Your new litter is doing wonderful, they’re all snuggled in next to mom, squeaking and squirming, gaining weight and growing strong. But something doesn’t seem right with mom and you can’t quite put your finger on it. She’s always loving on those puppies, seems like she’s nursing them round the clock, but her appetite is off, she won’t eat, and she seems so nervous and restless, panting and drooling at times. Her movements were stiff, like an older, arthritic version of herself when she got up to go outside with you, and when you called her to come in from outside she seemed disoriented, like she couldn’t figure out how to get to where you were standing.
These are just a few of the signs of Eclampsia (some folks call this Milk Fever) in it’s early stages. While Eclampsia occurs more often in small or toy breeds, it can affect large breeds like our Gordon Setters too, especially those who have given birth to a large litter, or who have gone through a particularly difficult or prolonged labor. Risk factors include large litter size, prolonged or difficult labor, poor nutrition during gestation, stress, underlying systemic illness and excessive calcium supplementation during pregnancy.
Eclampsia is an emergency medical condition resulting from a life-threatening drop in blood calcium levels. Eclampsia occurs in nursing dams and is most common when the puppies are one to five weeks of age and the dam is producing the most milk.
Signs of Trouble
Eclampsia comes on suddenly. It progresses very quickly. It seems like one minute you have a healthy, lactating bitch with a thriving litter and the next minute she is on the ground convulsing. This is not a wait and see disease…seek immediate emergency veterinary attention at the first sign that something’s amiss.
The symptoms can be subtle at first and resemble those seen before whelping, including:
- Excessive salivation
- Ataxia (lack of coordination)
- Muscle tremors or spasms
- Tightening of facial muscles
- Hypersensitivity to touch or other stimuli
- Continuous, steady muscle spasms without distinct twitching (called “tetany”) Tetany usually presents as rigidity in the legs, unusual pricking of the ears and/or flaring of the nostrils. The signs of eclampsia can advance to where the dog begins to walk in an abnormal, stilted manner and may seem unable to walk in a specific direction.
- Pale mucous membranes
- Itchiness (pruritis)
- Head rubbing
- Biting at the feet
- Extreme thirst
- Increased water intake
- Frequent urination
- Increased body temperature (hyperthermia)
If eclampsia is not treated immediately, it can lead to death. Respiration eventually becomes compromised, heart arrhythmia develops and the bitch’s condition deteriorates to seizures, paralysis, coma and death.
To learn more about Eclampsia, including how it is treated, I’ve included reference links below for you.
Merck Veterinary Manual – Puerperal Hypocalcemia in small Animals (Postpartum hypocalcemia, Periparturient hypocalcemia, Puerperal tetany, Eclampsia)
Knowing the Signs of Eclampsia Can Save a Dam’s Life – Best in Show Daily written by Susan Chaney
Sally Gift, Mesa AZ
Photographs by Sarah Armstrong