Managing the Working Female During Pregnancy by Dr. Henry De Boer Jr.
Question: I compete with an intact female that I would like to breed. What is reasonable and safe to do with her during pregnancy?
Answer: Sooner or later, most of us who work breeding females are faced with the question of how much work and activity is prudent during pregnancy. Invariably the heat cycle that you will want to use for breeding will occur at the least opportune time at a critical point in training or with an important event upcoming. In my opinion, it is not only safe, but in fact advisable, to keep these dogs active and working during their pregnancy until the changes that occur necessitate altering the type and level of activity. Through the years I have witnessed far fewer problems in females during the birth process and afterwards when they have been maintained in good physical condition than in those that have been pampered. Consequently, our goals during pregnancy should be to keep her in good physical condition as well as on a nutritional plane that allows for some work during pregnancy, and a rapid return to work after pregnancy.
During pregnancy there are hormonal, anatomic and physiologic changes in the body. These changes can affect a females willingness and ability to work. Understanding the changes that are occurring will help dictate what level and type of activity is reasonable, beneficial and safe.
The hormonal changes that occur during pregnancy (as well as false pregnancy) can play a very significant role in a bitches willingness to work. This is highly variable from one dog to another. I have seen some females that become almost completely disinterested in performing and others that seem more willing to work than ever. If your girl is one of those that lacks willingness you will probably put yourself and the dog "over the edge" by insisting on high level performance. Additionally, you may very well affect future enthusiasm for work by pushing too hard at this time. My best advice in this situation is to back off on the training and competing, and simply try to keep her as active and happy as possible. If she is willing to work, I recommend continuing to do so until which time the anatomic and physiologic changes that occur make continued work difficult or unsafe.
As any mother will tell you there are also physiologic and anatomic changes that occur during pregnancy. The predominant changes (as they relate to working) are the obvious increase in size as well as a low level anemia that develops. Fetal growth is limited to approximately 30% during the first half of pregnancy. Accordingly, the vast majority of size increase in the pups and the female occurs during the last half of pregnancy. Due to this rapid increase in growth and associated fluid volume, a relative anemia develops during the last half of gestation. Given these facts we need to alter the type and duration of work during that interval. Many females will limit themselves as size and anemia develop. However many high drive females insist on pushing themselves, forgetting that their muscle-skeletal system may not be capable of handling the increased load of pregnancy. With these females we must make sure that they are not attempting to do things that might cause injury to themselves, such as high jumps or launching off stairwells.
In situations such as these, the pups are rarely affected adversely due to the cushion of all the fluid that surrounds them. I have however witnessed ligament tears as well as fractures in some of these pregnant females. Pups can be adversely affected if there are periods of high stress during pregnancy. During high stress situation there is a surge of adrenal hormones that can potentially stimulate an abortive effort. In general during the last half of pregnancy every effort should be made to keep the activity level as high as possible while avoiding those circumstances that could lead to injury or high stress.
Keeping a female in good physical condition during pregnancy will help her to get back to work more rapidly after whelping. Equally important is to get her body weight back to normal. Most working dog owners feed very high quality diets and these diets can be continued through pregnancy. Where most owners have difficulty is knowing how much to feed during pregnancy. Since most growth in the pups occurs in the last half of pregnancy, this is when food volume needs to be increased. A 25% increase in food from that required for maintenance is usually appropriate for an average sized litter. It should be noted that lactation increases the nutritional demands of the female far more than pregnancy. A good rule of thumb that I have used in lactating females with average litter size is:
First week of lactation feed 1.5 times the amount of food for maintenance. Second week of lactation 2 times the amount of food for maintenance, and for the third week through weaning 3 times the amount of food for maintenance.
Using this formula, most owners will be able to get the female back to her normal weight with relative ease.
Getting a working female through a pregnancy without problems not only gets her back to work sooner, but also helps insure a healthy litter. There are always a number of possible problems, but by using good judgement in terms of work and activity levels as well as nutrition, we minimize some of the variables that are within our control.
Dr. Henry De Boer Jr. practices veterinary medicine at his Pioneer Valley Veterinary Hospital in western Massachusetts. An accomplished competitor in the sport of Schutzhund, his involvement with working dogs dates to the mid 1960's when he began training and handling hunting dogs. In 1984 he became involved with the sport of Schutzhund and has gradually risen to the level of national competitor. Known primarily as a motivational trainer, he also provides training assistance to others to help them achieve their training goals. His wide range of experience lends a unique understanding to the special veterinary problems of working canines and their handlers. Dr. De Boer provides specialized online veterinary services to working dogs and their owners on his innovative web site http://www.workingk-9vet.com Working K9 Veterinary Consultation Services.