The appropriate calcium: phosphorus balance during pregnancy and lactation is essential for the dam and her pups to have great outcomes. The challenge is that we often think we are doing the “right thing” by how we manage the dam’s diet and nutrition, including adding supplements, which may turn out to not be the ideal solution.
Dog Pregnancy Diet and Calcium
Should you supplement your dam’s calcium during her pregnancy? The dam is responsible for 100% of the pup’s developmental needs during the pregnancy. But believe it or not, she should not receive supplemental calcium during this time. A high quality all-life stage or puppy commercial dog food will provide all the calcium the pups need and the correct calcium phosphorus balance during this time. Avoid the use of calcium supplements or high calcium foods such as yogurt and cottage cheese prior to whelping.
What should you supplement during this time period? Only Folic Acid and DHA. Both of these help the puppy’s eye, brain, and neural tube development. I recommend the prenatal supplement Breeder’s Edge Oxy Mate as a great source of folic acid. Beyond this, feed only a pregnancy diet (HT42d by Royal Canin), a puppy diet (Royal Canin Mother and Baby Dog) or an all-life stage diet (such as Purina Sport Performance 30/20).
Should you feed her more during her pregnancy? Yes, but only after the 5th week of pregnancy. The dam typically needs a 10 percent increase in her daily food intake weekly, until whelping. You may need to adjust this up or down, based on her body condition and the projected size of the litter. Upon whelping, the dam needs her daily food intake increased from between two and four times her normal daily intake to provide for adequate lactation.
What if you add calcium to her diet during pregnancy? You may actually cause more harm than good. If you add more calcium than she needs to her diet during pregnancy, prior to the onset of labor, you will suppress the function of her parathyroid gland. The parathyroid glands, next to her thyroids in her neck, tell her body to mobilize calcium from her bones to support the development of the pup’s bone growth and to produce adequate milk. By over-supplementing her calcium or by feeding a diet without the correct calcium: phosphorus balance, you tell her parathyroid glands to take a “vacation”, so they stop telling her body to mobilize calcium from her bones and can set her up for an episode of hypocalcemia (low blood calcium), also known as eclampsia.
Monitoring and managing her calcium during lactation can be tricky. The active form of calcium in the blood is ionized, not total calcium. Most veterinary clinics and hospitals do not have equipment that will measure ionized calcium. This can make it confusing and difficult to assess her for eclampsia in a crisis.
When is it appropriate to start calcium supplementation? At the onset of labor. When she shows the first signs of labor, it is appropriate to start calcium gel such as Breeder’s Edge Oral Cal Plus Gel. Calcium is essential for oxytocin to create effective, coordinated, uterine contractions. In many cases, effective calcium supplementation can preclude the need for oxytocin injections.
In the case of a dam who is not having successful labor patterns, calcium supplementation by injection and/or gel should be used prior to the use of oxytocin. Oral Cal Plus gel has a rapid onset of action and is palatable, helping the dam’s contractions. The dose to use is as follows :
Dogs up to 20 pounds, 2 mL/cc initial dose; 1 mL per dose thereafter, with administering 1 dose per pup delivered.
Dogs over 20 pounds, 1 mL/cc per 10 pound initial dose; 1 – 3 mL/cc per dose thereafter, with administering 1 dose per pup delivered.
Only if this protocol fails to help the dam deliver a pup within 1 hour of administration should oxytocin injections be administered. Micro doses of oxytocin are typically more effective than larger doses in creating effective rhythmic uterine contractions. Giving too much oxytocin or starting it too early can cause the uterus to spasm, causing premature placental separation and/or shrink-wrapping the pups. This is clearly detrimental to the effective and safe delivery of the pups.
Injectable calcium can be used if this is available from your veterinary professionals. Only 10 percent calcium gluconate is labeled and is safe for use in dogs. IF only 23 percent calcium gluconate is available, this MUST be diluted. Giving injections of 23 percent calcium SQ without dilution can cause a chemical burn and skin slough at the site of the injection.
Once the dam has delivered all the pups and placentas (please have an accurate puppy count X-ray taken PRIOR to the onset of labor but after day 55 of pregnancy), you can change the dam to Breeder’s Edge Oral Cal Plus Powder.
Calcium injectable has the fastest onset of action, second is the gel, third is the powder, and four is tablets or other oral forms of calcium. Ice cream and other human dairy products do not have adequate levels of calcium to improve labor patterns.
Why do you recommend the use of commercial dog food kibble instead of home-made and/or raw meat or grain-free diets? The large three pet food companies have spent millions of dollars researching and developing well-balanced dog food that have the macro and micronutrients needed to support all stages of a dog’s life, including puppy development, adult maintenance, pregnancy, lactation, and male reproduction. The big three pet food companies (Royal Canin/Iams/Eukanuba, Hills and Purina) have put immense resources into developing pet food that can support reproduction, the “Luxury of the body”. Reading pet food labels does not help you interpret and understand the micronutrients so needed to support this finely-tuned aspect of canine health. Making your own dog food is unlikely to provide the vitamin and mineral balance needed to allow for effective canine reproduction – developing the eggs, sperm, placentas and embryos that are the backbone of puppy production.
Raw meat diets may allow bacteria and parasites to interfere with our dog’s and our good health. Parasites found in raw meat diets can cause fetal defects. Grain-free diets may contain phytoestrogens that interfere with male and female reproductive processes.
Whelpwise, a canine uterine contraction monitoring service, has documented that dogs fed home-made diets are more likely to have dystocias (difficult births) resulting in C-sections than dogs fed a commercially available and balanced diet.
Calcium For Dogs in Labor
During and after whelping, should calcium be supplemented? Calcium can help with several syndromes after whelping.
- During whelping, calcium helps oxytocin, both intrinsic made by the dam and if needed extrinsic injections, in strengthening uterine contractions and the efficient delivery of pups.
- After whelping, calcium can help the uterus contract, to expel placentas as well as blood and other fluids from the uterus. By helping with this process, there is a lowered likelihood that the dam will develop metritis, an infection of the post-partum uterus. Metritis is not the same disorder as pyometra.
- During heavy lactation, when the pup’s demands are the highest, small dams may have their calcium mobilization overwhelmed, causing hypocalcemia, low blood calcium. This is the dog version of milk fever, seen in cows. In cows, low calcium causes muscle weakness and the inability to walk or stand. In dogs, low calcium causes the opposite effect. This condition, called eclampsia, causes stiff muscles, initially as stiff gait and if unmanaged, causes muscle tremors that can look like seizures. Left untreated or under-treated, her body temperature will rise, she can develop persistent tetanic muscles, and can cause her death if progressive. Treatment requires very careful and emergency veterinary management. While the dam’s heart is monitored with an EKG, calcium must be administered very carefully IV. If calcium is given in too large an amount or too rapidly, the dam can die during treatment. For this reason, small dams with large litters during the second to fifth week of lactation will benefit from oral calcium supplementation. As previously stated, calcium injections given SQ or calcium gel have the fastest onset of action. IF caught early, this treatment may reduce the need for veterinary intervention. However, do not delay seeking professional veterinary intervention if the dam appears to have eclampsia that is progressively worsening.
- At any time during or after whelping, prior to weaning, low calcium has been anecdotally reported to cause the dam to have aggressive behavior towards her pups or humans. Calcium supplementation, given promptly, can minimize this syndrome from progressing. As previously stated, calcium gel such as Breeder’s Edge Oral Cal Plus Gel will have the shortest time from administration to onset of action. Proactively providing calcium powder or tablets as supplements can manage and/or prevent this type of behavior.
Remember, calcium for pregnant dogs should only be supplemented during labor and lactation, not during pregnancy. Be prepared and have fast-absorbing Breeder’s Edge Oral Cal Plus calcium gel on hand before labor begins, that way if and when you need it you are ready. Using the recommended form of calcium supplement during the appropriate time period can help the dam deliver and raise her pups.
If you have questions on developing a birth plan using calcium, call our Pet Care Pros at 800.786.4751 and they would be happy to help walk you through it before whelping day is here. That way you will be ready when it is time for the pups to arrive!
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Written by: Marty Greer, DVM
Director of Veterinary Services
Marty Greer, Doctor of Veterinary Medicine, has 40+ years’ experience in veterinary medicine, with special interests in canine reproduction and pediatrics. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Iowa State University in 1981. She’s served as Revival’s Director of Veterinary Services since 2019. In 2023, Dr. Greer was named the Westminster Kennel Club Veterinarian of the Year.