How to help your animals giving birth produce healthy youngsters.
How to Help Animals Giving Birth
Few events signify spring more beautifully than animals giving birth to baby animals. Since we're entering the season when many
species bear young—and when all animal owners must face the
task of helping as best they can—here are some tips
to ease you through those joyful, but often nerve-racking,
animal birth days.
Ideally, you've already taken several steps to prepare your
expectant critters for motherhood. Although it's beyond the
scope of this article to list each individual species'
needs, it's important that you at least have had your
mothers-to-be vaccinated, wormed, and treated for external
parasites no less than 30 days before the expected birth
date. (You've kept accurate records so you know when that
date is, right?)
As the day nears, prepare a warm, dry, draft-free, and
absolutely clean birthing place. A few days before the
blessed event, you may want to clip away any excess hair
around the vulva and teats and scrub the areas well. (Such
clipping is especially important for ewes and pigs, but not
necessary for rabbits or cats.)
Put your midwifery supplies someplace where you'll be able
to find them quickly. Have several clean drying towels
handy (old bath towels or diapers work fine). A small,
wide-mouthed bottle filled with iodine is ideal for
sanitizing a newborn's dangling umbilical cord. With the
cord immersed in the iodine, simply hold the bottle tightly
against the little one's belly and turn the bottle and baby
over. (This isn't required for rabbits.)
Most births proceed without a hitch and present no
problems. It's always a good idea, though, to have your
veterinarian's phone number handy—both for regular hours
and after hours. And you might want to read MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 85's
article "Livestock Parturition" for information on handling
troublesome deliveries yourself—just in case.
Keys to Animal Birth Survival
The first few hours of any youngster's life are the most
critical. The two essential keys to helping a babe through
these hours are to make certain it gets its life-giving
dose of colostrum and to be sure it is warm and dry.
Colostrum is a special kind of milk that the mother
produces during the first few days of baby's life; it
provides important antibodies against diseases and serves
as an exceedingly rich source of nutrients. Colostrum can
be absorbed by a newborn's gut for only a few hours after
birth ... so it's essential that baby gets to nurse right
Animals are born with a special kind of fat, called brown
fat, that acts as a source of fuel for generating heat. The
problem is, there usually isn't much of a brown fat supply,
and in really frigid climes this heat generator may be
totally depleted in a matter of hours. So it's vital that
you do everything you can to keep newborns warm and dry.
A brisk rubdown with a towel immediately after birth will
warm the baby, stimulate its breathing, and dry it off. (Of
course, you have to be there when all the action occurs—that's why it's so important to keep a close eye on
expectant mothers.) After baby is completely dry, make
certain that the bedding, too, is dry and clean, and be
sure there are no drafts.
Many animal owners use a heat lamp for helping keep little
ones toasty warm. That's OK, but there are some problems
you should consider.
For most critters the ideal beginning temperature under a
heat lamp—measured next to the bedding—is 80 degrees Fahrenheit to
85 degrees Fahrenheit. (According to standard procedure, you then
decrease this five to 10 degrees each week until you reach
ambient temperature.) Unfortunately, that's also the ideal
temperature for growing bad guy bacteria. Many goat and
sheep breeders have found that their lamb and kid crops are
healthier without the lamp—so long as there is plenty of
bedding and a companion or two to cuddle up to. The bottom
line is, if you're going to use a heat lamp, you'll need to
clean up the bedding underneath it at least four or five
times a day.
Another problem with heat lamps is that they are a fire
hazard. Vermin seem to relish the taste of exposed
electrical cord, creating a volatile situation that's
definitely not conducive to your animals' (or your barn's)
The following are some special considerations for the birth
days of individual animal species.
Dogs and Cats
Reasonably enough, expectant canines and felines tend to
choose the most comfortable spot around for having their
litters. Unfortunately, that often means the family sofa, a
bed, or under the porch (where you can't help if
necessary). To avoid this situation, try to get momma-to-be
accustomed to the place you'd like her to use as a delivery
room. Keep her confined to that area, most of the time
anyway, for about a week before her due date.
Born naked and helpless, the young rabbit needs a home safe
from the elements. Mother rabbit provides an insulating bed
of fur that she has pulled out from under her chin. Your
job is to provide a nest box that measures 18 to 22 inches
long by 12 inches wide by 12 inches high in the back. (See
"Ten Commandments for Raising Healthy Rabbits," in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 61.)
Put the box in the hutch three days before kindling—any
earlier and the doe tends to use it as a bathroom; later
can be disastrous, because the mother might not be
sufficiently accustomed to the nest box to use it, and
babies born outside the box may not stay warm enough to
In really frigid weather, mother's fur nest may not be
adequate. You can help by lining the inside walls of the
nest box with plastic foam (supermarket meat trays work
well) and making sure that the nest box and the hutch are
well out of the wind.
Chances are you won't be able to see if the bunnies get
their colostrum. Doe rabbits feed their young for only a
few minutes during a 24-hour period, and this is done at night, when no one is
around. Check the bunnies in two or three days to see that
they're potbellied healthy.
Ewes tend to wander off from their lambs right after they
give birth. To discourage this wanderlust, pen momma a few
days before she's due in an enclosure that's four feet on a
side, and keep her there with her offspring until she
accepts them as hers.
Feeding colostrum to goat kids may present another kind of
problem. Recent evidence indicates that an insidious
disease, caprine arthritis and encephalitis (CAE), may be
passed in the colostrum. Some goat owners pasteurize their
does' colostrum before feeding the kids—check with your
veterinarian for current info on this problem.
Since they are nearly hairless, piglets need a warmed
environment, beginning at about 85 degrees Fahrenheit. On the other
hand, mother pig is comfortable in a room that's about
50 degrees Fahrenheit to 60 degrees Fahrenheit. If she's hot and uncomfortable, she'll
be continually up and down—and each trip is a potential
piglet smasher. The key to keeping mother from being a bone
crusher is to have her farrow in a farrowing crate—an
enclosure measuring about three feet wide by seven feet
long—that allows the piglets to scurry out and away from
her. (See "How to Breed Healthy Pigs" in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO.
64.) To be sure the wee ones stay warm when
they're separated from mom, provide a heat lamp or a floor
area that's been prewarmed with a heating pad.
A Final Tip
The advice that I give most often to expectant animal
owners, and that undoubtedly is the hardest to follow, is
stay calm. Animals know when you're nervous and
they pick up on it. I've seen a momma dog start labor and
then stop—for two days—when she sensed her owner's
apprehension. So whatever you do, try to keep your