development.
If you raw feed, the amount of Bone (high in Calcium) should be reduced in her diet from 6 weeks gestation; this will help soften bowel movements, making her more comfortable. Stool observation is also a good way of understanding your female's Calcium level requirement, which can be connected to conditions such as Eclampsia. Raw diets, if not properly balanced, can also provide too much Calcium, so particular care should be taken to ensure additional Calcium, such as raw bones or treats (like chicken feet) aren't given in these final weeks.
Why is Calcium essential for pregnancy?
Calcium is necessary for proper muscle function in all dogs. During pregnancy, the Dam's body undergoes changes to accommodate the growing puppies, and Calcium is crucial for the proper development and growth of the skeletal system. Calcium is also required for smooth muscle contractions, including uterine contractions during labour and delivery.
The Dam should be on a high-quality, balanced diet which requires no additional Calcium supplementation before the birth of puppies. It's crucial to note that Calcium should never be given during pregnancy, as it will trick the Dam's body into thinking it's producing enough, causing her to provide less at a pivotal point when her body's natural demand increases, possibly creating a deficit. Such a deficit, called Eclampsia, can be fatal. Symptoms can include head tremors, high body temperature, panting, restlessness and muscle spasms occurring at any during motherhood. Leg twitching and stiffening can also be a telltale sign. This is an emergency and life threatening, so should your Dam show any symptoms you should immediately contact your vet. This condition can be easily identified with a blood test at your vets. So calcium before active labour should only ever be given with veterinary instruction, and otherwise avoided.
It's important to note that Calcium is just one of many factors involved in the complex labour and delivery process. Other hormones, such as oxytocin, also play a significant role in stimulating and coordinating uterine contractions.
Oxytocin & Caulophyllum
It's worth knowing a little about oxytocin.
Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the body and has two main actions. The first is the contraction of the womb (uterus) while birthing, and the second is the contraction of milk ducts, releasing milk to nursing puppies.
Oxytocin can only be administered by a vet to jump-start contractions, typically when labour is slowing due to inertia. An oxytocin alternative, called Caulophyllum 30c, is a homoeopathic remedy believed to quickly aid contractions and delivery. It must be given every hour as soon as contractions begin until the birth of all pups is completed. Knowing your litter size from pregnancy ultrasound scanning is also hugely beneficial, so you know when to step in. This can be a good preventative, however you should always seek advise from your vets should labour slow after giving Caulophyllum, as oxytocin may still need to be administered in rare cases.
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Why is Calcium important for labour?
Calcium cannot trigger contractions during labour, but calcium ions initiate a cascade of events that do ultimately lead to muscle contraction. Calcium is involved in the process known as excitation-contraction coupling. When the nerves in the uterus are stimulated during labour, calcium ions are released into the muscle cells of the uterine wall.
The presence of Calcium causes the muscle fibres in the uterine wall to contract. Calcium ions bind to proteins within the muscle cells, initiating a series of chemical reactions that enable the muscle fibres to slide past each other and generate forceful contractions. This allows the uterus to push the puppies towards the birth canal during labour.
Calcium also plays a role in synchronising the contractions of the uterine muscles. Coordinated contractions are crucial for the effective expulsion of the puppies. Calcium ions help regulate the timing and strength of the contractions, ensuring they occur in a rhythmic and coordinated manner.
Ensuring the Dam has adequate calcium levels to support effective contractions is crucial during birthing. Supplementary Calcium may be needed during the birthing process to help strengthen contractions as it can be given after the birth of the first puppy. It should be in your whelping kit as a basic necessity.
The interval between puppy births varies; hopefully, she can keep to the pace of one puppy every hour. Longer is fine if the labour is progressive. If heading toward two hours, get her stimulated with a short walk around the garden and give her some calcium (if the first puppy has already arrived).
You may need to seek veterinary advice in the following situations:
- Exhaustion during labour may result in inertia; some breeds and those carrying a larger litter are more prone to this condition.
- Excessive green discharge before the first puppy.
- Continuous straining for 30 minutes with no puppy being born.
- A period of more than 4 hours between puppies.
- Part of a puppy protruding but not entirely born within 10 minutes.
What Calcium source is better? Liquid, Capsule or Tablet?
Liquid calcium supplements are often believed to have faster absorption than calcium capsules or tablets. This is because liquid supplements need not be broken down and dissolved in the stomach like solid forms. As a result, the nutrients in liquid supplements can be readily available for absorption by the body.
However, it's important to note that the absorption rate can be influenced by various factors, including the specific formulation of the supplement, the individual's digestive system and how it tastes. Factors such as stomach pH, the presence of other substances in the stomach, and overall gastrointestinal health can also affect the absorption of Calcium.
While liquid Calcium may offer potential advantages in terms of absorption speed, the difference in absorption rates between liquid, capsule, and tablet forms may not be substantial. Calcium supplements in any form can be effectively absorbed if taken correctly and under appropriate conditions.
Recommended Calcium Products
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Calcium Rich Foods whilst Nursing
An alternative or complementary approach to supplements is providing the dog Calcium-rich foods such as:
- Dairy Products: Dairy products such as plain yoghurt, cottage cheese, and low-fat milk can be good sources of Calcium for dogs. However, it's vital to ensure that your dog is not lactose intolerant and can tolerate dairy products without any digestive issues that could create additional problems. If your dog is used to dairy and can tolerate it fine, this can be a helpful dietary addition.
- Fish with Bones: Certain fish, like canned salmon or sardines, can provide a significant amount of Calcium due to their edible bones. These bones are soft and can be safely consumed by dogs. However, remove any sharp or large bones that could pose a choking hazard. Be conscious of fish in oils as this can cause tummy upsets due to the high intake of fats at once.
- Leafy Greens: Leafy green vegetables such as kale, collard greens, and broccoli are rich in vitamins and minerals and contain some calcium. These can be cooked or lightly steamed for better digestibility.
- Seaweed: Some types of seaweed, like kelp, are known to be good sources of Calcium. However, it’s crucial to use seaweed specifically formulated for dogs and feed it in moderation.
- Bone Broth: Homemade bone broth made from animal bones can provide a small amount of Calcium. However, it’s important to note that bone broth alone may not be sufficient to meet the calcium needs of a dog during pregnancy or lactation, although it does contain a significant amount of other minerals.
It’s necessary to understand some many bitches in labour will be reluctant to eat. Therefore Calcium supplements are more easily consumed during this time than whole foods – especially when dealing with upset tummies.
Why is Calcium important when rearing a litter?
Calcium helps prevent or treat Eclampsia. This is caused by a nursing mum's calcium levels dropping too low due to producing milk for puppies. Dam's most at-risk are small to medium-sized dogs with a large litter, although some breeds, including Miniature Dachshunds, seem predisposed.
What is Eclampsia?
Eclampsia is an emergency medical condition and life-threatening most commonly occurs when the puppies are one to four weeks of age and the mother's milk production is at its highest. Symptoms include head tremors, increased body temperature, aggressive panting, restlessness, and muscle spasms. This condition can be easily identified with a blood test at your vet and treated quickly.
Pro-active dog owner's supplement and manage Calcium requirements from the offset to help prevent such conditions from arising.
Need more advice?
Remember that the specific calcium needs of a pregnant or lactating dog may vary based on factors such as the dog's size, breed, overall health, and individual requirements.
If you want more support and advice during your breeding journey, join the Canine Family Planner's Very Important Breeder Winner's Circle membership. Dog owners in the VIB's Winner Circle are a tight-knit community of like-minded breeders who desire access to world-class resources within a private and safe environment. It's the only place you can access me and my 23 years of experience, covering every aspect of dog breeding, pregnancies, and puppy rearing.