Mastitis is a condition that we often think about as being something that affects cows, but it can in fact affect any mammal, including dogs and humans alike. Mastitis is an infection that can affect the milk ducts to the nipples, and which is something that anyone who owns a pregnant bitch or one that is nursing puppies should be aware of, and keep an eye out for.
Whilst most dogs carry, deliver and nurse their puppies successfully without running into any problems-as they have of course done for millennia-occasionally, issues do arise and mastitis can be very painful for your dog, and affect their ability to produce milk and feed their pups successfully.
This means that if you intend to breed from your bitch or your bitch is already pregnant or nursing, you should learn the basics of the condition, how to identify mastitis in dogs, and what to do about it. Read on to learn more.
When a bitch is pregnant or nursing pups, the milk ducts-which run in channels above the nipples-become stimulated to produce colostrum and later on milk, to provide the litter with all of the nutrients that they need to sustain them, and help to kick-start their immune systems.
Colostrum and milk are both rich in glucose sugars and fat as well as being packed with essential nutrients, all of which help the pups to grow quickly and thrive. However, the nipples of a nursing bitch can become tender and irritated quite easily, particularly if she has a lot of pups or very hungry pups. This, in combination with the presence of glucose and nutrients, can create the ideal environment for bacteria that feed on sugars to thrive, which in turn leads to mastitis.
The bitch’s immune system if often enough to fight off a minor bout of mastitis without the need for intervention-but because your dog’s body will already be stretched quite thinly supporting the pups, and she will not be able to get a break from feeding the pups until they are weaned, this is not always the case.
Mastitis may affect all of the dog’s nipples or one or more individual ones, and can cause pain and discomfort as well as an absence of milk in the affected nipples.
It is relatively straightforward to spot something amiss with your bitch’s nipples or ability to feed her litter, and simple physical observation of the dog’s tummy will usually be able to tell you if something is not right.
Mastitis infects the milk ducts and glands, which causes swelling of the nipples and an inability for milk to pass through them, causing physical symptoms such as red, inflamed and angry-looking nipples, and even in some cases, a pus discharge from the nipples too.
This all of course means that the pups will not be able to suckle successfully from the affected nipple or nipples, and so this can cause feeding frustration. Additionally, because a pup trying to feed from a sore nipple will be even more painful for the bitch, your first indication of a problem may be aggression towards the pups when they try to feed.
The milk itself, if present at all, is apt to be discoloured and potentially smell bad, and is not suitable for the pups. The issue at this point will be feeding the pups by another method, and clearing up the infection in the bitch herself.
Mastitis is at best, miserable for the bitch, and can actually compromise the health of the dam and the pups. Serious untreated mastitis can actually progress into septicaemia, and can of course lead to a failure to thrive and even death of the pups if they are not properly fed.
In very mild cases of mastitis that are not affecting milk flow nor affecting all of most of the teats, it can be helpful to express the dam’s milk manually to help to flush out the infected ducts and so, begin to clear the infection. A clean, warm cloth applied to the affected teats in the form of a compress can also help.
However, if the condition is more serious, or if the pups are unable to get enough food, a course of antibiotics from your vet will be required, and your vet will of course need to examine your bitch to confirm diagnosis and the most appropriate form of treatment.
Your vet can also provide advice on ensuring the pups get enough food too, and sell or suggest good, complete milk replacement products for young puppies.
A bitch that has developed mastitis, particularly if it was severe or spread to all of the nipples will be more likely to develop it again in the future-and so anything other than very mild localised mastitis may mean that retiring your bitch from breeding might be the best route forwards. Again, ask your vet for advice, and to discuss your options.