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Trouble During Active Labor & Post-Birth Illnesses in Pets

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If your pet is having trouble during active labor or postpartum, these are considered “RED” – or true emergencies – on our Fast Track Triage system. We advise you to seek immediate veterinary care. Please call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team knows to expect you!


Some of the most rewarding, but also challenging, patients in the ER are pets who are having trouble giving birth (known as dystocia) or who are experiencing life-threatening complications post-delivery. If you are a pet parent with a pregnant pet or even an experienced breeder, we recommend reading about these potential labor and post-delivery risks so you can be prepared in the event of an emergency. 

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The Stages of a Normal Labor 

During normal labor, dogs and cats go through three stages: 

  • Stage One
    • The pet’s temperature drops and she becomes uncomfortable. Signs include panting, restlessness, shivering, and nesting. 
      • Note: There is NO abdominal straining, and the temperature stays low. These are key to being able to differentiate Stage One from Stage Two!  
    • This stage can last up to 36 hours, but usually lasts 6-12 hours. 
  • Stage Two 
    • This stage has been reached if one or more of the following signs occur: 
      • Rectal temperature goes from low to normal 
      • Visible abdominal straining is observed 
      • Fetal fluids are passed 
    • This stage usually lasts 3-12 hours. 
  • Stage Three  
    • Delivery of placentas  
    • Complications rarely ensue during this stage.

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When to Bring a Pet to the ER During Labor  

Know that in most healthy, conscientiously bred dogs and cats, dystocia is rare. However, when dogs or cats of different sizes or breeds mate, moms are often not given adequate nutrition. Also, with certain breeds, dystocia is not only common – it’s an expected consequence of breeding 

A diagnosis of dystocia – and reasons to bring your pet to the animal ER immediately – include the following symptoms:  

  • Rectal temperature has been down but then increases to normal or above normal range with no signs of labor 
  • Fetal fluids were observed 2-3 hours ago, but there are no signs of labor 
  • Labor initiated, but then becomes absent for 2-4 hours 
  • Labor starts normally but then progressively becomes weaker 
  • Strong and persistent non-productive labor for more than 20-30 minutes 
  • Green vulvar discharge is present with no fetuses delivered
  • Pelvic fractures are present, or fetus is stuck in the birth canal
  • Second stage labor has been occurring for more than 12 hours 
  • Severe genital hemorrhage observed
  • All the placentas are not delivered within 6 hours after the last pup (Note: It is normal for the mom to eat the placentas, making a discrepancy in fetus to placenta ratio common)
  • The lochia (vaginal discharge) is putrid or foul smelling 
  • Rectal temperature is greater than 103°F

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When to Bring Your Pet to the ER After Delivery

Once all the puppies or kittens are delivered, the mother’s work is not yet over. Mom needs to feed her newborns – which is very energy/nutrient demanding. Two fairly common complications for lactating dogs and cats are mastitis and eclampsia. 

  • Mastitis is an infection of mammary glands and symptoms include an elevated temperature, lethargy, neglecting/not feeding puppies or kittens, vomiting, diarrhea, and firm, painful, and swollen mammary glands.  
  • Eclampsia is almost always caused by inadequate nutrition, leading to the mom’s total calcium level becoming severely low. When calcium drops too low, mom may experience tremors or have seizure-like activity that causes the body temperature to rapidly increase. This condition is extremely life-threatening. 
Your lactating dog or cat should go to the ER if: 
  • Mom stops nursing or is neglecting her puppies/kittens 
  • Mammary glands are firm and painful to the touch, and rectal temperature is elevated
  • Mom stops eating
  • Mom experiences frequent vomiting, diarrhea, or progressive lethargy
  • Mom is constantly shaking, tremoring, or having seizures 

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What to Expect When Coming to the ER

If your new mother or soon-to-be mother does need to come to the ER, here are a few things to keep in mind:  

  • Mom and her puppies/kittens’ immune systems are compromised or immature. Thus, the veterinary team wants them in-hospital only very briefly. It is common for dogs and cats who received a C-section to return home within just a few hours of surgery.
  • If mom needs to remain in-hospital while puppies/kittens are discharged home, the veterinary team may want the puppies/kittens returned to nurse, or they may need to be bottle fed. Make sure to call before showing up to the animal ER so they can provide the safest recommendations – and hopefully, save you the trips back and forth!
  • When transporting a pregnant or postpartum pet, have someone sit with her in case any fetuses are delivered during transit, as well as to prevent injuries to the mother or any puppies/kittens. Also – bring several clean towels!  

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How to Prevent Complications During and After Labor:  

To help prevent many of the complications associated with gestation, birth/labor, and lactation, stay in close contact with your primary veterinarian throughout the process. As mentioned before, the majority of births are without complication if the mother is bred conscientiously, provided with good nutrition, and monitored closely.  

A Note to Breeders: 

If you choose to breed your cat or dog, please only choose to breed them with other very healthy pets with no known genetic disorders. Provide good nutrition throughout pregnancy and lactation (e.g., freefed puppy food or high-quality food intended for lactation or gestation). Once the first stage of labor begins, provide mom a nice quiet place to “nest”. Then, check in periodically, but overall, leave her alone. After a successful delivery, let nature take its course. If the puppies and kittens are active and eating, and mom is able to eat and care for them, they will likely be healthy new members of your family! 

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If you have any questions or concerns about your pet’s pregnancy or post-labor symptoms, contact your primary veterinarian or local animal emergency hospital. When an emergency visit is necessary, always call ahead of your arrival so the veterinary team can take quick action as soon as you arrive.  

References:  
Bojrab MJ. And Monet E. Mechanisms of disease in small animal surgery, 3rd edition. 

More Reading: 

fire safety for pets, pet evacuation, house fire, pet owners, emergency planning, pet emergency, Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota

Animal Emergency & Referral Center of Minnesota, Fast Track Triage, color-coded triage system, pet emergency, Twin Cities emergency vet, Minnesota emergency vet, Saint Paul emergency vet, Oakdale emergency vet


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