Boosting Puppy Health: Key Maternal Factors

As a veterinary practitioner and breeder, Dr. Elizabeth always placed a high value on the health of her puppies. She remembered one particular litter born to her prized Welsh Corgi, Daisy. Despite taking all the necessary precautions, two of the puppies were stillborn and another three were weak and prone to illnesses. This was a devastating blow for Dr. Elizabeth who was determined to uncover the root cause of the problem. After a thorough investigation, she realized that the health of the puppies was heavily influenced by factors related to the health and well-being of their mother, Daisy. This realization led her to delve deeper into the crucial maternal factors that affect puppies’ health at birth. “Why are some puppies born stronger and healthier, while others struggle from the moment they enter the world?” she wondered.

“Undoubtedly, special attention should also be paid to the breed of the dam and the sire breed. Breed identity determines typical anatomical structure and is closely related to the predisposition to perinatal complications.”

Uchańska et al, 2022

Puppies are tiny balls of fluff that bring us so much joy and love. But do you know what plays a crucial role in ensuring their health and well-being, right from the start? You guessed it – their mama! That’s right, maternal factors are the first and foremost important factors that affect the health of puppies at birth. And, as a veterinarian or a dog breeder, it’s important to be aware of these key factors to ensure that your puppies are born happy, healthy and full of energy.

A picture of a mother dog nursing her puppie

The Health Status and Age of the Bitch

Let’s start with the most important factor – the health of the female dog. Before you even think about breeding a dog, it’s important to perform a full clinical examination, including a complete blood count and checking her vaccination status. The age of the female is also crucial, as it can impact the embryonic and fetal development.

Indeed, there is a decrease in the fertility and litter size in females over the age of five years, with a significant decrease in litter size in females over the age of seven years.

Blood cell in a blood vessel

Hematological Changes During Pregnancy

During pregnancy, certain hematological changes usually occur and should be closely monitored. These changes can include red cell and platelet counts, which can impact the course of pregnancy if excessively low.

Gestational anemia is a condition in which a pregnant female experiences a decrease in red blood cells, which can lead to a lack of oxygen being carried to the fetus. Thrombocytopenia, on the other hand, is a condition in which there is a decrease in platelets, which are necessary for blood clotting. Both conditions can lead to serious health problems for the puppies if left untreated.

Gestational anemia is more common in older females, with incidence rates as high as 60% in females over 6 years of age. This can be due to the decline in bone marrow function as the female ages, which can lead to a decrease in red blood cell production. To prevent gestational anemia, it is important for breeders to have their females thoroughly examined and tested before breeding to ensure their overall health and well-being.

Thrombocytopenia is another condition that can be more prevalent in older females, with incidence rates as high as 50% in females over 6 years of age. This can lead to increased risk of bleeding during birth, which can be a serious problem for both the female and her puppies. Treatment for thrombocytopenia during pregnancy may involve the administration of platelet transfusions or other supportive care measures.

check-up on a newborn puppy

The Importance of Breed Identity

The breed of the dam and sire plays a significant role in puppy health at birth. Breed identity determines the typical anatomical structure and is closely related to the predisposition to perinatal complications.

For example, brachycephalic breeds like English bulldogs have a higher risk of perinatal complications, with a predisposition 11 times higher than in other breeds. This is because they have a disproportionately large fetal head in relation to the size of their birth canal, which leads to elective caesarean sections being the norm, as natural delivery poses too great a risk. CT pelvimetry studies have shown that English bulldogs have a significantly smaller pelvis and pelvic canal compared to non-brachycephalic dogs of the same weight.

Other medium-sized breeds, such as Scottish terriers and Boston terriers, have also been reported to have problems with pelvic anatomy. X-ray measurements in bitches diagnosed with birth complications due to fetal-pelvic disproportion showed a smaller pelvis and dorsal-ventral flattening of the pelvic canal, whereas in Boston terrier bitches, the problem was caused by a combination of the pelvic shape and the relatively large head size of mature fetuses. This significantly increases the predisposition to obstructive dystocia and secondary uterine inertia. A study conducted on a population of 200,000 bitches registered with the Swedish Kennel Club between 1995 and 2002 showed that Scottish terriers were the most susceptible to dystocia resulting in an emergency caesarean section.

Soft Tissue Structure in the Birth Canal

The structure of the soft tissues in the birth canal can also create problems. Abnormal vaginal anatomy can affect fertility and prevent natural mating. Adhesions, septations, or double cervical orifices should be diagnosed before the mama dog is intended for breeding, and if detected, these females should be excluded from breeding as these defects could be transmitted to the next generation.

A study comparing the fertility of bitches undergoing surgical vaginal correction and those without surgery showed that although there was a relatively non-significant effect on reproductive performance, pregnancy rates were substantially lower in the group of bitches with severe abnormalities and showed a markedly greater predisposition to dystocia (=difficulties to give birth) and caesarean section than the group of bitches with mild abnormalities.

a veterinarian about to conduct a check up on a newborn puppy

The Role of Veterinarians and Dog Breeders

The welfare of breeding dogs has gained increased interest in recent years, and improved understanding of the risk of dystocia in specific breeds can help veterinarians and kennel clubs to better focus their resources. By recognizing the crucial maternal factors that affect puppy health at birth, veterinarians and dog breeders can work together to create healthier and happier litters.

Puppies’ health at birth is impacted by a variety of maternal factors, from the health status and age of the bitch to the breed identity and structure of the soft tissues in the birth canal. By recognizing these factors and making informed decisions, veterinarians and dog breeders can play a crucial role in ensuring the health and well-being of puppies.

One of the most common challenge we encounter in breeding kennels is NEONATAL MORTALITY. 

It can be very frustrating… even heart-breaking.

Good news though : you can do something about it ! 

We now have more knowledge than ever in this discipline. 

In recent years, new research brought us a much better understanding of what can be done to optimize the health of newborn puppies.

By taking this course, this is what you will learn indeed ! 

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