Cesarean section (C-section) emergencies in dogs – when to go to the Vet

Pregnancies in dogs can be an exciting time for pet owners. Who doesn’t love the idea of new puppies? However, sometimes the birth process doesn’t go as planned, and an emergency cesarean section (C-section) is required to help birth the puppies. At Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital (BBVSH), we are trained and equipped to handle even the most critical, life-threatening emergencies such as C-sections, with specialists on call to handle any medical or surgical issue.

We checked in with our team of board-certified surgeons and emergency and critical care specialists to give us the facts about emergency C-sections, when to consider them, and what this means for you and your pet.

What is a C-section?

A C-section is major surgery performed to remove puppies from the uterus. This is most commonly performed as an emergency procedure when there is difficulty with natural birth, and/or there is concern for the health of the puppies.  C-sections are used to increase survival rates for both the mother and the puppies. As this surgery involves both the mother (dam) and the puppies, a team including a veterinary surgeon, a criticalist, and a group of registered veterinary technologists(nurses) are needed to perform the operation, and help the mother and her puppies recover.

Most dogs recover quickly from this procedure; however, if your dog was in labor for several hours before surgery was performed, her recovery will be slower, and she will need extra attention and help with her puppies.

Sometimes a C-section may be booked in advance if a pregnant dog is known to have an abnormally small pelvis, or if other issues have been diagnosed during the pregnancy. For example, X-rays may reveal the puppies have large skulls or are in awkward positions. If a dog has previously had a C-section and once again is bred, another C-section may also be needed. 

What does natural labor look like in dogs?

When it comes time for your dog to give birth, you may notice that she is far more restless than normal and she may start to paw at her bed, making a nest.

She will have limited to no appetite starting about 24 hours before going into active labor. Your dog may start to get sick and vomit, and she will have mucus discharge. Your dog may start licking her vulva. All of these things are normal for natural labor and are not signs you need to be concerned about.

In cases where help is expected to be needed with labor, you can monitor the mother’s temperature, or more often around the expected time of birth, progesterone levels can be monitored as a relatively good indicator of when labor is imminent. 

Signs of complications in labour – when to seek emergency help for your pet

 Most times your dog can give birth at home with little to no help from you. However sometimes complications arise, and you will need to bring your dog to a vet.

  • Has the dog been pushing for extended periods? – Pushing can take time but it should not take your dog more than 45-60 minutes to push out each puppy and contractions should not last more than 45 minutes before the first puppy. If it does, contact your vet.
  • Is your dog is showing signs of extreme fatigue or pain, vomiting, and excess bloody discharge? – These signs could mean that a puppy is stuck in the birthing canal blocking all other puppies from coming out. If you see these signs, it is time to seek medical attention.
  • Has the length of time between each puppy been more than 4 hours? – The amount of time between each puppy will vary but it can last as long as 4 hours. If you know, can see, or feel, that there are more puppies, but it has been more than 4 hours since the last puppy was born, then it is time to see an emergency vet as soon as possible. 

What happens during a C-section procedure in dogs?

If the dog has been in labor for several hours, it is likely to be dehydrated to some degree. Administering fluids and electrolytes intravenously is often the first step in stabilizing the mother for surgery. The vet must also determine if the dog is in shock and treat her accordingly. General anesthesia can be damaging to mother small puppies and so we want to make sure the mother is as adequately prepared as possible.

The lower abdomen is then shaved and cleaned.  General anesthesia is given, with local anesthesia, such as an epidural, also being used to lessen the amount of general anesthetic needed. Everything done by the surgeon from this point onward happens quickly.

An incision is made in the abdomen, the uterus is then brought to the surface and incised (cut open), the pups and their placentas are gently removed. They are removed from their amniotic sac and handed off to a team of assistants who work on getting them warm and awake while the rest of the puppies are removed.  Sometimes the decision is made in advance, or the situation requires that a spay (removal of the uterus and ovaries) is performed at the same time. 

What are complications that could happen during a C-section?

Even though there are potential complications associated with C-sections, in the case of complicated birth, C-sections give the mother and puppies the best chance of survival. Approximately 70 to 90% of puppies survive a C-section, and up to 99% of mothers fully recover from the procedure.

Anesthesia can cause complications in the mother, and she may already be in some trouble depending on how ill she was to require the C-section.   Hemorrhage may also occur after the operation or post-partum, as the uterus may not be contracting appropriately.  Oxytocin is usually given to help the uterus and placental attachments resolved.   Infection of the uterus or surgical site may follow the procedure.  The puppies are cleaned, dried, and inspected for immediately obvious congenital defects.  They are kept together and warm until they can be put with their mother as soon as she is awake, or offered bottled food if the mother is unable to nurse. 

How much can a C-section cost?

The cost of your dog’s C-section can change due to several factors including the dog pet’s size and breed, your dog’s age, and if they have any health issues that could cause complications.  

What should you expect during the recovery period?

When you take your dog and the new puppies home, you will need to monitor your dog and her puppies carefully. The vet will provide you with detailed instructions on caring for and monitoring the puppies and mom, as well as any pain medications prescribed for your dog.

It is important to follow your vet’s instructions carefully! They can help you spot any issues right away and prevent any further complications.

Final thoughts on emergency C-sections and our hospital

Nobody hopes to need to have their dog undergo a C-section, but it is better to be prepared and know where you can go it one becomes necessary.  It is worthwhile to know in advance how many puppies are present so if labour goes uneventfully at home, you will know when things are finished.  It is also important to discuss pregnancy and post-natal care with your veterinarian in advance to make sure mother is healthy and ready for pregnancy and nursing, and you have your home ready for your new additions.


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