Whether you are a seasoned breeder, planned first timer or unexpected owner of a pregnant dog, it is wise to be familiar with the problems that can crop up. From pregnancy, giving birth and into early parenthood. This will help reduce the anxiety and the white-knuckle ride that can occur when things seem to be going wrong with your pregnant dog.

One such complication that should be high on the reading list before the due date is ‘Eclampsia’. You might be left searching what it is, what to look for and know and how you can treat it. Maybe even find out how you can try and prevent it.

Luckily for you, we have summarised all the facts you need here, so look no further.

What is eclampsia?

Eclampsia (also known as post-partum hypocalcaemia or milk fever) is an emergency condition in dogs and untreated is life-threatening. It typically occurs in female dogs in the first 2-3 weeks after they have given birth, although less commonly it can occur during late pregnancy. It is due to low levels of calcium in their bloodstream. Although eclampsia can occur in any dog, small breed dogs with large litters are most at risk.

Unfortunately, clinical signs can initially be vague; but they can include panting and restlessness. This can be followed by muscle tremors, twitching, weakness and instability. Behavioural changes, including whining, pacing and possibly aggression, are sometimes reported. In severe cases, the condition may progress to include seizures, before culminating in the onset of a coma and then death. 

If low calcium occurs before the puppies are born, this may have the added result of weak contractions and slowed progression of labour. In some cases, this will prevent puppies being able to pass naturally. Unless corrected, both the mother and puppies will be at risk.

What causes it?

Clinical signs are directly caused by low circulating calcium in the bloodstream. Low blood calcium is likely a combination of high calcium losses into milk (and a lesser degree to the puppies’ skeletons before they are born), and insufficient dietary calcium intake. Higher milk production can worsen calcium losses. As such, dogs with larger litters (particularly small breed dogs) are most at risk. 

How is it diagnosed?

It is important to seek veterinary attention if you are concerned your dog may be suffering from eclampsia. Often your vet will be suspicious of eclampsia based on your dog’s history and presenting clinical signs. Although a blood test is often performed to confirm that your dog’s blood calcium is low and exclude other blood abnormalities that can also occur during this period and produce similar signs, including low blood glucose. 

How is it treated?

Eclampsia is a medical emergency. However, if rapidly diagnosed and treated, most dogs will respond well to treatment and make a full recovery.

Eclampsia is initially treated by calcium supplementation given intravenously directly into their bloodstream. Oral supplementation is not sufficient in acute eclampsia as it can take several hours for the oral calcium to reach the bloodstream. Most dogs require admission into the vet clinic as intravenous calcium supplementation must be carefully monitored as it can have effects on the dog’s heart rate and rhythm. In severe cases, anti-seizure medication or other treatments may also be needed. 

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Mum may be discharged with oral calcium supplements to keep calcium levels in a normal range until the puppies are weaned. 

The puppies are usually removed from their mother for up to 48 hours while she recovers from eclampsia, and during this time should be fed a puppy milk replacement. It may be necessary for them to be weaned (if old enough), or continue on milk replacement if eclampsia returns when the puppies are returned to their mother. 

How can it be prevented?

It may be tempting to consider supplementing your dog with calcium during pregnancy or lactation. However, calcium supplementation during pregnancy has been shown to increase the risk of eclampsia after she has given birth, as supplementation suppresses the normal calcium control system and increases the risk of low blood calcium when demands are high. 

Instead, it is crucial to feed a balanced, high quality diet to mum suitable for pregnancy and lactation. It may be necessary to supplement puppies with milk replacer if mum is struggling, particularly with larger litters. Speak to your vet to make sure that your planned diet is appropriate. 

It is important to note that recurrence is common in subsequent pregnancies. 

We hope this summary helps and if eclampsia does afflict your bundle of joy, at least you will be ready to act fast and without ‘too much’ panic. Good luck.

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