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Helping owners prepare for dog breeding, from pre-mating to newborn puppies

Veterinary nurses can play a huge part in the development of puppies and their bonding to the practice by educating and helping not only new puppy owners, but also breeders

Everyone loves a puppy, don’t they? Well, I love puppies, and after taking five years out working in a breeding kennels, I gained a wealth of knowledge on whelping and rearing puppies. I think that we, as veterinary nurses, can play a huge part in the development of puppies and their bonding to the practice. We’ve all unfortunately encountered poor breeding, often (but not always) brought about by lack of owner awareness and education. During our working day we try to educate and help not only new puppy owners, but also breeders.

Does your practice offer any formal help/education for people wanting to breed their dogs?

BOX (1) Pre-mating information which should be provided to all potential breeders, with information from pre-whelp through to rehoming

I think we need to provide those owners wishing to breed with as much information as possible; it’s no good “just” doing a pregnancy scan and then performing a caesarean if needed – our guidance should start pre-mating. If you offer vaginal cytology or progesterone blood testing to check mating dates, then this is the time to begin preparing potential breeders. My practice provides a booklet to all potential breeders, with information from pre-whelp through to rehoming (Box 1).

As we all know, sometimes we don’t see the pregnant bitch until she is in trouble and needs help whelping. With these owners, although they may have missed out on earlier educational opportunities, we can help them now and it’s important to give information regarding care of the new neonates. As a practice, it is a good idea to have a protocol set in place that states all post-whelp bitches are sent home with information care sheets regarding the care of neonates.

Whelping advice

It is important to ensure everyone is aware of the correct advice and practice protocols regarding a whelping bitch. If a breeder phones you for advice as they believe their bitch is whelping, it is crucial for the clinical team to be able to provide appropriate information regarding what to ask and what to recommend. Essential questions:

  • When is the bitch’s due date? Is that from the first or second mating?
  • Has she delivered any puppies yet?
  • Is it her first litter?
  • If unsettled, has she lost her “plug”?
  • If having contractions, when was the last one?
  • If actively straining, how long has she been straining for?

Once you have established the answers to these questions, you can then provide the correct next step. If the suggestion is to bring the bitch to the surgery, it is important to calm potentially worried breeders. If the bitch has already delivered some puppies, remind them to bring the puppies along, so you can pop them in the incubator while the mum potentially goes to theatre.

Puppy resuscitation

It is now common in practice to witness natural whelping, but often we must deliver puppies via caesarean section. It is crucial that everyone is prepared and trained in puppy resuscitation, as puppies that are delivered via caesarean are often slow to “get going”. The bitch will probably have been trying to deliver the puppies for a long period of time and this can result in puppies with excess respiratory secretions; this means they can take longer to start spontaneous respiration.

How can we help these puppies? Long gone are the days of rigorous puppy swinging, so here are my top tips for caesarean puppies:

  • Be prepared. Get ready all possible equipment needed prior to the caesarean starting. This equipment should include umbilical clamps, heat pads, towels, artery forceps, gloves, incubator, long glove, oxygen and cotton buds
  • Ensure all membranes are cleared from the face as soon as possible. Using a cotton bud, you can wipe around the inside of the mouth if there are lots of secretions
  • Rub the puppy gently but firmly. I normally do this with the puppy on a slight tilt so their head is downwards to allow optimum drainage of secretions
  • A gentle pinch of the skin over the ribs can aid in them taking a gasp/breath as a pain response, and this can help clear secretions
  • A gentle two-finger rhythmical tapping of the chest like a miniature coupage can help dislodge chest secretions

So now we have a litter of puppies what to do next?

Although the puppies are ultimately the breeder’s responsibility, it is also our responsibility to try to ensure things progress in the best way for the puppy. This means providing information on worming for the puppies, offering advice on the best weaning foods and ensuring that the breeder is aware of their responsibility to ensure the puppies are health checked and microchipped before they leave the breeder. Would it be possible in your practice to make a list of litters when they are born? You can then ensure breeders are contacted at two weeks to discuss worming, then at four weeks to discuss any issues with weaning, and then finally at six weeks to discuss and arrange booking for health check and microchipping before leaving for their new homes.

The new puppy owner

Often a high proportion of the puppies rehomed will be homed locally, so it is the ideal opportunity to carry on the care of the puppies. Consider working with the breeder: you could give them a hand with content for a new owner booklet, with details of your veterinary practice included for continuation of care. Once a new puppy owner registers with the practice, it’s hugely beneficial for you to start to form that client/patient bond as soon as possible. It may be the fourth new puppy you’ve registered that day, but to the new owner it is their new edition to the family and a very exciting time. Take time to show an interest in the new puppy, comment on the nice name, the type of breed, etc.

Once the puppy comes in for vaccination make a fuss of that puppy. Yes, everyone says the job is all about cuddling puppies and, although we know this isn’t true, it is a hugely important thing to do. Making a fuss of the puppy is not only nice for the owner to see, but it also starts to form that bond of the puppy with the practice. It’s so nice for the owners (and us) to see that, as their puppy develops, they are happy and even enjoy coming to the surgery. During the initial consultation there is a lot of information for new puppy owners to take on board – parasite control, house training, nutrition, neutering, registering the microchip, behaviour and basic training, etc. It can be daunting and a lot to take in, so it is handy to have something to take home. Consider making a practice “new puppy” booklet which can be either printed out or emailed to the clients; they can use it to refer back to and read once home with a cup of tea.

Puppy school and adolescent health checks are also a great way to allow the puppy and owner to become bonded to the practice. Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic has made such events difficult due to restrictions, so it’s important to think outside of the box. We now email our puppy owners twice during the first six months of ownership. The first email goes out in the month after they register, and this contains important information we would normally cover in our puppy schools: basic behaviour and training, insurance information and basic medical care. The second email goes out when the puppies are five to six months of age and covers information normally provided at the adolescent check, such as information about neutering, behaviour and parasite control. It also asks the owner to email us back if they have any concerns or questions about their puppy’s development. These emails have been well received and I plan to continue to send these post-COVID, as I feel it shows a personal touch.

Shelly Jefferies

Shelly Jefferies, RVN, NCertPT, has been a veterinary nurse for over 20 years, and has worked in a variety of veterinary settings. Her main nursing interests are wound management and canine rehabilitation. Having been a clinical coach for most of her qualified life, Shelly enjoys training student nurses and regularly presents CPD events on her favoured topics.

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