by Jeff Smith, DVM
After years as a veterinarian, some things still surprise me. One of these is clients saying they want their beloved cat or dog to have a litter, either because “it is natural for them to experience being a mother” or because they want their children to experience “the miracle of birth.” But since we already have an overpopulation of cats and dogs, I implore you not to breed your pet!
Get creative. It is possible to have these experiences while still being a responsible steward of these cherished creatures. If you want your children to experience kittens or puppies, foster a motherless litter from the shelter.
Pregnancy and birth are obviously natural events that have been going on – primarily unaided, I will add – for millions of years. But there are inherent risks. I always tell people, “hope for the best, plan for the worst.” Talk to your veterinarian about costs for an emergency c-section and related expenses, as well as costs associated with medical complications of sick animal babies. Ask, too, about controlling external and internal parasites (fleas, ticks and intestinal parasites). Few parasite medications are safe for pregnant or very young animals.
In my clinic, I emphasize nutrition as the foundation of health. So you might imagine that nutrition is vital for a pregnant pet growing anywhere from one to 17 babies “from scratch.” She must have all the building blocks of vibrant health within her own body before she can pass these on to her babies.
If you do plan to breed your pet, pay a visit to one of our locally-owned pet food stores and let these knowledgeable people guide you toward species-appropriate diets and high quality foods. Your pet will have twice the nutritional requirements while she is pregnant and three times those requirements while she is nursing. Do not skimp on nutrition! It is by far the most important factor in the health of your pets. What you spend on high quality food you will save many times over on veterinary care! If you don’t believe me, come spend a day in my clinic and see for yourself.
When birth time arrives, watch for nesting behavior in your pet. And remember that it is completely normal for her to stop eating 24 hours before labor begins. Remember, too, that birth is a very private time. Give your pet solitude! (Yes, that means keeping the children away…) The most important factor in having a smooth birth is giving your female access to a quiet, dark, private part of your house – and then leaving her alone! Interruptions can stall labor – and stalled labor can quickly cause complications. Please, avoid the temptation to be with your pet while she gives birth. Checks should be minimal and brief. In nature, females disappear to a hidden location and give birth at night. They may be domesticated, but their instincts are still the same!
Once the kittens or puppies have all arrived, trust the mother’s instincts. She will remove and eat (yes, eat) the amniotic sacs and placentas. It may seem gross to you, but it is what they have evolved to do and is actually vital to the health of the babies. Keep all the babies with their mother full time. Let them nurse exclusively, remembering that mother’s milk is nature’s “perfect food.”
Let the mother wean the newcomers when she is ready, not on your schedule. She will naturally wean them at 7-12 weeks. So leave the babies with their mother until they are weaned and at least 10-12 weeks old. Don’t follow the misguided practice of taking animal babies from their mothers at younger and younger ages “while they are still little and cute.” Or “to give them more time to be socialized in their new home.” The best socialization they can get is being with their littermates and their mother until she weans them. Then they will be physically, nutritionally and developmentally ready to go to their new homes.
If you take away one message from this article, let it be the importance of trusting and allowing the instinctual nature of your pet to be your guide. She knows how to give birth. She is counting on you to trust her for this – and so are her cute, little newborn kittens or puppies!
Jeff Smith, DVM, and Juli Reeves Smith run Vetcetera Animal Hospital on Hendersonville Road.