By Kristin Tara Horowitz

This particular subject is near and dear to my heart because as I write this, I have a litter on the ground with this issue — I’ve seen three or four Working Aussie Source breeders come up with a case in the last month or so, and after 25 years in the breed, it’s totally new to me. It caused me to lose a puppy, and it’s been as much work as having a newborn baby. It affects our breed and not all vets acknowledge it exists.

What is it? It goes by a few names, the easiest of which to remember is “Milk Fever” but you’ll hear it called postpartum hypocalcemia, periparturient hypocalcemia, or puerperal tetany. Essentially, the dam’s milk supply saps her calcium supply and leaves her with pre-eclampsia, which can be life threatening to her.

From the Merck Veterinary Manual – “Panting and restlessness are early clinical signs. Mild tremors, twitching, muscle spasms, and gait changes (stiffness and ataxia) result from increased neuromuscular excitability. Behavioral changes such as aggression, whining, salivation, pacing, hypersensitivity to stimuli, and disorientation are frequent. Severe tremors, tetany, generalized seizure activity, and finally coma and death may be seen.”

It is also tied to weak labor – my bitch wasn’t having contractions and I had to assist with the birth of the first pups. After whelping, if you see your bitch worrying puppies unusually, unable to get comfortable, or turning aggressive toward them, this is a clear sign that something is starting up. Be sure to rule out retained placentas, infections, and other maternity-related complications first. It’s quite normal for a bitch to be panting heavily post whelp, but extended periods of it and paired with other symptoms, and you might have something on your hands. It happened for me with a bitch in great shape with only three puppies.  Many times, running a calcium test won’t reveal anything – you have to be specific and request one for ionized calcium. This will confirm things and if it’s an emergency, you can handle it quickly. If it is not, the following calcium protocol can help, and this is why it’s a good idea to have calcium on hand for whelping.

What kind?

  • Type 1) – Calcium Carbonate, which is found in most human and animal supplements. This type of calcium requires food in the stomach to work effectively and is used in most antacids ie. Calsorb, OralCal Plus, Tums.
  • Type 2) – Calcium Citrate, which is found in some vitamin supplements and additives. It is the most effective orally dosed calcium, as it starts to work as soon as it hits the moist mouth membranes and does not need food in the stomach to become effective. You can find it in most pharmacy sections as Citrical, or you can find it in a powder form at health food stores or on line.
  • Type 3) – Calcium Gluconate, which is administered IV or SubQ. This is administered at the vets only.

Recommended calcium products include: Oral Cal Plus – for quick dosing that absorbs as soon as it hit’s the dog’s cheek –  and Dr. Roys Healthy Bones.

Most breeders do fine with Tums.

Dosing seems totally crazy when you first start:

The group Canine Fertility, Reproduction and Neonatal issues recommends the following calcium dosages:

Small Breeds – 600 to 800mg of oral calcium – each dose
LargeBreeds – 1000 – 2000mg – each dose

The key is that when you see the symptoms, dose, wait for a change and if you see nothing, give more. Continue until symptoms abate. Once you do this, you’ll need to stay on it with regular dosing, and you will likely need to keep it up around the clock for the duration of her lactation, weaning her off of it as the puppies wean. Not staying regular with dosage once you find the sweet spot can result in the symptoms returning.

If you’re like me, you’ll be hesitant to pump your dog full of calcium – be assured that for the short period that this is happening, you are unlikely to overdose your dog, and excess calcium is excreted by the dam.

Once a dam experiences this, she is likely to do so in future pregnancies. I do not know if genetics play a role, but having gone through a severe case of it, I would not recommend breeding again.

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