Eclampsia in Dogs: the post birth killer risk

A dog nursing puppies that starts to become wobbly, tremble, and shake should never be ignored. Eclampsia in dogs is a true veterinary emergency. If your dog is pregnant or just given birth then this is what you need to know!

female dog feeding lots of puppies with the title eclampsia in dogs and a picture of Dr Alex with a shocked expression

I have a Labrador aged 5 years old and she gave birth to 4 healthy puppies 9 days ago but today I saw her wobbly, lying, shaking and it looked like a convulsion (seizure). I talked to my vet and he said to report and count the frequency for 3 weeks. Any advice will be helpful.

And my next question is from PUGB, who writes to ask about their Labrador who has recently given birth and just starting to become wobbly, shaking and even had a seizure.

What could be the cause? I'll start off by saying that the causes of seizures in general are poisoning, organ disease, blood abnormalities, infections, brain lesions, and epilepsy.

Eclampsia in Dogs

Now, with this Labrador being in early lactation having recently given birth, my concerns would be that this dog has a really high calcium drain resulting in eclampsia.

What is eclampsia

Eclampsia in dogs (also known as hypocalcaemia, milk fever or puerperal tetany) is a potentially fatal drop in blood calcium levels that is most commonly seen in the first 40 days after a dog gives birth.

If you think of a female dog in late pregnancy leading into the first couple of months of the puppies lives, then you can soon appreciate why calcium might start to become a scarce resource.

To start with, a bitch has to cope with the puppies skeletons maturing and becoming calcified in late pregnancy. Once this calcium drain is dealt with, milk production starts to kick in. Hungry puppies demand lots of calcium rich milk! In older dogs who have been mothers previously, this milk production can start quite some time before a dog’s due date.

Either way, between 1-4 weeks after giving birth the puppies demand more and more milk to fuel their rapid growth.

Some dogs simply can’t cope with this calcium drain.

Eclampsia symptoms

Low blood calcium can cause a range of symptoms, and while some can be dramatic, the beginning clues that your dog is developing eclampsia can be quite subtle.

You might notice your dog becoming restless, become disorientated and start panting. They might also start to itch and rub their face.

This will then progress to stiffness and muscle tremors before developing full blown seizures.

Ultimately, if left untreated, eclampsia can be rapidly fatal.

And this would by my concern with this Labrador in question. While epilepsy (or some other seizure cause) could be the problem, eclampsia has to be fairly high on the list of suspicion. If it is the cause, treatment is needed straight away. Eclampsia in dogs is an emergency.

Which dogs are most at risk?

Developing skeletons and calcium in the milk are something that every dog who gives birth will face. Clearly not all will develop hypocalcaemia. So which dogs are most at risk of suffering from low blood calcium levels?

Female dogs having their first litter are at a slightly higher risk, especially if they are a small breed such as Pomeranians, Chihuahuas, Toy Poodles, and Shih Tzus.

If the litter is large, or the puppies particularly big (as could easily be the case if the father is much bigger than the mother) then risks are higher. There is also a suggestion that Dogs who do a great job of nursing their pups are more likely to develop eclampsia. All of these situations are simply a reflection of the amount of milk Mum will end up producing.

Given the massive drain having puppies puts on a dog, it’s important she is fed the right food both during pregnancy and while nursing her puppies. A well ballanced, premium puppy food means she is better able to cope with both the calcium and energy demands placed on her. Feed her the wrong diet, or if she is thin to begin with, and eclampsia is more likely.

You might consider supplementing a pregnant dog’s diet with extra calcium, in the hope that it reduces the risk of hypocalcaemia once the puppies come along. Unfortunately the reverse is true. Giving extra calcium supplementation actually means that the bodies natural calcium control gets turned down. As a result, when the high demand kicks in, the body simply can’t respond quickly enough.

Eclampsia is most commonly seen in the first forty days after giving birth. It's rarely a problem before birth, but it can happen.

Eclampsia Treatment

It’s an emergency

Treatment with intravenous calcium to raise the blood calcium levels back up to normal needs to be given as soon as possible. Withing 20 minutes your dog will be almost back to normal, the improvement can really be that quick!

Giving an extra feed or drink of calcium-rich milk is not going to work quickly enough. Remember, eclampsia can very quickly kill a dog.

Remove the puppies

We also then need to take the puppies off the bitch and bottle feed them for twenty-four hours at the very least. Not only do we need to add calcium to the body, it’s also important that we stop removing it while the system recovers!

Ideally, the puppies should not be allowed to feed from the mother again. Even once she is stabilized and back to normal, she is going to be at a higher risk for having another episode of low blood calcium.

Stop it happening again

Now, if you're going to put the puppies back on their mother and allow them to feed, giving her a calcium supplement is a good idea while she is still producing milk. Don’t worry about this making her more likely to develop problems. By this stage, her body systems are going to working as hard as possible to both mobilize calcium from the bone and absorb as much as possible from the intestines. Giving extra calcium now will reduce the risk of repeat eclampsia in dogs.

To be extra safe, you could ask your vet to run blood calcium levels several times during the nursing period to make sure they’re not dropping, while also keeping a close eye out for the symptoms of eclampsia rearing their head again.

Can Eclampsia be Prevented?

Preventing milk fever in dogs really comes down to reducing the known risks of eclampsia. You clearly can’t do anything about your dog’s breed, but you can feed a high quality puppy diet throughout pregnancy and lactation. You should make sure she is in a good body condition before even getting her mated.

Also, if your dog has a lot of hungry mouths to feed (and especially if she has had eclampsia in the past), you could consider giving the puppies some bottle feeding, just to reduce the calcium drain on your dog.

The above is a transcript taken from “The Dr Alex Answers Show”.

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