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Pregnancy: What to Expect if Your Pet Is Expecting

Is your furry best friend expecting a litter of puppies or kittens? Or, are you considering breeding your pet?

It’s understandable why you might want to see more of your furbaby in a litter of new little bundles of joy who share their DNA. After all, your pet is adorable and sweet, and probably adds a lot of happiness to your life. Who wouldn’t want more of that?

However, even though having a litter of puppies or kittens can be a special experience, pregnancy in pets is something that should be considered very carefully, both in terms of the time commitment and emotional investment — not to mention financial considerations.

If you do feel ready for your dog or cat to breed — or, if your pet is already pregnant — here’s what you can expect during their pregnancy.

Symptoms: Clues your pal may be pregnant

If you have a female dog or cat who’s unspayed, has been around a male of the same species, and is at least 4-6 months old, pregnancy is possible. Here are some signs you might notice…

  • Enlarged mammary glands, and enlarged or darker nipples.
  • Vaginal discharge about one month after mating (in dogs).
  • Weight gain and a swollen-looking belly — although just like humans, some pets might not have a noticeable “baby bump” until they’re further along in the pregnancy.
  • Possibly mild vomiting early in the pregnancy, similar to morning sickness. 
  • Sometimes, a loss of appetite or becoming less active. 

Keep in mind that vomiting, appetite loss, a swollen abdomen, and lethargy can also be signs of a health problem — check with your vet to know for sure.

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Pregnancy testing for dogs and cats

Unfortunately, there’s no over-the-counter “pregnancy test” for pets. So, you’ll want to monitor for symptoms, but also bring your pal for a veterinary visit if you suspect they may be pregnant.

Here are some of the methods your vet can use to check for pregnancy...

  • Palpation (at 25-30 days): This simple test involves feeling your pet’s abdomen for fetal “bumps” and a thickened uterus, which are signs of a pregnancy. While not always accurate, this classic test can also give an estimated number of puppies or kittens. Just don’t try it at home, as you don’t want to risk palpating too hard and hurting the babies. 
  • Hormone testing (at 25 days): A blood test is available for a hormone called relaxin, which indicates pregnancy. 
  • Ultrasound (at 25-30 days): An ultrasound may give you a view of the puppies or kittens, and detect their heartbeats. 
  • X-rays (at 49 days): Toward the end of pregnancy, an X-ray is considered the most accurate method of counting puppies or kittens. It’s generally recommended prior to birth, so you know the size of the litter and can be sure your pet has delivered all of the babies safely. A single set of X-rays this far into the pregnancy is generally considered safe, but check with your vet for their recommendation.

Preparing for puppies or kittens

A dog or cat's gestation period is typically 63-65 days — 9 weeks, as opposed to the 9 months for human beings. In both species, litter sizes usually range from 1-8 puppies or kittens, with the average being somewhere in the middle.

During the pregnancy, there are a few things you’ll want to do:

  • Schedule veterinary visits as recommended. This will ensure your buddy (and her developing pups or kittens) is as healthy as possible. Routine monitoring can also help to detect certain complications so they can be addressed early.
  • Prepare for labor. At your exams, ask about after-hours care, so you’ll be prepared for overnight births closer to your pal’s due date. See if your vet has an emergency phone number, or find out which local emergency clinic they recommend.
  • A diet change. Talk to your vet — a diet change to puppy or kitten food (rather than adult food) may be needed, depending on your pal’s weight and medical history. There are no prenatal vitamins for pets, and they’re not necessary so long as your pal is on an appropriate diet, but check with your vet to determine whether vitamins or supplements are appropriate.
  • Feeding changes. Further into the pregnancy (when the expectant mother’s belly has grown), you may want to feed your pal smaller meals more often, since the uterus may put some pressure on the stomach and make it difficult to have a big meal.
  • Prepare the home. Give your pet access to a comfortable nesting area, as she’ll exhibit “nesting” behaviors toward the end of her pregnancy. A box she can easily get in and out of (but that the newborns won’t be able to climb out of) with clean blankets or towels is perfect, so long as there's enough room for the new mom to lie comfortably without sitting on the new pups or kittens. Place the box in a quiet, warm area of the home, ideally somewhere that is easy to clean. (If your furkid is determined to nest somewhere else in the house, you may need to “go with it” and let her settle where she wants to, to avoid stressing her.)
  • Prepare yourself. Do your research on what to expect, so you feel prepared intellectually and emotionally for the “big day” (or “big night,” since labor often happens overnight). Know what to expect and what warning signs to look for that could indicate an emergency.

A healthy delivery

When your pet becomes restless, starts digging or scratching around their nest, pacing, vocalizing, or panting… usually, that means delivery is 12-36 hours away.

For another clue, you can also start measuring your pal’s rectal temperature (ask your vet team how to do this) 1-2 weeks before their due date. A dog or cat’s normal temperature is 100-101 degrees. But if it drops below 100 degrees, that could mean labor is about 24 hours away.

In most cases, dogs and cats can handle the labor and delivery on their own. There’s no need to interfere, other than offering some comforting words and moral support. However, it’s best for you to be nearby in case of any complications, which can be life-threatening.

This is especially true if you know your pet may be at a higher risk. For example, if your pal has had labor complications with previous pregnancies, or if they’re a small breed dog that has large puppies and may need a C-section, or if they’re a first-time mom. Here are some symptoms to watch for — if you see these, you’ll want to call your vet or seek emergency care right away:

  • Severe discomfort.
  • Sudden lethargy or exhaustion, or a fever.
  • Fresh bloody discharge from the vagina that lasts more than 10 minutes.
  • Intense straining and contractions that are unproductive after 20 minutes.
  • Collapse, or severe shaking/trembling.
  • A puppy or kitten visible in the birthing canal that is not fully delivered within a few minutes.
  • More than 2 hours between each puppy or kitten.
  • Anything unusual — if you’re not sure, it’s better to call your vet and double check!
  • If you suspect a retained placenta. 

The number of expelled placentas (the “after-birth, which looks like greenish-brown discharge) should equal the number of puppies or kittens — if it’s less, they need urgent vet care. Watch closely when you count, because the new mom may quickly eat some or all of the placentas, which is normal.

Lend a helping hand if needed

Most of the time, your amazing pet will handle everything themselves — not only the birth, but also taking her babies out of the amniotic membrane, chewing off the umbilical cord, and cleaning the newborns to dry them and stimulate them to take their first breath.

But, if she has any difficulty (especially if this is her first pregnancy), you can help with some of these tasks, including:

  • Removing a puppy or kitten from the amniotic sac, if mom doesn’t do it herself. Gently tear the membrane open to free the newborn. This may be necessary if mom is overwhelmed, or busy birthing the next baby. It’s important because otherwise the newborn could drown in the fluid.
  • Severing the umbilical cord (again, if mom doesn’t do it herself). To do this, use a sturdy string (such as unwaxed dental floss) and tie a tight knot around the cord about 1 inch from the baby’s belly. Tie another knot a little further up the cord (in the direction of mom’s body) and cut the cord between the knots, using a clean pair of scissors.
  • Check the new puppies/kittens for movement and breathing. Rub them with a clean towel to dry them (wet newborns loose body heat very fast) and to stimulate breathing. Use a small eye-drop pipette or pediatric bulb syringe to gently suck any fluid from their nose.

Place them next to mom as soon as possible, or keep them warm with a microwavable bean bag or other gentle heat source. Don’t place them right on the heat source, or they could get burned — instead, place them in a box with the heat source to one side with a towel over it, so they can crawl closer to it or away from it as needed.

Newborn puppies and kittens should be able to nurse on their own shortly after birth. If they have any difficulty, or if their mother seems to lack interest in them, ask your vet about what to do. Again, most deliveries go smoothly au natural. So, soon enough, you’ll get to enjoy some time with new little bundles of joy as they grow and discover the world around them!

Preventing surprise pregnancies

Was this pregnancy totally unexpected? Or, would you like this to be your pal’s last/only litter?

It’s important to know that unspayed female dogs and cats have a very strong urge to find a mate when they’re in heat. So strong that sometimes they can slip out the door or dig under a fence to look for a mate. So, spaying is the best thing you can do to prevent future pregnancies.

Talk to your vet about spaying mom after the new puppies and kittens are born. Or, if your pet needs a C-section, ask your vet if it’s possible to spay your pet at the same time — this is common, so long as the procedure is routine and your pet’s safety isn’t in question.

Also, if you recently found out your pet might be pregnant, it is possible to spay them during the pregnancy, assuming you don’t want them to have the puppies or kittens. Ask your vet about this — and know that the earlier this is done, the better.

But if you do want to have furry little newborns in the home, enjoy it! This can be an amazing experience, and a special time to share with your furry best friend and your entire family.

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