Help! Help! She's going to whelp!

I remember my dog's first litter of puppies — the preparations, the worry, the eager anticipation. Would it go all right? Would I have to resuscitate puppies? What if they got stuck? Apparently my dog did not appreciate my hovering; she waited until I was out of the house and then delivered five healthy pups on her own. So much for all that advanced training …

Most dogs whelp with relatively few problems. Of course, there will always be a few breeds that require cesarean sections because of their shape — bulldogs, for instance — and some dogs will require help the first time they deliver. If you arm yourself with a little knowledge and a few simple tools, though, whelping should be an exciting and relatively stress-free experience.

Most dogs whelp about 63 days after breeding, although this can vary (the normal range is 58-71 days). If you don't know the exact date of the breeding, you can take her rectal temperature 2-4 times a day after about the 55th day. Use a digital thermometer, and use a water-soluble lubricant (not petroleum jelly). Dogs will usually whelp within 24 hours after their temperature drops below 100°F; in fact, she'll usually begin to whelp within 4-6 hours if her temperature is below 99°F.

Monitors can also be attached to your dog 4-5 days before she is expected to whelp (Veterinary Perinatal Specialties Whelpwise Service). The monitoring equipment hooks into your telephone line and transmits information about your dog's labor to registered nurses, who are able to determine whether the labor is abnormal and requires veterinary intervention.

Have a warm, quiet place ready for her — a wooden box padded with towels or a small children's plastic swimming pool lined with washable blankets. Mom and pups should not require additional heat sources as long as the air temperature is at least 65°F in the shelter; in fact, overheating with heat lamps and heating pads may increase the risk of herpes virus in the pups.

Prepare your other supplies … clean towels to dry the puppies, iodine antiseptic and hemostats for cleaning and clamping the umbilical cord, a bulb syringe to suction out noses, a flashlight if the bed is in a dark corner, emergency numbers, nutritional supplements (read: vanilla ice cream) for you and your dog.

When your dog first begins labor, she may be nervous or restless and may pant or vomit. This stage may last for 6-12 hours. Hard labor, with visible contractions, should take less than an hour.

When the puppy begins to emerge, you may see a bulge of tissue protruding first before any legs or head. A membranous sac covers the puppy, and the mother will often tear it with her teeth. If the membrane is still intact, remove it from the puppy's mouth and nose. Usually the mother will lick and clean the pup — this stimulates respiration and helps open the airways. If she does not, you can rub the pup with a clean towel. Umbilical cords can be tied 1-2 inches from the puppy's belly, and the ends dipped in antiseptic.

Delivery of the remaining puppies should occur every 30-60 minutes after the first puppy is born. Usually, the mother will expel the placental after each puppy. If labor does not progress as expected, or you do not think all the puppies have been delivered, your dog may require veterinary treatment. Dogs with low blood sugar or calcium will have poor contractions and sometimes the uterine muscles just get tired out. If a little ice cream doesn't help, your dog may need an injection of oxytocin, which stimulates uterine muscle contractions, or some intravenous fluids.

The puppies should all nurse within the first 12 hours to receive colostrums — the antibody-rich milk that protects them from disease. After the first 24 hours, puppies should gain weight daily and should double in weight by two weeks. It may be necessary to weigh smaller pups daily to make sure they are growing adequately.

Check the mom daily to make sure she is healthy, producing milk, eating well, and nursing all her pups. Remember, she'll need to eat a good quality dog food to produce plenty of milk for her brood. Greenish or reddish brown vaginal discharge is normal for up to three weeks after delivery. If the discharge has a foul odor, or the mother's mammary glands are painful or hard or have insufficient milk, contact your veterinarian.