Canine eclampsia, also sometimes wrongly called “milk fever”, is a dangerous condition brought on by low levels of calcium in the blood stream. It is also called hypocalcaemia and puerperal tetany and needs emergency veterinary attention.
Eclampsia is most commonly seen in small or medium-sized bitches a few weeks after whelping. If your dog is in this category you should watch out closely for this condition. It has been shown to be more likely to occur with large litters as the demands on bitches to feed these pups are greatest.
Signs most commonly develop during the first 3 weeks of nursing although it can be seen in the last few weeks of pregnancy and as long as 6 weeks after birth.
The very early signs of eclampsia are easily missed by the owner. These include tiredness and reduced appetite. At a later stage bitches with eclampsia show marked changes such as shivering, restlessness, panting, and incoordination. Some bitches show signs of pain and may rub their face and bite at their feet. They often do not respond to the owner in the usual way. If the disease progresses without treatment bitches may have seizures and very high temperatures of up to 41°C / 106°F. The condition can worsen rapidely (1-2 hours) and immediate help is necessary.
Eclampsia is caused by low blood calcium (hypocalcaemia ). Some bitches are predisposed to develop the condition and their risks can be increased by inappropriate nutrition – “Home made” diets are usually at fault. A common mistake is for owners to add extra meat to the bitch’s diet. This causes a mineral imbalance and can upset the levels of calcium in the blood.
Bitches with large litters are particularly at risk because they are producing more milk – milk contains quite high levels of calcium and when puppies start to take large amounts of milk (10 to 30 days after whelping) the bitch may find it hard to maintain sufficient calcium in her blood. Milk production has priority over the blood stream for calcium!
Eclampsia is a life-threatening condition and your vet will need to start treatment straight away. Intravenous fluids are given to replace calcium and energy levels. It is vital that the bitch is monitored closely during this time and your vet may want to admit her to the hospital for this treatment. In addition to correcting the calcium levels other emergency treatment may include lowering of body temperature with cool baths.
When given intravenous calcium patients generally stabilise within 10-15 minutes and the temperature is reduced to normal via the cool bath.
You need to be aware that bitches that have had one episode of eclampsia are more likely to have recurrent bouts and great care should be taken later in the same whelping and at subsequent pregnancies.
After initial emergency treatment calcium supplementation should be continued (your vet will supply tablets). Supplement the puppies’ intake with a milk replacer as soon as possible to decrease the milk demands on the bitch. Puppies should be weaned as soon as possible.
In future pregnancies you should provide your bitch with a high quality commercial food but don’t over supplement with calcium or unbalanced meat products. Diets should not be supplemented with calcium as this can negatively influence the bitch’s ability to activate calcium when needed.