Jocelynn Jacobs DVM, CVC
Dr. Jacobs is a veterinarian, breeder, and exhibitor of Alaskan Malamutes. She has finished over 20 champions and has 20 working titles on her dogs to date. She owns a small animal practice in Freeland, Michigan where she enjoys working with breeders and dog enthusiasts.
There are two major concerns most of my clients have when it comes to preparing for their litter – what to use as a whelping box and where to whelp the litter. There are many different options for each, and finding what’s best for you and your lifestyle is critical to making the whole puppy experience an enjoyable one.
The Whelping Box
There are many options to consider for whelping boxes. Some breeders use commercially made ones, and others have elaborate boxes they make themselves. Some breeders use plastic kid swimming pools purchased at local mega-stores in town. These are cheap and easy to clean. There are draw backs though – the pool floors are cold and slippery that can make it hard for puppies to stay cuddled up to mom. Also the edges of the pools are only 8 inches high which helps keep small breed or very young puppies in, but as they grow, they can easily climb out.
Dura-whelp® is another option for those wanting to purchase a whelping box. These are made of heavy duty plastic, easy to clean, easy to disassembled for storage between litters, and have high sides all around the box so puppies can’t climb out. They also have a puppy protective ledge around the inside of the box so that the mother can’t crush a puppy against the wall (see photo). They come in large and small sizes, and are probably the most ideal for whelping puppies. Cost is a factor though since these are not inexpensive.
If you are a handy person with tools, making a whelping box yourself is less expensive and can be made to the specifications ideal for your breed. Plywood or particle board can be used, however, to help keep cleaning easy, it should be painted with a latex, glossy paint so urine or fecal material isn’t absorbed by the wood. Ideally all whelping boxes should have a puppy protective ledge around the inside to prevent crushing of the puppies by the mother.
An ideal whelping box should be the length of your female dog plus an extra foot (at least) in one direction. That is if your female is 50 inches in length from nose to rear, then the box should be around 62 inches in one direction (for example, width of the box). The box does not have to be 62 inches in both length and width, but should be at least the length of the dog in the other direction (that is, for a 50 inch dog from nose to rear, a good size box would be 62” x 50”). Too big of a box can cause the puppies to get lost and not able to find the mother, and too small of a box can increase chances the mother will sit on or crush the puppies.
Lining whelping boxes with appropriate materials is another important consideration. Although newspapers are cheap, puppies can become discolored by the newsprint, and as they grow, shred the papers making clean up harder. Towels or blankets can be used, however, there are disadvantages to their use. First, very young puppies can get trapped or lost underneath when trying to find their mother. They also can easily be crushed by their mother if they are hiding underneath. In addition, towels and blankets can bunch up in corners of whelping boxes and may not allow for the best traction for puppies when cuddling close to the nipples.
One good option for whelping box lining is lambskin crate pads. These are artificial lamb-like fur pads that come in various sizes and are easily found in most dog catalogs. There are many advantages to using these in a whelping box. First, they easily absorb liquids to keep puppies from laying in wetness, and are easily cleaned in a clothes washer. Secondly, they are thick so the puppies can cuddle in them for extra warmth and get good traction to allow them to get closer to their mother. Thirdly, they usually stay in place and don’t bunch up easily in a whelping box like towels or blankets do. You can buy lambskin crate material in bulk from some companies so the exact dimensions of your whelping box can be matched.
Location, Location, Location….
Many whelp their puppies in a kitchen, living room, bedroom, laundry room, basement, or a garage that is attached to the house. Ideally, the location should be quiet with the least amount of busy family activity. If you have lots of family members or small children, probably the basement, laundry room or garage is more ideal. Another consideration should be the temperature of the whelping room. Double coated breeds such as the Siberian Husky or German Shepherd will be more comfortable in cooler locations such as basements or if during the peak of summer, air conditioned rooms. If the room is too hot, it will be uncomfortable for them to whelp puppies. Smaller breeds such as the Maltese or Yorkie have a harder time keeping warm in cool temperatures, so those breeds should whelp in warmer areas of the house such as a living room or bedroom. A heat lamp placed strategically in 1 corner of the whelping box is helpful to allow the female to warm up if she feels too cool.
Once your litter is born, as long as the mother is happy with the whelping box’s location (that is, she isn’t trying to move her puppies to a different location), the box may be left there. However, puppies grow, and as they grow they become more and more mobile! Keeping them “in” the whelping box becomes a challenge! Smaller breeds are usually more easily contained in their box even until 7 or 8 weeks of age, when they usually go home. Small breeds can stay in the house and are easily picked up after, thus moving them outside isn’t usually a consideration. They also are breeds most commonly found solely as house dogs (frequently carried around by their new owners), so keeping them in the house for proper human and household socialization is important.
In contrast, by about 3 weeks of age, medium, large and giant breed puppies become large and mobile enough to decide exploration of their environment is a lot more fun than being in the small whelping box! Another challenge is odor control and keeping the litter box clean since larger puppies excrete larger poop piles. Around 21-27 days of age, caring for larger breed puppies becomes a challenge, and I usually recommend they be moved outside to a kennel or puppy pen.
I have a inside/outside puppy pen at my kennel where I move my Alaskan Malamute puppies by 4 weeks of age. The inside pen is 4 foot by 7 foot and the outside kennel is 10 foot by 10 foot. The two are connected by a 1 foot by 1 ½ foot puppy opening that stays open all the time so the puppies can go in or out as they please. There is no dogie door on this opening because of concerns the door could slam on a puppy when trying to get in or out. As the puppies grow, having a much larger place for the puppies to roam and play is important for muscle development and socialization skills.
At my veterinary clinic, large and giant breed puppies I have examined that were left in a small whelping box until they are 8 weeks old had poorer muscle development, coordination problems, and were socially behind compared to those pups who were allowed to run, play, and explore outside. People socialization is still extremely important during 4 to 8 weeks of age with these larger breeds of dogs, so spending as much time with them outside is critical. Bringing a puppy or two in the house each day for extra human contact also is helpful especially for those who will become house dogs at their new homes.
If moving your medium to large breed puppies to an outside pen is not an option where you live, then make sure the puppies have time to run and play outside at least a few times per day. This will help keep things cleaner as some of them will urinating and defecate when put outside. You will also need to keep the puppies confined when inside by keeping them in a room or putting a metal wire exercise pen around the whelping box.
For those who have had litters in the past, you know how much fun AND how much work having a litter can be. That, coupled with finding good homes for our puppies, makes all of us wonder sometimes we take on this task in our busy lives! However, getting puppy kisses daily, seeing the pups with their happy new owners and watching the pups grow in to budding new champions always makes it seem worthwhile in the long run.