The words Dog Breed Info with the letter D inside of a black paw print

Eclampsia, Whelping and Raising Puppies

Caution: Eclampsia is common in pregnant dams nearing the whelping time and after the whelp. It is often fatal

A new breeder took the advice of an employee of a pet food store who recommended food for a pregnant dam that she new nothing about. The food did not have what the mother dog needed to carry a healthy litter to full term. Her poor nutrition while pregnant led to eclampsia and malnutrition. This caused an early labor. The dam died shortly after birth as she gave everything she had left to the pups. A couple of experienced, dedicated breeders stepped in and took on the task of raising a very preemie, orphaned litter. They made it right as best they could, but sometimes not all can be saved.

My friend got a call from a concerned owner with a dam who was not due for over a week. The dam was between 52 and 54 days pregnant. She went to visit the dog in distress to see how she was doing. The owners had told her the dam was so big she was having trouble walking. When my girlfriend saw the dog she was immediately alarmed and said "This dam needs to see a vet ASAP. This is not right". When they said she couldn't walk they meant it. She was so big she was falling over. But not just from her size. She was anemic and hypocalcemic (low calcium). Her symptoms were lethargic, disorientation, wobbly and clumsy when walking with a stiff gait. She had a fever, rapid heavy breathing and dilated pupils, which are slow to contract when exposed to light. The dog had All the symptoms of eclampsia.


Eclampsia is a deficiency of blood calcium (hypocalcaemia) that develops in the weeks after giving birth, although it may develop prior to birth (as in this case) or during lactation.

It is often due to an underactive parathyroid gland that is responsible for regulating the parathyroid hormone, which in turn regulates the amount of calcium that is stored in the bones so it can be used as needed. If there is a readily available source of extra calcium this gland can go dormant and not do it's job. Sometimes even when you have done everything right, it still just doesn't do it's job.

It can also be caused by giving a calcium supplementation during the last 2 weeks of pregnancy, inappropriate calcium to phosphorous ratio in the diet while pregnant, low body weight to litter size ratio and poor nutrition during pregnancy. Giving calcium rich foods or a puppy food (which contains calcium) in the last 10 days also increases the dams risk of getting gestational uterine inertia.

We have learned over the years that a pregnant dam needs a lot of calcium during her pregnancy. A very good quality food preferably with chicken meal; puppy or adult for the first 2 trimesters; but NOT in the last 10 days of pregnancy. You need to stop feeding puppy food, cheese, sardines, cottage cheese and any other calcium rich foods for the last 10 days of pregnancy to make the parathyroid gland wake up and learn to do it's job. It needs to start storing calcium as there is not a readily available supply. Feeding too much calcium will keep the gland sleeping/dormant and you will be setting yourself up for a hard labor, uterine inertia, a possible c-section and eclampsia postpartum.

The parathyroid gland must be triggered to release calcium from the bones into the body when the mother dog's milk comes in. We start our dams back on puppy food as soon as the pups are born and as the demand for calcium increases at about day 10-14. The parathyroid gland is sometimes unable to respond fast enough. At this time we will chew up a Tum and spit it into our dam's mouth daily until the pups are 4 weeks old. This is done as a precaution; especially with large litters.

In the wild a wolf stops eating the bones from harvests 2 weeks before delivery and stock piles them to eat when her pups are born. We used to think this was her way to have food when the pups were born, but it serves a dual purpose. The bones contain calcium and by not eating them 2 weeks prior to delivery, she wakes up her dormant parathyroid gland and her body starts to store calcium. When her pups are born she has the calcium rich bones to chew on while she is stuck in her den nursing, getting the extra calcium that she needs. It is only the 2 weeks period PRIOR to whelp that you do not want a dam to have extra calcium in her food. There is calcium in both bones and puppy food.

Since we have been doing this our c-sections have dropped by 75%. Too much calcium prior to delivery also softens the uterus preventing the dam from being able to really give a good push. As soon as a dam goes from dialating contractions to pushing contractions (ONLY if she is pushing on a pup) it can help to chew up a Tum and spit it in her mouth. Many breeders will feed vanilla ice cream in between pups. Just be sure to NOT give any calcium while they are having dialating contractions. Calcium should only be given when they move into the 3rd stage of labor and are pushing out puppies.

Hypocalcemia (low calcium) is a Medical ALERT. It can be fatal. The lack of calcium results in tonoclonic contractions of the skeletal muscles, where the muscles in the body contract convulsing and twitching, limiting movement.

On a nursing or pregnant dam additional signs are also poor maternal behavior, restlessness, nervousness, panting, whining, vomiting, diarrhea, facial itchiness, muscle tremors, where the entire body goes stiff, convulsions, dam lies down with paws rigidly extended (usually seen 8-12 hours after the first onset of symptoms).

In this particular case the dog had low calcium on day 52-54 of her pregnancy. Unbeknown to the owners they were apparently feeding a vegetable based protein dog food which was recommended by the pet store. This was NOT a good food for a pregnant dam and not one that either of us would ever recommend. As a result of the food the dog was not only hypocalemic, but she was also anemic, malnourished and in heavy calcemic shock.

On arrival to the vet the diagnosis was confirmed. The vet said in order to save the dam the puppies had to come out. The dam was also showing signs of pre-term labor. Instantly that was sadly agreed to by all. SAVE the dam. She had to be administered calcium, which is also a risk to her life before surgery could even start. She was hooked up to an IV and stabilized.

All 8 puppies came out with little hair and obviously too early to survive. They had no sucking instincts. But my friend, like me, was NOT going to give up on these pups.

Upon arriving home the dam's health was failing. There was a terrible snow storm. It was a weekend, but back to the vet she went. This time she spoke to a different vet for a second opinion who said the dam needed critical care. My friend and her husband drove through a snow blizzard an hour north to the critical care hospital. They were not there long when the critical care vets told them she was just too far gone and they were sorry. The dam left behind a very premature, orphan litter. There was no vet error of any kind, three different vets and clinics did all they could and more.

My friend was determined to put into action all we have learned over the years to save the puppies. This included heat, turning them every hour, IV sub-Q fluids under the skin, Nutri-Cal, tube feeding, antibiotics, pottying and weighing them before and after every 2 hours for the next 2 weeks. Each session over an hour. Only a very very dedicated breeder would attempt this massive sleep deprivation task.

The first puppy died the first night. The lungs just were not developed enough. My friend was questioning if she was going to be able to do this. I told her NO you absolutely cannot do it alone. It is impossible. You cannot go without sleep for 2 weeks. You must move in with me so we can do it together. And she did. She packed up the pups and her own things and moved into my home. We lost 2 more pups. One was not tolerating formula. It went in white and came out the other end as white stool. It was not digesting the food. In the end 5 puppy survived and are healthy thriving puppies. The vets are amazed. It was 2 weeks of our lives in a labor of love.

One big newborn puppy next to five smaller puppies

This picture was taken at a week old. They were finally starting to suck like newborn puppies. They had to be totally tube fed, as like a premature baby before 34 weeks they have no sucking instinct yet. They cannot multi-task and eat and breathe at the same time. The larger puppy is not part of the same litter. We had borrowed a friends dam and pups when the orphan pups were a week old. We had put all of the pups on the dam a few times a day. She didn't take them over though, as we had hoped. She was more than willing to let them nurse from her but she was not going to clean them.

Normally I would not post a photo of a dirty bed like this, as I keep my bedding very clean. When puppies have a dam to care for them the dam keeps her whelping box spotless, but when raising an orphan litter the bedding needed changed every couple of hours and the pups needed bathed. If they crawl over each other and pee there is no mom to clean it. The puppies got unforseen issues, like dry skin from the lack of a mommy dog licking care. It is unbelievable how much more work it is when you have no dam. We take our dams for granted.

A litter of puppies feeding

This is a picture of the adoptive wet dam feeding the orphan puppies at 2 weeks old.

Having the wet dam did not decrease the work load on our end, as we had to separate her from her own pups for two hours and then put the orphans on her. We had to weigh every puppy before and after the feeding and then top them off with replacer milk to make sure they got enough. The dam was awesome, but she never totally took them over and would not clean them. She would only clean her own puppies. When you use an adoptive wet dam there is a 50/50 chance a dam will take on the new pups. I have found if I add one, two or three pups to a dams litter she will take them, but to ask her to take 5 is a lot to ask. The other obstacle was they were not able to figure out the nursing for a bit when they had been tube fed for 2 weeks. In addition the dams natural pups were so big and strong that they would take all the milk. It was the best we could find. No one else we knew had a new litter the same age, they were all 3 to 5 weeks older.

Orphan and/or Preemie Litter vs. a Normal Litter

  1. Weigh them before and after every feeding vs. weigh them once a day.
  2. Turn them over every hour vs. dam does it.
  3. Potty them, every 2 hours (pee and poop) vs. dam does it.
  4. Bathe tails, sponge bath and then heat lamp daily vs. dam does it.
  5. Wash their face daily (they can get skin infections and a rash) vs. dam does it.
  6. Change bedding every 2-4 hours vs. dam keeps it clean.
  7. Tube or bottle feed them every 2 hours vs. dam does it.
  8. Keep puppies very warm, but not too warm vs. dam does it just right. You have to keep them warmer than you think and they can get dehydrated and constipated with too much heat. There is a happy medium.
  9. Mixing milk, formula and adding Nutri-cal for preemies vs. dam does it.
  10. Warming milk, cleaning equipment, bottles, tubes etc. vs. not necessary when dam is caring for puppies.

To care for special pups such as this you have to get up every 2 hours, 1:00 a.m,, 3:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., 7:00 a.m., 9:00 a.m., 11:00 a.m ., 1:00 p.m. etc and each time you need to potty and clean the pups. You have to weigh them. Then you have to calculate 1cc per ounce of body weight and tube or bottle feed them. If you have a wet dam to put them on you have to weigh the pups before and after a feeding and top them up with a formula. You have to keep a written schedule, as sometimes it is hard to get one to poop. If a pup doesn’t poop, you want to be sure he does on the next feeding. After feeding and pottying you need to give them a little damp sponge bath or a build up of urine or formula can cause skin issues. The bedding gets messy, as there is no dam cleaning house.

If your dam doesn't potty the pups or if you have an orphan litter you must potty them yourself. I like to use a soft rubber glove as your finger. A paper towel is too abrasive. You must gently massage the penis or vagina and the pee will come. Then massage the anus and the poop will come. Usually the mother does this by licking them.

Raising an orphan litter is difficult, but not as hard as a premature orphan litter. With a full term orphan litter by two weeks of age you can feed every 4 hours. However raising an orphan litter of premature puppies is the ultimate challenge and takes 2 people to save them.

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