Waiting for the birth of a litter of beautiful puppies is an exciting time. But it can also be a very stressful time for both you and your pregnant dog.

Here’s some information on the four stages of dog pregnancy, and what to expect during each stage. You’ll also learn some ways to make sure your dog stays as safe and comfortable as possible throughout her pregnancy.

Stage 1 – Your Dog Goes into Heat

A female dog (bitch) typically goes into heat about every six months or so. This is a very general timetable, however. Different dogs and different breeds can have varying heat cycles. A cycle typically lasts about three weeks.1

Proestrus is the part of the heat cycle where males become attracted to females. However, the female will not want to mate until the next stage. Proestrus usually lasts for between 7-10 days. Your dog may have a bloody discharge during this time, as well as swelling of the vulva.2

Stage 2 – Mating

This part of the heat cycle is known as estrus, and it takes about two to three weeks to complete. This is when female dogs will accept a male dog’s advances. During this time, the discharge will decrease and also be lighter in color.3

The mating “encounter” itself is usually over relatively quickly. After about a minute or so of “courting,” the encounter will last anywhere from 15-30 minutes. Don’t disturb the dogs during this time; they could be injured if they are interrupted.4

After mating, the bitch goes into a part of the heat cycle known as diestrus. This usually begins at the two-week mark of the heat cycle. Discharge becomes darker in color and then gradually ends. The vulva returns to its normal size. During this time, the female will no longer be receptive to a male.5

Stage 3 – Development of Fetuses

A canine pregnancy usually lasts a little more than two months – about nine weeks.6 Here’s a week-by-week pregnancy schedule, so you’ll know what to expect if you have a pregnant dog in your home.

Dog Pregnancy | Dr Marty· Week 1 – This is when mating and fertilization take place, and a pregnant bitch might start showing the signs of morning sickness during this time. You’ll probably notice a pinkish discharge coming from the dog. This is normal. Your dog will be able to eat and exercise as normal, but talk to your vet first before you give any flea treatments during this stage of gestation.7

· Week 2 – This is the stage of gestation where the puppies’ cells begin to grow and form embryos. You can still feed and exercise your dog as normal.8

· Week 3 – The embryos start to receive the nutrients they need during this time. Keep feeding and exercising your dog as usual, but she might show a change in appetite. Make sure you talk to your vet before you make any changes to the amount of food you give her.9

· Week 4This is the best time to confirm pregnancy with your vet. The earlier you can confirm pregnancy, the better. This is because you can now start to monitor your dog and her needs. At this stage, the puppies’ hearts will form. Your vet will be able to listen to their heartbeats, and they should be able to let you know about how many puppies to expect during delivery.10

· Week 5The puppies’ whiskers, toes, nails, and organs start to develop and the vet will start to refer to the embryo as a fetus. The mother will also have started to show a significant weight gain. Which is understandable when you understand that the fetus’ weight will now increase by about 75%. Your vet may recommend that you start giving your dog smaller meals at more frequent intervals, since her belly won’t have as much room as it did before.11

· Week 6 – This is when the puppies start developing their skin color and markings. Give the mother as much food as she wants. This is the time frame during which the puppies will be developing the fastest. As a result, this is when the mother’s energy requirements will be at their highest. High-quality puppy food is recommended during this time, so that the developing pups will get the nutrition they need.12You should also start to prepare the area where the births will take place. It needs to be comfortable and thoroughly padded. Make sure you encourage her to start sleeping in this area.13

· Week 7The mother’s belly hair will start sheddingso don’t worry if you notice more shedding than usual. The pups will be almost completely formed by this time – their skeleton will solidify and their first hair will appear. It’s a good time now to talk to your vet about worming as a parasite could affect a puppy at birth. You vet will advise the best way to do this for your pregnant dog.14

· Week 8 – This is the time you really need to start being alert, because some dogs will go into labor a week early. Start prepping a “whelping” area for your dog to give birth. It should be quiet, warm, and out-of-the-way of the household. You will also want it to be an area that is easy to clean.

Don’t play with the mother during this time, because any sort of stimulating activity could induce early labor. Don’t be surprised if you see the pups moving around inside the mother when she lies down. Keep feeding her regularly to make sure she has enough nutrients for the growing pups.15

· Week 9 – It’s go time. The mother can go into labor at any moment. Make sure she’s familiar with the area where she’ll have her pups. She’ll probably keep to herself more than she usually does. You’ll still want to give her plenty of nutrient-rich food, but she might start showing a reduced appetite as the time for giving birth comes closer.16

Dog Pregnancy | Dr MartyStage 4 – Labor

Labor usually comes in three stages. The first stage lasts anywhere from 12-24 hours as contractions begin. However, these contractions are very subtle and you probably won’t notice the signs. But you may notice your dog becoming restless and reclusive. She might pant a lot, or even vomit.17

Stage Two of labor is when the puppies actually arrive. This stage can last anywhere from one hour to 24 hours, with puppies being born every 30 to 60 minutes (though this time frame can vary). After all the puppies are born, the mother will then deliver the placenta. This is the third and final stage.18

It’s critically important to keep track of how long your dog is in labor during the whelping (birth) period. It’s also important to time the arrival of the puppies. If the mother is in labor more than 24 hours, or if the pups take longer than two hours to arrive, contact your vet immediately. There could be a serious problem occurring that could potentially even be fatal for the mother as well as the puppies.19

The Nursing Stage

Once the mother gives birth, her mammary glands will start to swell and secrete milk from several small ducts within the nipples. The puppies will usually find their way straight to the nipples after the mother has finished cleaning them. But if a puppy seems slow, they can be gently guided towards her.

It’s essential that the new mom gets enough nutrients during milk production. During the nursing stage, a female dog requires the greatest amount of calories of any stage of her life. At around 3 weeks after birthing her puppies she may need up to 4 times the calories as she did previously (depending on the litter size). The food should also be very energy dense. But by 8 weeks (post birth) the puppies will be weaned and her feeding needs will return to normal. 20

If you’re concerned about meeting your female dog’s needs, just talk to your vet for a little guidance. They can steer you towards the ideal food (and amount of food) that is right for your dog during this time.

A Final Note on Dog Pregnancy

Remember, pregnant dogs need a lot more nutrients than normal during pregnancy. Take her to the veterinarian at least two or three times during her pregnancy to make sure everything is progressing normally. Once your dog reaches about four weeks of pregnancy, limit exercise to short, gentle walks. And know that if you have any questions or concerns, your vet will be there for you every step of the way.

Article updated: June 19, 2018

Dog Pregnancy | Dr Marty

Learn More:
6 Tips for Summertime Dog Safety (paws included!)
Have a Fat Dog? (what causes obesity in dogs and how to fix it)
Mucus In Your Dog’s Stool: What’s Normal, What’s Not?