If your dog is pregnant or you are thinking about your dog having a litter, then you may be worried about eclampsia. It is a life threatening condition that usually happens a few weeks after the pups are born, and is caused by a sudden and dramatic drop in the dog’s blood calcium levels.
Providing the bitch and her pups with an energy rich, good quality and balanced diet is the main way to help prevent it. Although it is often recommended to supplement a pregnant dog’s diet with added calcium, did you know that this in fact may increase the risk of your dog developing eclampsia?!
In this article we will take an in-depth look at this emergency condition so you can be fully informed to help prevent it and keep your dog’s pregnancy and new born pups as healthy as possible.
What Is Eclampsia?
Eclampsia is also known as hypocalcaemia (low blood calcium levels) or puerperal tetany. It is an emergency condition which occurs when there is a sudden decrease in the dog’s blood calcium levels.
When Can Eclampsia Occur?
It can happen anytime during the dog’s pregnancy, during the birthing process, or anytime in lactation (when she is producing milk).
However, it most commonly happens when the bitch is producing a lot of milk, when the pups are between 1 to 4 weeks of age. Smaller breed dogs appear to be at a higher risk of developing this condition.
In my veterinary career I have mainly seen this condition occur around the 3rd week of lactation, mainly in small breed dogs such as Chihuahua or Yorkshire Terrier.
Some of these dogs may be “fussy eaters” normally, so tend to be at higher risk if they don’t eat enough to meet all the demands of nursing their pups.
I have also seen it occur in some larger breed dogs, that are extremely good, over-attentive mothers. These dogs don’t want to leave their pups to eat and drink, therefore putting themselves at risk.
What Are the Signs of Eclampsia in Dogs?
The signs can vary from subtle muscle twitches and weakness, to a complete collapse and seizures. The big problem is that if a dog with eclampsia does not receive veterinary treatment quickly, she may die.
Let’s take a look at the common signs of eclampsia in dogs:
What Causes Eclampsia?
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, eclampsia “most likely results from loss of calcium into the milk and from inadequate dietary calcium intake”.
The dog’s body can’t keep up with the calcium demand, as so much calcium is leaving the body through the milk.
However, there are a few other possible causes of this condition in dogs. The primary causes of hypocalcaemia in dogs include:
In most cases of eclampsia, the pups will be large, or the litter number higher than normal, which puts an extra strain on the bitch. The affected bitch is often not receiving enough calcium from her diet or is being fed a poor quality diet.
How to Prevent Eclampsia in Dogs?
You can’t predict which dogs will suddenly develop this life threatening condition. However, there are some steps you can take to help reduce your dog’s likelihood of developing it:
Feeding a high-quality, complete and balanced diet during pregnancy and lactation
It is common practice to slowly change the bitch onto a complete puppy food from the 3rd trimester of pregnancy. A high quality puppy diet will be easily digestible, high in energy and contain all the necessary vitamins and minerals in the correct balance (including lots of calcium!).
The American Kennel Club suggests the bitch’s diet should contain “at least 29% protein, 17% dietary fat and less than 5% dietary fibre ”.
It is important to feed a diet (home cooked or commercial) with the correct ratio of calcium to phosphorus (1.2 to 1) to help prevent nutritional imbalances. The American Kennel Club suggests 1.4% of calcium in the dog’s diet.
Home cooked diets that are made up of mainly meat and organs (e.g. liver), are at a higher risk of being unbalanced in vitamins and minerals.
They are at risk of having a very high level of phosphorus, and a lower level of calcium. If you want to give your pregnant or lactating dog a home cooked diet, then talk to a canine nutritionist first.
During lactation, your dog needs a lot of energy in order to produce enough milk for her rapidly growing pups. Lactation or nursing is the life stage which requires the most energy calories.
To make sure your dog is getting enough food and energy offer food and water free choice/ad lib, which allows her to eat small meals often.
6.Monitor your dog’s weight and condition, if she is losing weight or develops a poor coat her nutritional needs are not being met.
Most pregnant dogs DO NOT need a
Calcium supplements causes the dog’s own hormonal control of calcium to become lazy (more on that later), which may increase their risk of eclampsia. If you want to supplement calcium into your pregnant dog’s diet, talk to your veterinarian first.
Calcium supplements can usually be safely given when the bitch has given birth to her pups, as this is when her calcium demand will increase a lot. This should be given once daily until the pups are weaned.
How Is Eclampsia Diagnosed?
Eclampsia will be diagnosed from the dog’s history, clinical signs, blood tests and response to treatment.
A blood test can quickly check the levels of calcium in the dog’s blood. According to Vetstream a total serum calcium concentration of <8 mg/dL, or a low ionized serum calcium <1.25mmol/L confirms a diagnosis of hypocalcaemia.
The vet may want to carry out other blood tests, to rule out other conditions such as hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose levels), kidney disease, or electrolyte imbalances.
What Are the Treatment Options for Eclampsia?
Emergency treatment usually consists of intravenous injections of calcium. This has to be given very carefully and slowly.
This should work quickly, with immediate muscle relaxation. However, if it is given too fast, it can have some serious side effects such as slowing the heart rate (bradycardia) or arrhythmias (irregular heart beat).
What Is the Follow Up Care for Eclampsia?
Most dogs will be started on oral calcium and vitamin D supplements for the rest of the lactation. A commonly used calcium supplement is calcium carbonate (Tums), a low cost, over the counter antacid medication. Vitamin D helps to absorb calcium from the intestines.
Sometimes in severe cases the puppies are weaned immediately and bottle fed. In other cases, the puppies will not be allowed to nurse for the first 12-24 hours, while mum recovers. The puppies instead should be given a milk substitute or other appropriate diet for their age.
Can Eclampsia Recur with Future Pregnancies?
Unfortunately, if your dog has had eclampsia in the past then yes she is more likely to suffer from it again with future pregnancies.
In these cases, it is important to take note of the advice above. However, there are a few additional tips to take some pressure of her milk production and reduce her chances of developing this condition again:
•Offer the pups supplemental feeding with milk replacer early in lactation
•Offer the pups some solid food from 3-4 weeks of age
•Ask your vet about offering her a daily calcium supplement (with phosphorus and vitamin D) after the pups are born
Why Are Calcium Supplements During Pregnancy Not Always Recommended?
Giving dogs calcium supplements during pregnancy has been linked to an increased risk of eclampsia during peak lactation. This is due to the fact that the dog’s body gets used to receiving the calcium supplements, and the normal calcium regulation process becomes lazy.
Usually the calcium regulation process in the body works to absorb calcium from the intestines, store it in the bones and take it from the bones when needed.
If a dog is receiving lots of calcium supplements, this process becomes down-regulated and lazy.
Then when the dog hits peak lactation and the calcium requirements suddenly increase, the dog’s body struggles to perform its normal calcium regulation. This often results in a sudden hypocalcaemia, or life threatening low blood calcium levels.
Dr. Margaret V. Root Kustriz of the University of Minnesota confirms that, “ calcium supplementation during pregnancy is contraindicated… the parathyroid hormone has been down-regulated in dogs receiving oral calcium, bone calcium stores cannot be accessed and hypocalcaemia results”
You will have to talk to your veterinarian who can help you decide if calcium supplements are a good idea for your dog during pregnancy.
Can Dogs Receive Calcium Supplements During Lactation?
Many veterinarians, breeders and nutritionists will disagree on this very question. However, in my opinion I think most dogs can safely receive calcium supplements during lactation if needed.
According to Dr. Margaret V Root Kustriz of the University of Minnesota, “Calcium supplementation during lactation will not cause iatrogenic hypocalcaemia”.
The American Kennel Club states that the calcium level in the bitch's diet should be at least 1.4%. Therefore, you should assess your dog’s diet during lactation and supplement it if appropriate.
If My Dog Has Eclampsia Should the Pups Be Weaned?
If the pups are old enough, usually over 4 weeks of age, they can be weaned immediately onto soft solid food and a milk replacer/substitute. If the pups are younger than 4 weeks of age, you have a choice of weaning via bottle feeding or to allow them to continue nursing from their mum.
Your veterinarian can fully discuss the pros/cons of early weaning and bottle feeding.
If the pups are weaned immediately, it often allows the bitch a quick and complete recovery. However, it is a common opinion that hand reared pups tend to have more behavioural problems than those that are nursed naturally by their mothers.
Many vets and owners continue with an in-between approach, whereby after 24 hours restriction the pups are allowed to continue nursing but they are also supplemented with a milk substitute/replacer. This will take some pressure off the mum, to help prevent the likelihood of another episode of eclampsia.
What to Do If You Think Your Dog Has Eclampsia?
If you think your dog has eclampsia, then you should contact your veterinarian immediately. This is an emergency situation, and you don’t want to take any chances to see if your dog gets better by herself.
Take mum away from the puppies, to stop them from nursing. Ensure the puppies are in a safe and secure location. Then take your dog to the veterinary clinic. If you have to take the pups to the clinic too, then place them in a large padded box or crate.
If your dog is nursing a litter of pups and suddenly becomes restless, weak, stiff and panting, then there is a high chance she is suffering from eclampsia. Although this condition isn’t that common, it’s a good idea to be prepared and be able to recognise the signs.
Like most things, prevention is better then cure. The best ways to prevent this dangerous condition, is by providing your dog with a high quality and nutritionally balanced diet through pregnancy and lactation.
If you are using a home cooked diet, take care with the calcium to phosphorus ratio, which is often unbalanced and is a big cause of dogs developing eclampsia.
If your dog is nursing a litter of pups, ensure she is receiving all the vitamins, minerals and energy she requires. The more pups she has the more energy she requires to successfully produce enough milk.