Milk fever (eclampsia/hypocalcemia) occurs when a dog is nursing and doesn’t have enough calcium reserves for her system to keep up with the demand, which then results in her calcium levels falling dangerously low. It is usually seen 1-3 weeks after giving birth, but can also occur in the last weeks of gestation or pregnancy.

It can affect any size and breed of dog but seems to affect small breed mothers with large litters the most. Breeds such as Chihuahuas, English Settlers, Miniature Poodles, Pomeranians, Toy Poodles, Miniature Pinscher, Shih Tzu, and other small breeds are at an increased risk, as well as dogs who have previously had milk fever and are daughters from mothers who had the condition.

A calcium deficiency can occur because of:

  • A depletion of calcium, when the body cannot replace the calcium lost during the process of foetal bones formation during gestation and when milk production is high during lactation
  • An insufficient diet/nutrition (during pregnancy and after) that lacks in calcium
  • If excessive calcium supplements/foods were given prior to birth and the mother is now unable to access the calcium stores in her own body
  • A hormonal problem with the parathyroid gland causing a disruption in normal calcium levels

Symptoms of milk fever in dogs

The signs are very subtle in the beginning. The female may be restless, panting heavily, drooling, moving stiffly, vomiting and/or have a reduced appetite. Eventually, she will be unable to stand or walk. She will then soon have muscle tremors which could lead to seizures and fever. The “fever” is usually a result of the uncontrollable muscle spasms, which increases the body temperature.

Once the signs of milk fever appear, the condition can turn fatal within 30 to 60 minutes if left untreated.

This is a life-threatening condition that progresses quickly and needs urgent medical attention. Contact us immediately if you think the mother is in trouble.

Separate the puppies from the mother and seek veterinary attention immediately as clinical signs can progress fast. If possible, transport the puppies to the veterinarian in a separate, secure carrier. Stress can worsen the condition, so it may help if the mother can see her litter during transport.

Other signs include:

  • Itchy face, rubbing face on the ground
  • Aggressive
  • Restless
  • Increased heart rate
  • Pace excessively
  • Increased vocalisation/whining
  • Weakness

How is milk fever in dogs treated?

If milk fever is treated early, the chances of recovery are high.

Provide us with a full history including dates of whelping (birth), the number of offspring born and the diet provided.

  • We will confirm milk fever with a blood test.
  • A solution of calcium gluconate will be slowly administered intravenously, while the heart rate is being monitored carefully (overdose or rapid administration can cause severe heart rhythm disturbances / cardiac arrhythmia).
  • Intravenous fluids to treat shock and dehydration might be given
  • If the fever is worrisome, the dog might be placed in a cool bath
  • Oral calcium supplements may also be required.
  • Recovery is usually very quick (within hours) and will not require more than 12 hours in the hospital

We may require weekly check-ups to monitor the levels of calcium in the blood. The mother should be fed a balanced and high energy diet, like puppy food to help with calcium deficiency. The puppies must be hand-reared using a milk replacer/puppy milk since there is a real risk of relapse if they continue to feed from their mom.

Can milk fever be prevented?

Ensure the mother is fed a high-quality puppy food during pregnancy and breastfeeding – these contain adequate levels of calcium, are nutritionally complete and balanced and provide the correct nutrients in the correct proportions. She must have access to food all the time and can eat as often/much as she wants.

Avoid feeding calcium supplements and extra calcium foods (like milk/cheese) during pregnancy as it stops the body from recognising the blood calcium levels are low and inhibits the body from regulating normal blood calcium levels. Only give medications that are recommended by us.

If you are concerned the size of your dog’s litter may put her at risk of developing milk fever, or you have any other concerns, speak to us to work out a plan to prevent the condition from occurring.