Diagnosing and managing canine dystocia (Proceedings)

August 1, 2008

Most owners lack medical knowledge regarding the birthing process, and as such, they frequently look to the veterinarian to answer questions and to identify potential problems.

Most owners lack medical knowledge regarding the birthing process, and as such, they frequently look to the veterinarian to answer questions and to identify potential problems. The emergency clinician must therefore be familiar with normal reproductive behavior in addition to the common complications that may arise. With this goal, we will review the events surrounding normal parturition, the various causes of dystocia, and techniques for managing this type of emergency.

Normal Reproductive Physiology

Normal gestation length in the dog may range from 57-72 days from the time of first breeding, with an average length of 65 days. Because cats are induced ovulators, there is generally less variability in gestation length, which ranges from 63-65 days. Ovulation may not take place after the first breeding however, so in the event of multiple breedings, uncertainties with regards to gestation length may still be present in the cat. As the whelping date approaches, a number of clues may point toward impending parturition. Mammary development, vulvar enlargement, mucous vaginal discharge, and relaxation of the pelvic ligaments are early signs of approaching parturition. Onset of lactation may be noted in primiparous bitches within 24 hours of parturition, but in multiparous bitches may occur several days before parturition. A sudden drop in body temperature (>2°F) is generally noted within 24 hours of parturition in dogs and cats as a result of decreases in progesterone levels, but this finding is not always reliable. In one recent study, nadir temperature occurred >48 hours before parturition in 24% of dogs, and an appreciable drop in temperature (>1° F) was not seen in 35% of dogs.

Normal parturition proceeds in three stages. The first stage is characterized by subclinical uterine contractions and progressive dilation of the cervix. During this stage, which typically lasts for 6-12 hours, bitches may show signs of restlessness, apprehension, panting, nesting behaviors, hiding, and anorexia. Queens may be tachypneic, restless, and vocal, or may lay in their nesting boxes, purring. Active expulsion of the fetuses occurs during the second stage of labor. The first fetus is usually delivered within 1 hour of onset of stage 2 labor in cats, and within 4 hours in dogs, with subsequent deliveries every 15 minutes to 3 hours. Active straining generally results in expulsion of a fetus within 15 minutes. The entire process generally occurs over 2-12 hours, but may take as long as 24 hours with large litter sizes. The third stage of labor results in expulsion of the placenta. One placenta should be identified for each fetus delivered. Placentas are usually still attached to the fetus by the umbilical cord and emerge with the fetus, but may emerge within 15 minutes to several hours if they become detached. Lochia, a greenish vaginal discharge, indicates placental separation and may be seen during all stages of labor. Following parturition, the discharge gradually becomes red-brown, decreasing in volume over 4-6 weeks as uterine involution takes place.


Historical and physical exam findings that should prompt a clinician to suspect dystocia are as follows:

A definite cause is apparent (ie. fetus lodged in birth canal, pelvic fractures)

Gestation is prolonged (>70 days) with no evidence of labor

Temperature has dropped to <100° F and returned to normal with no evidence of labor within 24 hours

Lochia is noted and 2 hours have elapsed without expulsion of a fetus

Strong and persistent contractions fail to result in the delivery of a puppy within 30 minutes

Weak and infrequent contractions fail to produce a fetus within 4 hours.

More than 4 hours have elapsed since the birth of a puppy with no evidence of ongoing labor

Signs of systemic illness or severe pain are present

Dystocia may result from either maternal or fetal factors that prevent delivery from taking place. Uterine inertia is the most common maternal cause of dystocia, seen when the myometrium produces only weak and infrequent contractions that fail to expel a normal fetus through a normal birth canal. Primary uterine inertia is considered complete when gestation that has exceeded its expected length with no evidence of progression into active labor. Primary uterine inertia is termed partial if the bitch initiates parturition and expels one or more healthy fetuses, but then subsequently fails to deliver the remaining fetuses as a result of myometrial fatigue. Uterine inertia may also be considered secondary if myometrial failure results from prolonged attempts to expel an obstructed fetus, and persists following relief of obstruction. Morphologic causes of dystocia are those in which an anatomic abnormality of the bitch or queen results in obstruction of the birth canal (eg. small birth canal, pelvic fractures)

Fetal factors that may result in dystocia include malpresentations, oversize, fetal malformations, and fetal death. Some of the commonly described malpresentations include transverse presentation, lateral or ventral flexion of the neck, anterior presentation with flexion of one or both forelimbs, posterior presentation with retention of both hindlimbs, and simultaneous presentation of two fetuses. It should be noted that posterior presentations are considered to be a normal variation in dogs and cats, occurring in approximately 40% of deliveries. Fetal oversize is another potential cause of dystocia, most commonly seen with single pup pregnancies. Fetal death is an infrequent cause of dystocia, increasing the likelihood of malpresentation because of failure to rotate and extend the head and legs, which commonly occurs immediately prior to parturition. Fetal malformations are another potential cause of dystocia, with anasarca (generalized subcutaneous edema), hydrocephalus, cerebral and cerebrospinal hernias, abdominal hernias, duplications, and rib cage malformations among the more commonly noted.

Diagnosis of Dystocia

Workup of a patient that is presented for dystocia begins with a complete history and physical exam, including digital vaginal exam. If a fetus is lodged within the birth canal, digital manipulation should be attempted. The fetus may be grasped around the head and neck, around the pelvis, or around the proximal portions of the hind limbs, depending on fetal presentation. Excessive traction should never be applied to a single extremity because of the ease with which these may be avulsed. With the dam restrained in a standing position, traction is applied in a posterior-ventral direction. The fetus may be gently rocked back and forth, and twisted diagonally to free shoulders and hips "locked" in the pelvic canal. If flexion of head or extremities is preventing delivery, a finger may be used to extend them. One cannot overemphasize the importance of using copious amounts of sterile lubricant during obstetrical maneuvers, applied digitally or infused around the fetus using a red rubber catheter.

Radiographs should be obtained in any animal experiencing dystocia. Radiographs are accurate for assessing the number, size, location, and position of fetuses, as well as maternal pelvic morphology and general status of the abdomen. Fetal viability is more difficult to assess from radiographs, unless evidence of fetal decomposition is present. Signs of decomposition include intrafetal or intrauterine gas patterns, awkward fetal postures, collapse of the spinal column due to loss of muscular support, and overlapping of the bones of the skull. Ultrasound may be a more useful tool for assessment of fetal viability, fetal malformations, and fetal distress. Normal fetal heart rates have been reported at 180-245 beats per minute in dogs and up to approximately 265 bpm in cats. Deceleration of fetal heart rates to less than 180 beats per minute and the presence of fetal bowel movements on ultrasound have been shown to correlate with severe fetal distress, and may indicate a need for rapid intervention.

Medical management should be considered if there is no evidence of obstruction, and fetal and pelvic size appear normal. Oxytocin is a peptide hormone that increases the frequency and strength of uterine contractions by promoting influx of calcium into myometrial cells. Oxytocin also promotes post partum uterine involution, aids in control of uterine hemorrhage, and assists in expulsion of retained placentas. The dose for oxytocin has traditionally been reported at 5-20 units IM in the dog and 2-4 units IM in the cat. However, with an increase in the use of uterine contraction monitoring (Whelpwise, Veterinary Perinatal Specialties Inc, Wheat Ridge, CO) in veterinary patients, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that traditional doses may be too high, potentially causing uterine tetany, ineffective contractions, and decreased fetal blood flow. Recent data suggests that doses of 0.5-2 units are effective in increasing the frequency and quality of contraction. The oxytocin dose may be repeated in 30 minutes if expulsion of a fetus has not resulted. If labor proceeds and a fetus is delivered, oxytocin may be repeated every 30 minutes as needed to assist in expulsion of the remaining fetuses.

Calcium gluconate may be considered if weak, infrequent contractions are noted or when labwork reveals hypocalcemia. Retrospective studies have indicated that many patients who fail to respond to oxytocin alone may respond to a combination of calcium and oxytocin. The dose for calcium gluconate (10% solution) as a uterotonic agent is 11 mg/kg diluted in saline and given subcutaneously, or added to IV fluids and given slowly while monitoring an ECG for arrhythmias. If hypocalcemia is documented, a dose of 50-150 mg/kg intravenously should be used. Subcutaneous administration has been reported to result in irritation and potential granuloma formation, though this is an infrequent complication. Dextrose infusion should also be initiated if hypoglycemia is evident on labwork.

Surgical management should be considered for the following conditions:

  • Complete primary uterine inertia

  • Partial primary uterine inertia or secondary uterine inertia where large numbers of fetuses remain and response to drugs is unsatisfactory,

  • Fetal oversize

  • Gross abnormalities of maternal pelvis (fractures, masses)

  • Fetal malformations

  • Malpresentation that is not amenable to manipulation

  • Past history of dystocia or c-section

  • Fetal putrefaction

  • Maternal evidence of systemic illness

  • Suspicion of uterine torsion, rupture, prolapse, or herniation

  • Evidence of fetal distress with poor response to medical intervention

An anesthetic protocol for caesarian section should be selected with the goal of maximizing survival of neonates and dam. Attempts should be made to minimize exposure of the fetus to anesthetics by keeping the time from induction to delivery as short as possible. Ideally, the dam should be clipped and prepped prior to induction, equipment should be out, and the surgeon should be scrubbed and ready. Induction agents should be given to effect. Regional techniques such as line blocks and epidurals may help to minimize the need for other drugs. A line block can be performed using 2 mg/kg lidocaine infused along the ventral midline. Alternately, epidural lidocaine may be administered in dogs at a dose of 2-3 mg/kg, not to exceed a total volume of 6 ml. Propofol (4-6 mg/kg IV) or mask inductions are most commonly used for caesarian section at this time, and have been associated with reduced neonatal mortality in dogs. Anesthetic agents that have been associated with increased neonatal mortality include thiopental, ketamine, xylazine, medetomidine, and methoxyflurane.

Neonatal Resuscitation

A warm (90° F) incubator, hemostats, suture material, suction bulb syringes, emergency drugs, and an adequate supply of soft dry towels should be prepared beforehand. As each neonate is handed off, the umbilical cord should be clamped and ligated 1-2 cm from the umbilicus. Fetal fluids and amnion should be removed by rubbing briskly with a soft, clean towel. The oral cavity and nares may be suctioned with a bulb syringe. The old practice of "swinging" puppies to clear their airways is best avoided because of the potential for cerebral hemorrhage due to concussive injury. If vigorous rubbing is not successful at stimulating respiration, positive pressure ventilation may be initiated with a snug fitting mask, keeping the neonates head and neck extended to ensure adequate inflation of the lungs. Alternately, intubation may be accomplished using a catheter or small, uncuffed endotracheal tube. Because isoflurane is minimally metabolized, ventilation is the primary route of elimination. Thus, its depressant effects can not be reversed until the neonate breathes. Cardiac massage may be instituted if a heart beat can not be detected once warming and ventilation measures have been instituted. Epinephrine (0.1 mg/kg) may be given intratracheally, intraosseously, or intravenously if cardiac massage is unsuccessful. Naloxone (0.1 mg/kg) should be considered if the dam received opioid analgesics as part of the anesthetic regimen. Although doxapram (dopram) is routinely administered in many practices as a respiratory stimulant, it is not used for this purpose in the resuscitation of human neonates and there is no evidence to support its use in veterinary patients.

The prognosis for medical management of dystocia is guarded, with success rates of 20-40% in the veterinary literature. Additionally, stillbirth rates have been shown to rise when dystocia is allowed to continue for greater than 4.5-6 hours from the time of onset of second stage labor in the dog. For these reasons, the decision to proceed to caesarian section should not be delayed if response to medical management is poor or unlikely to result in successful delivery. In recent studies, neonatal survival rates following surgical treatment of dystocia have been reported at 92% at birth, with 80% still alive at 7 days post c-section.


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