Holistic management for breeders

How to help your breeders understand the strengths and weaknesses of their particular breeds, and aid in ensuring healthy litters of puppies.

Building a better dog begins way before the parents ever meet! Breeders need a thorough understanding of the genetic consequences of their choices. You should coach your breeder clients to understand the strengths and weaknesses of their particular breeds, and to evaluate the conformational and genetic integrity of potential sires and breeding bitches. In the show dog world, there is an unfortunate tendency to “breed to win” by tweaking a line’s morphology to align with popular fads among judges. This practice has been responsible for highly detrimental shifts in breed standards over the past 100 years, creating dogs that have significant health issues bred into them along with the desired looks.

Once a well-proportioned, athletic dog, the Bull Terrier has transformed discernibly over time. His thicker abdomen and unnaturally rounded head and snout are a consequence of selective breeding.

The Bulldog’s ever-increasing size and receding snout has led to numerous health complications. In most cases seen today, medical intervention is required during the birthing of this breed as a result of its large skull.

Why does the practice of dog breeding create so many inadvertent health problems?  Through selective breeding, humans have modified size, coat, skull shape, ear type, tail carriage and other traits. But when looking at a variety of wild canids, and interbreeding populations of feral domestic dogs, a genetic blueprint for canids emerges: medium size, medium coat length, long tail, cone-shaped head, and upright ears. (For more information, see “Recovering canine health: saving indigenous dogs” by Michael W. Fox, DVM, and Deanna L. Krantz, IVC Journal, Fall 2017)

In particular, changes in skull shape toward extreme brachycephalic and dolichocephalic dogs (as well as brachycephalic cats) has destroyed the health and functionality of breeds that were once exceptional working dogs and robust pets.  Some breeds, like English Bulldogs, have such huge heads that they are unable to normally whelp and require a C-section for each litter. his breed is also known for dysfunctional bites, severe dyspnea and cardiac anomalies. Others, like Collies and Shelties, can be expected to have poor dentition and significant eye defects because of their excessively narrow skulls. Vets and breeders need to work together responsibly to prevent these unintentional cruelties.

For optimal fertility, the breeding bitch should be in excellent general health, with a solid but lean body score (4 out of 10), and given regular exercise. The diet should be high quality and protein-based. Processed commercial foods are not ideal because many kibbles are found to contain contaminants, which risks teratogenic effects, or even abortion in developing fetuses. Additionally, the high proportion of carbohydrate ingredients in dry dog food has a pro-inflammatory effect in the carnivore body. Many canned foods have a similar nutritional profile by dry weight as their kibble counterparts, so careful label reading is important!

Peri-parturient management

A match has been made, the breeding has “taken”… now what? Prepare, prepare, prepare!  The bitch needs to be in tip-top form for birth and lactation. Body score in the final weeks should be 4 to 5. While extreme roughhousing is not a great idea, normal gentle exercise should be encouraged daily, to help keep the bitch fit and supple for whelping. A prenatal ultrasound evaluation tells how many puppies to expect, and flags skeletal abnormalities or extreme size differences in the puppies. A very large puppy is a risk factor for potential dystocia: it can act as a plug in the birth canal. A prenatal chiropractic adjustment for the mom will normalize and balance muscular tone, reduce stress and may reduce risk of dystocia.

During the first half of gestation, the bitch’s nutritional needs are only slightly increased and it is important not to overfeed, as excess weight gain can lead to problems during parturition. If the owner is feeding a homemade diet, it is critical for them to have a proven recipe, a balanced vitamin and mineral supplement designed to provide trace minerals, and an appropriate amount of calcium for this non-lactating adult phase of life.

Feeding during pregnancy is a tricky balance. The bitch needs more calories for the developing puppies in the final weeks of gestation, but too much calcium supplementation creates a risk of eclampsia and too little can pull needed minerals from the dog’s bones.  For the first six weeks, the quantity of food provided should not alter from her normal diet.  In the last three weeks of gestation, however, the size of her meals should increase by approximately 25% each week, while keeping the calcium dose the same. In other words, don’t increase calcium intake with the increased ration. If the dog is fed a commercial food, the 25% increase should consist of fresh meat and vegetables; if the dam is fed a fresh food diet (preferred) the breeder may increase the muscle and organ portion of the diet but not add more bones. A baseline mineral ratio should be 0.8% to 1.5% calcium to 0.6% to 1.2% phosphorous.

Whelping concerns

Breeders need to make sure the prepared whelping box is of adequate size to accommodate the size of the dog and the size of the litter. The environmental surface for whelping must have some traction but not snag tiny toenails. Once whelping is in train, make sure the owner knows to document birth order, weight and markings, and to ensure that all puppies are capable of suckling.

If this is the dam’s first litter, a lack of adequate mothering skills can endanger the lives of the pups. Recent research has shown that mothering skills are both genetically and epigenetically programmed, with suboptimal nutrition and an experience of poor mothering while the dam was a pup as known risk factors. Homeopathic Sepia (see below) can be a great remedy for rewiring these critical connections if the bitch seems disinterested in her puppies. Puppies that are weak and having trouble getting started often benefit from a dose of homeopathic Thuja (see below). The breeder may need to consider options like a “sow crate” or spacer rails to keep the bitch and pups separated except for nursing.

After whelping, lactation demands a higher proportion of calcium and phosphorus: 1% to 1.8% calcium to 0.8% to 1.6% phosphorus. Because of the nutritional demands during this time, it is even more important to feed a high quality, easily digestible and balanced diet.  Most dogs can be fed ad lib until weaning time.

Early management: three to 16 days

Most educated breeders know to weigh puppies daily to monitor weight gain and identify problems, but you may have to coach newbies. It is useful to teach them how to document other significant developmental milestones in each puppy, such as eye opening, visual tracking, tonic neck reflex (ability to hold the head upright) and efforts to stand.  It may be useful to note structural and developmental differences between puppies relative to birth order and size.

The early neurologic stimulation program (Bio-Sensor) developed by Dr. Carmen Battaglia is a proven way of jumpstarting the puppies’ neural and immune competence. It starts on the third day of life, and consists of a short daily routine (three to five seconds each) of varied stimuli: tactile stimulation, positioning upright, positioning upside down, positioning on back, and thermal stimulation with a cool towel on the feet. Dogs exposed to this program show numerous benefits: improved cardiovascular performance, stronger heartbeats, stronger adrenal glands, more tolerance to stress, and greater resistance to disease. In learning tests, pups stimulated with the Bio-Sensor program were found to be more active and more exploratory than their non- stimulated littermates (breedingbetterdogs.com/article/early-neurological-stimulation).

First adjustment and righting training: 16 to 30 days

Positioning puppy upright to challenge extensor reflexes.

The most important intervention you can make to improve litter quality is to evaluate and correct problems of neural organization before the puppies are fully ambulatory. Ideally the timing for this visit should be somewhere within three to five weeks postpartum, as soon as the pups are able to thermoregulate away from the bitch. First, evaluate the bitch for any residual asymmetry from parturition. This is especially important if there was any dystocia.

When the mom and pups come in for exam, carefully observe the puppies in the new environment and document differences among the group in terms of curiosity, gaiting abilities and stress levels. These are toddlers, and while they are funny to watch, they are actually experimenting with different aspects of locomotion. Their primary gaiting patterns and the kind of play they will soon engage in will require movement in multidimensional space. You can assess functional deficits by observing when puppies are unable to do their intended movements: look for the the one who keeps falling over (roll), the one who falls on its face (pitch and tilt), the one who can’t control its direction (yaw), the one who can swim and sit but doesn’t walk (pitch). This will give you clues about what manual therapy needs to be done, and how you can assess your results. Early childhood adjustments have a huge impact, because they can prevent problems before they are ingrained by growth and development. Litters that are given an early childhood intervention, like the one below, tend to yield a higher proportion of show quality dogs.

For each puppy, perform an individual examination, including the following:

  • Listen to heart, observe any abnormalities
  • Examine and compare skull and jaw structure and symmetry
  • Look at tonic neck reflexes (can he control his head in space?)
  • Examine visual horizontal tracking (can he direct attention, and track with eyes?)
  • Examine and challenge extensor (standing) reflexes for:

-Strength and symmetry

Dr. Judith M. Shoemaker demonstrating gentle extension and flexion of the atlanto-occipital joint with Dr. Leslie Woodcock.

-Equal front and hind competence

The following exercises are part of the Canine Posture Rehabilitation protocol, as developed by Dr. Judith Shoemaker, Dr. Karen Gellman and Elizabeth Reese. As you work with the puppy, frequently stand it up on all four feet, “rubber side down”, to reinforce the standing posture reflex. Each time you place the puppy, whether on your lap or the floor, the limb extensor reflex should be triggered by the paws touching a support surface. The primary postural reset for the front end is to gently extend the head and neck downward, and flex at the atlanto-occipital junction by bringing the nose towards the chest with a single finger. Make sure the puppy’s head can turn and rotate in every direction. The postural reset for the hind end is a tug downward on the tarsal bone of each hock. Gently! If you are trained in a specific manual therapy, you can go through your usual manipulation routine, bearing in mind how delicate these juvenile structures are. Be especially careful with any high velocity manipulation.

Remember the giant first puppy whose birth was so difficult? These extra large puppies, often the greatest birth weight, can be slower than their littermates to achieve developmental markers, and may appear somewhat dull. The first puppy in a dystocia birth will have spent a long time having his skull squeezed in the birth canal. These slow pups are especially in need of chiropractic, and even cranial-sacral treatment to recover from their difficult parturition. You may need to treat them more frequently in the first six weeks.

The “righting” exercise, lowering the puppy, head first and supine, with a gentle bend toward one side. The correct response is for the puppy to twist upright and reach out with the near forelimb.

When your normal manual therapy routine is complete, test the puppy’s righting mechanisms and neural integration. This challenge is achieved by holding the dog supine in your two hands, and lowering it with head down and a slight turn to one side. The righting reflex should trigger the down forelimb to reach to support the body. This should be tested on both sides (see photo at right). In some pups, one side may be slower or they may try to reach with their opposite legs, showing cross signaling. This maneuver should be practiced until both sides react symmetrically. It should take no more than three tries in a pup with a normal nervous system. If one side continues to be slow, practice on the good side, then return to the slow side to see improvement. At the end of all manual therapy and righting challenges, reset the posture again and re-examine symmetry and reflexes. Recheck the heart as well after the procedure — if there was an abnormality, it may have disappeared with reorganization and posture change. Reassess each puppy’s symmetry, movement, body confidence and curiosity, and document any changes.

Management after initial adjustment

Adjust and perform righting challenges (Postural Rehabilitation) again before weaning.  In cases of asymmetry, adjust frequently (every one to three weeks) during rapid growth to allow symmetrical growth. Document and address, if possible, abnormalities in dentition every time, along with listings and asymmetries. Dental problems are best addressed in the juvenile teeth, before the adult bite is formed. All carnivores are born with an underbite to facilitate nursing. There is normally a growth spurt in the mandible as the first teeth erupt. If a puppy has teeth that are slow to erupt, a dose of homeopathic Silica (or its constitutional remedy) may correct the problem. Growth asymmetries are usually addressed by removing the baby teeth on the slow side. It is best to consult a board-certified veterinary dentist at the appropriate time. Teaching puppies to chew appropriately by giving them raw chicken necks to learn on is a great way to build good behaviors and even intelligence. Dogs who learn to gnaw the meat off the bone, and grip the bone in their paws, have greater dexterity and problem-solving skills.

Getting puppies straight and symmetrical in the beginning will save the owner much time, money and worry. Many puppies raised like this are self-maintaining — needing only six-month or once-yearly checkups unless they experience trauma, toxins or stress. When animals start life with a solid grounding in their relationship with gravity, they can often withstand and heal from severe illness and injury.

Acute Peri-parturient homeopathic remedies  (“first aid”)

Classical homeopathy can be a quick and effective way to treat emerging conditions pre- and post-partum. You may want to put together a homeopathic emergency kit for breeder clients who will use it responsibly. It is best to use lower potencies when treating acute problems at home (30c and 6c by Boiron are often available in health food and even grocery stores). The remedies usually come as BB-sized pellets, packaged in small, lip balm-sized tubes. They can be administered either as one to two pellets given orally; or for tiny pups, dissolved in a small amount of water then dripped into the mouth with an eyedropper. Dosing is usually done one or two times, and not repeated until after consulting a homeopathic veterinarian. Please also consult a homeopathic veterinarian for directions using higher potency remedies.

Apis mellifica: Mastitis with red, edematous mammary tissue (and lack of thirst)

Arnica: Good to give to dam after whelping to promote quick healing of bruised tissues; also good for newborn puppies that seem slow in starting to nurse/move around.

Arsenicum: For the puppy that has trouble getting started breathing, is cyanotic

Belladonna: Mastitis with redness and heat, bitch is irritable

Carbo vegetabilis: For weak, cold puppies

Gelsemium: For the bitch that is extremely weak and exhausted during labor

Phosphorus: Good for stopping bleeding

Phytolacca: For mastitis when glands become indurated and painful, milk is stringy or chunky

Pulsatilla: For stalled labor, a dam that seems to have trouble bonding with puppies, or puppies that are weak and cry constantly

Sepia: For a dam that is not bonding with her pups at all

Silica: For puppies whose teeth are slow in coming, who seem weak and may have large heads

Thuja: Helps to stimulate puppies that are weak

For a larger and more detailed list of remedies, Homeopathic Care for Cats & Dogs: Small Doses for Small Animals by Don Hamilton is a good beginning resource. The Pitcairn Institute of Veterinary Homeopathy offers a year-long veterinary training program and Dr. Christina Chambreau offers three- to six-day introduction to veterinary homeopathy classes.



Dr. Karen Gellman is research director of Maximum Horsepower Research, which studies posture and locomotion in horses and dogs. She is a graduate of Cornell College of Veterinary Medicine, with a PhD from Cornell in animal locomotion biomechanics. She has co-taught the Postural Rehabilitation professional training course for the past eight years, and speaks to veterinarians, chiropractors and physical therapists. She is trained in acupuncture, chiropractic and other modalities and has a integrative veterinary practice in Ithaca, New York (equinesportsmed.com).