Pregnancy Testing & Counting The Puppies

Updated June 7, 2022

Have you already read our Guide to Breeding and Dogs Getting Pregnant? Now here’s what to do for dogs from conception to birth.

Pregnancy In Dogs

So let’s say your dog has possibly been mated, it’s not a disaster and you want her to have puppies. The first thing is to see if she really will.

Signs Of Pregnancy

There are no reliable signs until very late in the pregnancy. Then these will be abdominal enlargement, restlessness, milk production and nesting behaviour. To find out earlier, ask your vet for a pregnancy diagnosis.

Pregnancy Testing In Dogs

Dogs are naturally very fertile, so if you saw a successful mating, pregnancy is likely. Your vet can confirm it via:

  1. Early palpation: individual fluid sacs can be felt between 25 and 30 days after mating
  2. Blood testing: a relaxin hormone assay is accurate from 33 days after the last mating and often 2 weeks sooner
  3. Ultrasound: between 30 & 45 days gives best results and can also give you the number of puppies (however the only guaranteed way is number 5)
  4. Late palpation: one week before birth the puppies are large and easy to feel but quite hard to count
  5. X-rays: an abdominal xray in the last week is quite safe and will both confirm pregnancy and give an accurate assessment of number

These tests will also help you spot a false pregnancy.

What Is A False Pregnancy?

Dogs with false pregnancies have milk production and nesting behaviour and look so much like the real thing that even vets get fooled.

Why are false pregnancies so common? There’s some evidence that they are nature’s way of allowing subordinate females in wild dog packs to assist in puppy rearing.

Feeding During Pregnancy

There’s no need to increase the food intake until 2-3 weeks before the expected birth date. If you do it too soon, an increase in body fat might make giving birth more difficult. When you do increase the food, we recommend you switch nursing mothers to a high-quality puppy food.

To avoid gastrointestinal upsets, change the food gradually over 5 to 7 days and increase the amount by adding extra meals, not by giving larger meal sizes. Her stomach by now is getting squished by a large sack of puppies.

Medication During Pregnancy

If there’s any chance of pregnancy, your vet needs to know. Just like in people, we have to be very careful what we give your dog while she may be pregnant. Visit our page that shows heartworm, worming and flea treatments safe for pregnant dogs.

  • Vaccines can cause abortion and should be deferred until the pups’ vaccines are due
  • Intestinal wormers need to be given to reduce worms being passed to the puppies
  • Drugs like cortisone that cause loss of pregnancy and others that cause malformations need to be avoided

How To Know When Puppies Are Due

Everyone will tell you the gestation period in dogs is around 63 days. That’s great, but there are two problems:

  1. Many people don’t see the fertile mating since dogs are in season for up to 3 weeks and usually mate multiple times
  2. Females can store fertile sperm for up to seven days before ovulation

Reality is, the time to give birth can be anywhere from 61 to 72 days if calculated from breeding dates. That’s close to useless on its own. Here are some ways to narrow down the dates:

  • Blood testing before and around the time of mating to identify the date of ovulation
  • Progesterone testing late in pregnancy or vaginal cytology (only at selected vets)
  • Xrays and palpation by an experienced vet in the last week
  • Within 48 hours of birth, a drop of around 1ºC in body temperature is seen in 60% of dogs

How To Know How Many Puppies

  1. Palpation (feeling) is very unreliable and is not much better than guesswork for numbers
  2. Ultrasound is excellent for determining the number between 25 and 35 days. After this date, the foetal sacs start to overlap and become hard to tell apart.
  3. Xray in the last week is excellent except in very big litters and is quite safe at this stage of pregnancy

Knowing the number of pups is very handy. That way you can call for help if not all are born and you can be prepared for their arrival. You can also identify ‘single puppy syndrome’ when a lonesome pup ends growing so big that a caesarian will be needed.

But let’s be positive. Most pregnancies go well, especially for people like you who do their research first.

Coming next: How to help dogs give birth and look after newborn pups.

Have something to add? Comments (if open) will appear within 24 hours.
By Andrew Spanner BVSc(Hons) MVetStud, a vet in Adelaide, Australia. Meet his team here. The information provided here is not intended to be used as a substitute for going to the vet. If your pet is unwell, please seek veterinary attention.

3 Replies to “Pregnancy Testing & Counting The Puppies”

  1. I qualified in Medical Radiations(Diagnostic). My question is re x-raying bitches at 8+ weeks gestation. You state that it is safe at that stage for the puppies being almost at term. I understand that. However, my concern is by irradiating the gonads of these puppies / potential breeding stock then could this act designed to count puppy numbers, likely affect adversely those puppies reproductive tissue eg ovum etc. adversely abd hence their puppies? What do you know about this aspect of neonatology please? Jane

    1. Hi Jane – that’s an interesting thought, and I would love it if you have more information from your perspective. I still consider the risk of a single x-ray to be reasonably low but it’s possibly a good idea to avoid the x-ray if dogs are going to breed subsequently.

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