‘Milk fever’ is a condition that may occur after whelping when a bitch is feeding pups. The most likely time is when milk is flowing well i.e. feeding a large number of strong puppies or a small bitch with strongly suckling puppies.
Milk fever usually occurs between 1 to 4 weeks after whelping. When large amounts of calcium are being drained from the bitch’s system into the milk, this can exceed the bitch’s ability to replace the calcium circulating in her blood (usually by absorbing calcium from food or from her own bones), she may be in danger of developing “milk fever”, also known as lactational hypocalcaemia.
What are the signs of milk fever?
The onset of ‘milk fever’ is usually quite rapid. Restlessness, heavy panting, fever, muscle spasms and twitching, stiffness of legs, staring eyes and drooling may all occur once the bitch’s blood calcium levels drop below normal.
Treatment for milk fever
If you see any of the above signs and suspect milk fever, your bitch requires IMMEDIATE veterinary attention. Remove the puppies, keep them somewhere warm and supervised and bring your bitch immediately to your regular veterinarian or Animal Emergency Service (AES).
Once at AES, an intravenous catheter will be placed in the foreleg of your bitch. A blood sample will be taken to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the hypocalcaemia. Intravenous calcium will be administered slowly under careful monitoring, until the signs of milk fever disappear.
In most cases, your bitch will have an almost immediate recovery following treatment and will not require hospitalisation. The intravenous catheter will be removed and after care will be discussed with you by the duty veterinarian. Hospitalization may be recommended for severely affected animals to ensure a relapse does not occur.
Prevention of milk fever
As milk fever is likely to recur during the same suckling period, preventative measures need to be taken.
Removing some or all of the puppies from the bitch and hand rearing them will slow down milk production. If the pups are near to weaning age, wean them onto solid food.
Remember, suckling is a stimulation for the bitch to keep producing milk. She will not dry up until all pups are removed.
Oral supplementation of calcium in the form of calcium tablets/syrup and a good diet may help prevent recurrence. Calcium supplementation is only of use after whelping, NOT before. Administration of calcium prior to whelping can predispose the bitch to developing hypocalcaemia during lactation.
Written by Dr Caitlin Logan