A bitch (female dog) can produce 1-2 litters of puppies each year. If you are not intending to let your bitch have puppies then you should have her neutered to prevent disease and extend her life expectancy.
However, if you do decide to breed from your bitch there are many things to consider to ensure that both mother and puppies are strong and healthy.
A bitch in season will often attract an army of potential suitors from the local dog population and around the time she is most fertile she may become desperate to escape to meet up with them! You will probably want to have some say in her choice and it is essential to keep her securely indoors and walk her on a lead or away from other dogs during this time. There are already many unwanted dogs and puppies, the majority arising from the consequences of such chance matings.
If you have a pedigree dog you might want to find a partner of the same breed so that the puppies are purebred and you should speak to an experienced breeder of your breed well in advance of planning the mating. Information on local breeders can be obtained from the breed club secretary or the Kennel Club web site:
Certain breeds have particular problems when giving birth so it is advisable to speak to an experienced breeder of these breeds before going ahead with a mating. There is a high incidence of some genetic problems in certain breeds and many breeds operate screening schemes to prevent breeding from affected animals. Your dog may have to undergo X-rays, eye examination or other tests at your vets before being mated.
Bitches should not be allowed to have puppies until they are fully grown and are mature themselves. This age will vary from breed to breed and between individuals. The first season may occur between 6 months and 18 months of age but few recommend allowing a bitch to become pregnant at her first season. Most breed societies recommend breeding from bitches that are older than 2 years at the time of birth.
Most bitches develop a pattern of seasons which usually occur with a regular interval between 5 months and 1 year. Seasons usually last around 3 weeks and bitches are most receptive around 10-14 days into the cycle
Bitches are usually mated twice during the receptive period. You can start counting the days of her cycle from when you first see signs of bloody discharge at the vulva. However some bitches have very light discharge and you may easily miss the first few days. The best way to find the right time of mating is to do some blood tests starting around day 7-9.
Bitches produce a hormone called progesterone at the time that they release the eggs (ovulate) to be fertilised and this can be used to time the mating. The tests have to be repeated every 2-3 days to find the right time for mating. If the bitch ovulates between day 12-15, as most of them do, two or three tests should give you the expected result.
‘Late’ bitches can require more testing, but it is worth doing these tests as these bitches would not conceive at the normal time. There are other signs to look out for like the bitch standing and turning her tail and her discharge changing from bloody to a lighter colour.
The hormonal changes following a bitch’s season follow a very similar pattern whether or not she is pregnant. Therefore many bitches develop a so-called ‘false pregnancy’ and often show changes in behaviour and may even show mammary development and milk production.
It can be very difficult to be sure your bitch is pregnant merely by feeling her tummy. In the early stages the developing foetuses are very small and easy to miss. If only 1 pup is present it might be difficult to locate even at full term. The best way to confirm that your bitch is pregnant is to ask your vet to perform an ultrasound scan around 2-3 weeks after mating. At this time the scan should also give an indication of roughly how many puppies are present. Of course some of these foetuses may not make it to full term but it provides a good guide to litter size. There is also a blood test for a hormone called ‘Relaxin’, the pregnancy specific hormone in dogs. This test can be useful if ultrasound is not available.
In the last third of the pregnancy you may want to increase the amount you feed your bitch. However, if she has a large number of puppies (or they are large) the distended womb may fill her belly and make it difficult for her to eat larger meals. It is a good idea to split feeding into 3 smaller meals throughout the day. Many breeders will switch to feeding the bitch on puppy food in the last trimester, as this has higher energy and protein level as well as more Calcium and Phosphorus (minerals which are important for the development of healthy bones and teeth).
When your bitch has given birth she will need a secure bed in which to raise the puppies. Prepare this a few weeks before the puppies are due so that the mother can get used to sleeping there and is settled for the birth.
Normal pregnancy in the bitch is 63 days from conception although smaller dog breeds often have shorter pregnancies. The time from mating to conception can be very variable in the dog and it is possible for conception to occur up to 7 days after mating. Calculation of the delivery date is best based on results of examination of smears taken from the vagina or hormone tests made before conception. Alternatively ultrasound in the first few weeks of pregnancy may allow ageing of the foetuses.