When we are caring for a pregnant bitch, everything is building up, and everything goes step by step, right up to the time of whelping. We want both the mother bitch and the future puppies to be as safe and healthy as possible. Since a prolonged and/or difficult labour will jeopardise the health of both, we need to know as much as we can before whelping. This includes regular veterinary check-ups during pregnancy to secure the bitch. It also requires us to know the basics of dog labour so that we can be better prepared for any eventuality.

At Hospital Veterinari Glòries we help you to learn more about dog whelping by answering the question: how long does whelping take in dogs? We look not only at the duration of a canine birth, but also at what you can expect in general from this special moment.

How do you know if a dog is in labour?

Before we explain how long a bitch’s labour lasts, we need to know how to identify the signs of whelping. These signs will indicate that whelping has begun and puppies are on the way. They include the following:

  • Drop in rectal temperature to 37.5°C or below, 12-18 hours before labour begins, although this does not occur in all bitches.
  • Loss of appetite about 12-24 hours before parturition.
  • In the 12-24 hours prior to whelping, the bitch will be restless and may be looking for a place to build a nest. If we have not already done so, we should prepare a comfortable and suitable place with blankets in a clean, warm and safe place. If she does not choose this place and opts for another, do not force her. We can move the new litter after the birth.
  • The bitch’s restlessness may indicate that she is beginning to feel contractions, i.e. the movements of the uterus that will help expel the puppies.
  • When the first stage of labour begins, the bitch may start panting heavily, licking her private parts and even vomiting.
  • If we see yellowish fluid, it is probably amniotic fluid from a ruptured birth sac. The first puppy should be born within minutes after this occurs.

Timing of a bitch’s birth

If we want to know how long a bitch’s whelping actually takes, we need to understand what happens at each of the stages. These are as follows:

  • First stage: This first stage of whelping lasts from 6 to 12 hours. It produces contractions that dilate the cervix so that the puppies can be born. This stage may be undetectable, although some bitches will be restless or uncomfortable and may continue to lick their private parts.
  • Second stage: Contractions become more intense and the first puppy will press against the cervix, stimulating the bitch to push. When the cervix is fully dilated, the puppy can come out. The puppy may be in an intact amniotic sac, but it is possible that it has ruptured inside the bitch. The bitch will give birth only a few minutes after the sac ruptures. The bitch will lick the puppy and cut the umbilical cord through chewing. Birth time between puppies varies, but usually ranges from 15 minutes to 2 hours.
  • Third stage: This stage of whelping corresponds to the expulsion of the placenta within minutes of the puppy’s birth. It is common for the bitch to ingest it. It is a good idea to count individual placentas as there should be as many as there are puppies. An unexpelled placenta could lead to infection.

Length of whelping in bitches

The gestation period of a pregnant bitch usually lasts between 63 and 67 days. After this time, the bitch can go into labour at any time. The length of whelping itself is variable, so we cannot say that there is a specific length of whelping for each bitch. However, there are some general times we can give when it comes to whelping a bitch.

While it is possible for a pregnant bitch to have only one puppy, this is rare. In most cases, the litter will be 4 to 6 puppies. This depends on certain factors, including breed. The birth of each puppy is preceded by an active whelping period which normally lasts between 5 and 30 minutes. The interval between births averages 15 minutes to 2 hours, but this does not mean that it will be the same for each puppy in a litter.

Using our calculations, we can say that the average length of a dog’s birth will be 6 to 8 hours. A healthy whelping may take less or more time, depending on a number of factors. We have already detailed the different stages of canine whelping, but the first stage can last up to 36 hours.

Because the times between puppies can differ, it can be difficult to know when labour is complete. For this reason, it is good to have a veterinarian confirm the number of puppies with an x-ray or ultrasound during pregnancy. If we see the mother pushing for more than 30-60 minutes without a puppy being born, we should call the vet immediately.

In some cases, a miscarriage can occur with a stillborn puppy. In these cases, it is common for the mother to eat the puppy. Have you been present at the birth of a dog and do our estimates match your experience? We’d love to hear more about the canine birth you witnessed.