Spring is here, and with it comes the fun of calving, kidding, lambing, hatching… the results of procreation are evident everywhere on farms and ranches all over the country.
Spring is also the time when a lot of “oops” LGD litters are concieved. Very likely a combination of both the very busy birthing season which keeps producers very busy and the often underestimated determination of intact LGDs to mate, “oops” litters can be either a small bump in the road or devastating for both pups and mother depending on the age, relation, and health of the parents. For operations who are run only healthy, structurally and temperamentally sound mature adult guardians, an unplanned litter may cause a scramble for accommodations for the dam and homes for the pups, but not much more. Losing a much needed guardian at a time when the stock is most vulnerable can also be a problem, especially if the producer doesn’t have another dog who can be rotated in while the dam whelps and cares for her pups.
Unfortunately, many operations don’t fall into this category and run dogs of differing ages and unknown health, as well as intact herding or farmyard dogs. The effects of these unplanned litters are much more difficult to deal with. Let’s take a look at a few of those difficulties as well as some ways in which unplanned litters can be prevented.
– The mother can be still growing and maturing when she becomes pregnant. A bitch is physically able to become pregnant before she reaches maturity, but the pups will take much needed nutrients from her body. It is virtually impossible for a bitch to sustain her own growth as well as that of a litter of pups. If the pregnancy is not recognized soon enough, which it often isn’t in “oops” litters, it is unlikely that the mother will receive the quality and quantity of food or care she needs during her gestation period. This will result in a deficiency for herself, and in extreme cases, a deficiency for the pups which results in a weak, underweight or stillborn litter. Deficiencies in adolescent bitches can lead to anemia, hypocalcemia, stunted growth, weaknesses in bones and joints as well as digestive conditions down the road. There are a whole host of minerals and vitamins needed to correctly grow a body to healthy maturity and an early pregnancy compromises them all. Further, the mental maturity needed to raise a litter successfully cannot be underestimated. An immature mother may have her pups in various places on the farm, leave them after birthing, refuse to feed them appropriately or be unable to teach them social behavior effectively as they grow. She may not want much to do with the growing pups as they get bigger and rougher and subsequently force them to wean early. This may lead to detrimental effects on the digestive processes of the pups, and can force a producer to provide a heightened level of attention to the pups at a time when they are already so busy. Early litters can develop an aversion in some bitches to all pups, making them a difficult mother later in life, or an ineffective teacher dog for any pups brought on to the farm at a later date.
– The overall health of the parents is unknown or is compromised. We now know that many diseases and conditions are passed down genetically from parents to offspring. Some have a very simple inheritance, meaning that if one or both parents have a genetic condition or are carriers of a condition, they will pass down that condition or disease itself or alternately create more carriers of it in a portion of their offspring. Some of these conditions and diseases in LGDs include Progressive Retinal Atrophy (PRA) , inherited deafness, autoimmune thyroiditis, and renal dysplasia. The likelihood of passing on these simply inherited diseases and conditions increases if the parents are closely related to each other. Other conditions and diseases have more complex genetic links and can combine with the environment to create a wider range of symptoms and severity. Some of these include Hip and Elbow Dysplasia, epilepsy, various cancers and heart disease. Since some of these conditions and diseases have a later onset in life, and LGDs tend to be very stoic even when they are sick or in pain, it can be impossible to assess health and structural soundness just through observation. Finally, any unhealthy or unsound bitch required to carry a litter will have a much harder time during gestation, through birthing and when raising her pups.
– Dogs are not discriminatory when it’s mating time. Not only will females seek out males to mate with when they are in standing heat, but males of all types and breeds will know when a bitch is in season even from miles away. This means that the resulting litter may have more than one contributing father. More commonly, the father may be the neighbor’s wandering pet dog or the producer’s own herding male. Part of this section of the Myths & Misinformation about LGDs post goes into more detail as to why mixing non LGDs (especially those with high prey drives) with LGDs is not a good idea. It is often more challenging to raise and find homes for these dogs, and the failure rate in their new homes is high.
– Spring is a time of heightened predator pressure and when stock is most vulnerable. No matter whether operations are big or small, birthing time typically requires “all hands on deck”, including the Livestock Guardian Dogs. The time during which stock are birthing and when the babies are small often coincides with the time when predators are out looking for food after the lean winter. Birthing fluids themselves are attractants for predators, and it doesn’t take long for them to pinpoint the weaknesses in a producer’s defenses. This is not the ideal time to be down a dog due to heavy pregnancy, whelping or puppy raising. It is also a difficult time for most producers to have extra time to aid a new mother if there are complications in any of those stages. It is one thing to plan to have pups during one of the busiest times on the farm, but quite another to have an unexpected litter arrive. Losses to predators are so much more more disastrous when the new crop of lambs or calves is arriving or just on the ground.
With all that in mind, what can be done to avoid an “oops” litter?
First and foremost, it’s important that we recognize that there is a lot of truth in the age old saying: “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”. As might be expected with LGDs, though, it can be very challenging to keep them from doing what they want to do – which in this case is mating. I might even say in this case that if you think you have prevented it… think again. Stories abound of LGDs opening doors, tunneling under barriers, scaling wall and going through electric fences to answer this primal call of nature. The wise producer never underestimates the will and single minded determination of an intact LGD.
It might seem that the simplest answer for all producers is to fix their female LGDs before their first heat and their males before they reach maturity. This was the universal recommendation not long ago, and while it worked well to prevent unwanted litters, drawbacks in both health and temperament were noted. Newer research on the importance of keeping hormones intact in growing dogs backs up these observations. Sterilizing before the growth plates have closed (typically 18 months in large dog breeds) can result in taller long bones and an overall lighter, narrower framed dog. Increased rates of cancer and joint disorders have also been identified in dogs who were neutered before 6 months of age. Spay and neuter has been linked to an increased rate of cognitive impairment in male dogs, and an increase in over reaction to stimuli in female dogs. Here is a short summary of some of the overall concerns with routine sterilization for dogs, and here is a more in-depth version for those who would like to know more on the subject. Clearly, routine spay and neuter is not as simple as it once seemed. It still does remain the best choice for producers who are unsure of their ability to prevent unwanted litters (especially in dogs who are physically or temperamentally unsound) or for those who don’t have the time, skill or interest in managing intact dogs in the pasture. In all of those cases, it’s best if maturity can be achieved before operating (although some veterinarians feel that a smaller dog is safer under anesthetic) and if females are fixed more routinely than males. There are also alternate procedures such as Ovary Spay Surgery (OSS) and Zeuterin (scrotal zinc injections) that may provide the best of both worlds. The more popularized option of vasectomy for male dogs doesn’t affect testosterone levels, keeping the level of mating desire high and resulting in dogs who still tie regularly with cycling bitches. This can cause injury to both parties.
Apart from sterilization, there are a few things that can be done to keep intact dogs on the same property and still prevent “oops” litters. One of the best tools for a producer is to track heat cycles by marking down when their bitches come into standing heat (frank blood will usually be seen) and then go to a date about a week to two weeks previous. From there, they can calculate 6 months in the future. This should be the time when their bitch will go into season again (for a fuller description of the stages of a bitch’s heat cycle, go here ) The average dog will cycle every 6 months, but each dog is an individual and may cycle anywhere from 4 to 7 months. While many adolescent dogs will have their first heat by the time they are 6 months of age, LGDs tend to start anywhere from 8 to 18 months or even later. Since dogs like to clean up after themselves and since many LGDs have longer hair, careful observation is needed to determine the time of a bitch’s cycle. Other symptoms are often present, including behavior changes, swelling of the vulva and an increase in rear end grooming. Often the dramatic increase in interest of an intact male will signal the onset of a heat cycle more readily than observation of the female herself does. If a bitch has silent heats, where no symptoms are overtly present, it may be best to preemptively isolate her, not keep intact males on the property or consider sterilization for her.
After determining that the bitch is going into heat or is in heat already, the male(s) or she must be confined. Many producers automatically confine the LGD male(s), leaving the female open to interference from other males on the property and/or traveling males, wild and domestic. It’s true that if you have few stray dogs in the area, good fences, multiple females who cycle concurrently and only one or two intact males on the operation that it might be better to confine the males, but supervision and frequent checks of the barriers are still necessary in that case. Some producers have found that even keeping a male under lock and key in an outbuilding does not deter them in the long run. It may be that tethering is a more effective choice, and that tethering inside a fence even more so. Always follow safety protocols when exercising this option. Supervised excursions for exercise are recommended if the tether is too short to allow it or if the dog is kept in a building.
If there is more than one intact male LGD on the property, fighting will likely occur. Separating the males or keeping an intact male with one that is fixed will usually solve that problem. Some producers run their LGDs in same or opposite sexed pairs where one is fixed, or in group where only one male is intact with good success. Bitches who come into heat may also fight with other bitches. Confinement of the bitch in heat resolves this as well as a few of the problems with preventing unplanned litters; a watched bitch is not able to mate, and confinement reduces the spread of her very enticing smell which attracts males. Some producers use pens or outbuildings for this purpose, and still others bring the cycling bitch up to the house for the duration of her cycle. Using female diapers (see picture below) and scent masking are two tools that help reduce the appeal of the cycling bitch. Early crate training or confinement training is a must when choosing the management option of keeping a bitch up at the house for her cycle.
If all fails (which can happen even in the best managed operations), tying occurs and a pregnancy is imminent, what can be done then? Simply put, there are really only two safe options: spay the bitch and subsequently abort the litter or see the gestation through and make changes in management and prevention . Neither of these options may be ideal, but they are the safest for the bitch. There is a third option of giving medication to prevent implantation of the fertilized eggs or to terminate the pregnancy. These are not without significant side effects and carry with them a chance that they won’t work at all. Here is a rundown of the various drugs and their potential consequences. While they are risky, producers with valuable potential breeding dogs may choose to discuss using them with their veterinarian, especially if the current mating will result in a LGD/non-LGD litter.
While unplanned litters can have difficult consequences for the mother, pups and the producer, they can also result in a healthy, happy litter of future guardians. Responsible producers who choose to see a litter through or who aren’t aware of a litter until it is too late do what they can to maximize a challenging situation by culling or giving both the mother and pups the best chance for success. (Later posts will outline some of the ways in which a litter and mother can be set up in this way.) They then take what they have learned and apply it going forward. Shutting mother and pups up in a stall in the barn for 8 weeks, giving away pups at less than 7 weeks or refusing to handle or socialize the pups are not, in the end, appropriate and responsible solutions.