The whelping box

The hours I have spent on my knees at the edge of a whelping box ! In 1973 we bred our first Irish Wolfhound litter from Buckhurst Theresa. She whelped nine puppies, and I don’t remember now how long it took, but I do remember her leaning against the wall  with her shoulder  as she gritted her teeth ( literally) and pushed hard to bring those puppies into the world. Later generations of wolfhounds lay on their sides and barely pushed at all, inertia seemed more common.It came as a surprise when Erin ( from Ireland) produced all her puppies out with no vetinerary intervention – shots of Pituitrin and sometimes caesarians for those last puppies had become the order of the day.

Wolfhound litters are fraught with danger and difficulty. So many of us have slept with the litters for three weeks  – and still found overlaid puppies, as these huge exhausted mothers fall asleep without feeling the sensation a puppy under their shoulder or legs. Its the reason many of us only had a litter every second or third year. The PSS ( liver shunt) blood test is a stressful time too, as although most go clear there is still the risk that one of your precious ones will have a faulty liver and you have to decide what to do next.

Moving on to the present and the Basset Fauve de Bretagne. Only one of the little hounds has needed surgical help with whelping, Cracker found it hard to produce her big first son in her first litter and gave up pushing thereafter, needing a caesarian. The other family behaves very differently. They take a very long time getting into the active whelping stage. For a couple of days one hears puffing and panting around the place. Annie took over the darkest spot in the house, dragging her preferred bedding in there and lurking, occasionally kicking the blankets around. Lucy loves her sofas and tried out all of them for days, scratching the covers away and feeling contented when she was wrapped up like a mummy, if she could manage that. Later she constructed a nice dry den under an upturned wheelbarrow and spent hours getting this exactly as she wanted it.

The panting becomes more and more noticeable, and at this point we move in to the whelping room which has always been prepared ahead of the due date and shown to the mother-to-be, who usually takes no interest in it. Under the wheelbarrow, behind the shed or in a grimy corner  would be the preferred spot, left to themselves.

Its common to think there is a 63 day ( 9 week) gestation period, but its actually 60 days from ovulation and in my experience fauve dogs don’t miss that day if they can possibly help it ! Lucy and Annie’s litters arrived 60 days from the date the dams were mated, even though in Lucy’s case I wasn’t sure when that was….. but there was a single day when Duke could have got to her – and despite them ignoring each other in my presence, something more must have happened ….

Nowadays I don’t keep a vast supply of stock to hand. I ensure I have some calcium Pet Tabs, as sometimes the bitches become shivery part way through a whelping and my vet suggests one or two of these will help during the delivery of a litter – where a bitch is prepared to swallow anything half way through a whelping, not all do. My whelping boxes are a succession of  disposable cardboard ones, with wooden dowelling rails to keep the puppies away from the edge. These might save a puppy from being squashed between a tired bitch and the box side, although in my experience these little mothers have sensations that ” The Princess and the Pea” fairy story heroine would envy, they know where their puppies are at all times. I have kitchen towels, my blunt ended thermometer, the scales, hand sanitisers ( medical version – scrubbed hands first, up to the elbows ), clean towels and lots of dog bedding, ideally brand new. I have some bitch replacement milk in the cupboard, and some eye droppers rather than  bottles and teats.

The whelping bitches won’t have eaten for at least a day.Their shivering and panting, scratching at beds and pacing around, builds up until you feel exhausted for them. Especially when the first preparatory “not quite contractions but heading that way” stage lasts for 12 hours and you are leaned upon, sat upon, and shivered at regularly through the night as you sit vigil with them. Did I mention the whelping room has a big sofa, a TV and everything I need for a stay of a week or so?

Finally the puppies are almost ready to appear.A t last the tail goes up, crank handle style, and some proper pushes begin. Sometimes the little mother feels sick and retches, or groans with the pains, the whole process isn’t called labour for nothing….. and within an hour or maybe two the first puppy puts in its appearance. It can be scary when this appearance is two feet and perhaps a tail…. especially fora first puppy. One hopes they come within their buffering “plastic bag” but they don’t always. Poor Marmalade once had a big puppy born feet first ( breech) and tummy outwards, the worst possible angle to get him into the world. The books say you can help the process along, but its pointless going in too early or doing other than working with the contractions and waiting until there is enough puppy visible to grip with a towel and to pull – with the contraction – in the direction of the bitches’ stomach, never downwards or outwards but upwards and inwards. Marmie’s puppy must have  hit the spot to empty her anal glands at the same time, another eye watering occupational hazard for the human assistant.

Arrival – and some bitches are so mad for placenta you can’t whip it away from them. Not a great need to, as they are full of iron and its instinctive for the bitch to remove anything which might attract a predator – also, why leave this great meal, when their instinct tells them won’t be able to go out hunting for a while? This gives me the chance to get the puppy into a big handful of paper towels, cleaning the mouth first and giving a  gentle yet vigorous towelling to the ribs to get that important first gasp of air into them. Once they are breathing for themselves , my hands go down to the umbilical cord to compress it  hard with a pinch, and rip – pushing back in towards the puppies body –  at the exact place where its programmed to tear, about half an inch out from the body. No scissors for me, I imitate what the bitch would be doing if she wasn’t so interested in the cleaning up process. By this time the rest of the bag will be off the whelp and the mother will be keen to clean the puppy to her own high standards. As the next puppy arrives the last one can be picked up and quickly weighed and checked for markings etc. My notepad is at the ready, in case  a vet needs the history at a later stage. Fortunately this is rarely required. Later on I review just how many were breech, or head first – and can I still match the note of any markings to the actual puppies now they are dry? This is the reason many breeders use coloured tapes, as with an entire litter of little brown whelps (with no white on them) its tricky to do the daily weigh- in.

Strong puppies will wriggle themselves onto a nipple and suck as if their life depends upon it, which of course it does.  Its normal for a puppy to be dazed and confused for a while, to recover from its delivery and dry out for a few minutes before trying for the milk line. Little Minnie from my third litter fell back a day or two after her birth,we quickly realised she wasn’t doing very well. I gave her glucose and water mixture in an eye dropper and held her onto a teat to suck before she became too weak to do so. This was all she needed. A day or so later she had so benefited from the extra care ( at least an eye dropper of rehydration every couple of hours followed by individual time on the breast) and she was fending for herself. We kept up the attention, moving to bitch replacement milk to help the supplementation along, and she grew into a lovely strong bitch, one of the biggest in the litter when mature. A great improvement on the feisty little spider we started out with. Had she been a ” fading puppy”, upsetting her mother by crying incessantly and not doing well, she would have been pushed to the edge and left to die. Not that humans allow that, of course, we would ask the vet to either help or to put to sleep. One day I may have a fauve puppy who is not healthy enough to thrive on its own, this is  sad to think of, but fortunately so far this healthy little breed has produced healthy little puppies who grow to adulthood with no difficulties.

As time goes on and I learn more by watching the little mothers  my respect for them and their instincts grows. They know better than us when to push and when to rest. They are devoted to their puppies, and keep comfort breaks for themselves to a bare minimum. As their puppies settle into a sleep/ eat/ sleep regime, so they will leave their babies for longer periods.

More experienced mothers enjoy their litters tremendously… it is great to wake up  and see them lying there, blissed out having suckled the puppies overnight . I don’t really need to be there overnight on the sofa for a week or more, but do it as I too bond with the mother, and am there if a comfort break is needed overnight. To be aware of  eclampsia and risks of insufficient calcium  I continue to give a calcium tablet daily for around three weeks, and  I provide big bowls of lactol or whelpi bitch replacement milk drinks ( as well as water) to the mothers. They can expect to be fed exactly what they want to eat, which for the 2014 litters is headed up with casserole steak and chicken thighs. Ideally they will fancy the Royal Canin ” Starter” food, which is amazingly nutritious and which the baby puppies will move on to when they are weaned.

Time moves on, and in a few weeks time the teeth will be through and the little mothers will spend less and less time with their puppies. The day will come when a curious older sister or auntie is allowed in to babysit –  they are so eager to visit – and by around six weeks of age the mothers will have handed most of the care over to the pack females, who adore puppies and are so gentle with them. The puppies will be learning incredibly quickly from every dog and human they meet, and will be in and out of the house as a “swarm” , getting into everything and encouraging even the most staid adults to drag tempting toys across their path. Everyone loves puppies, and I really think the young bitches do an apprenticeship in mothering ahead of their own turn. The retired grannie generation provides the discipline – and in the case of Cracker, the essential scary bossy hound to be respected and bowed to. I will know all the puppies  by name and they will start to respond it as well as to the Acme 210 whistle… its my aid to recall, and begins when they are three weeks old.

Ten weeks arrives, and by then the ” friends and family” puppy judging will have been held. I hope to have worked out who I am keeping and who is heading off to their new homes. No matter how much I prepare, its still a sad day for me to say goodbye to these little characters, as they are used to this home and the pack and clearly expect nothing better. The new home criteria has to be that it will  be even better in terms of attention, love and care than mine would be.

We love to invite everyone back to the six month puppy party, complete with silly games, and host a frantic mob of youngsters becoming re acquainted and completely ignoring their owners in all the excitement. Which is ok, as it is their time, and I can catch up on stories of bad and good behaviour and we can share some laughs about their various antics.

Eventually the adult pack will meet an ” ex puppy” again, romp the youngster around the garden,  remind him or her of their  place in the order of things. Every “fauve family member” is accepted by the home pack if he or she came from here. The adults will play with the young ones, or if the visitor is older it will be joining the supervisory group on a sofa.

It has been one of my favourite things to do, breeding basset fauves and launching them into the world as companions, working hounds or show dogs. I have made some good friends along the way.