In high producing dairy cattle, this ailment is serious. In dogs, when milk fever (or eclampsia as it is sometimes called) occurs, the animal can die within a day or two after the onset. Milk fever is associated with a low calcium level in the blood. (It really is initially not a ‘fever’ at all; if anything, the body temperature may sometimes decrease). It hits especially small dogs (toy breeds) which have given birth to large litters. Of course, this condition can occur in any breed of dog. The many puppies, as they suckle away relatively large quantities of milk, extract inordinate amounts of calcium from the mother. The calcium regulatory mechanism, which mobilizes body calcium (from the bone) to compensate, cannot cope with such an abundant calcium loss, especially if there is no corresponding dietary intake of calcium.
During the first week or so, when the pups from the small breeds are still tiny, large quantities of calcium are not extracted. Later, as they reach the age of 2-3 weeks, the loss is just too much and there is a great drain on the calcium reservoirs in the mother’s body. Because of this dip in the calcium levels in the blood, this malady is known as hypocalcaemia.
Although this problem usually coincides with heavy lactation, it has been known to occur (rarely) during late gestation (pregnancy) periods. One can see why – the bones of the foetal puppies (while in the womb) need calcium for development; such calcium is being derived and extracted from the mother.
The first signs of the milk fever’ are restlessness (pacing up and down) and hyperventilation (rapid breathing). Disorientation often accompanies the ailment. The bitch further shows her discomfort by groaning/whining and exhibiting a look of anxiety. Soon thereafter, the muscles begin to twitch. The spasms lead to a stiffness of the extremities (that’s why this disease is also known as puerperal tetany). Because of the leg rigidity, the animal has a straight-(stiff)-legged gait. It is about this time the bitch’s body temperature elevates itself to as high as 106°F. She goes down on her side and begins to paddle with her legs. Prolonged seizure activity may cause cerebral damage. Vomiting, increased salivation and a rising of the heart rate are also associated with this phase of the ailment.
The nerve reactions, which are exhibited in cramps and spasms, tend to cause the skin on the forehead to contract into folds. The animal has a worried look. Add to that, the pulling back of the facial muscles, which exposes her teeth (she looks as if she’s smiling), and we have quite a distinct symptomology.
I have noticed that bitches with hypocalcaemia exhibit behavioural changes. Some become aggressive. Others react violently to the slightest external stimulus. She drinks a lot of water and urinates often. Interestingly enough, I have seen milk fever patients nursing their puppies and looking otherwise quite healthy.
First of all, you must consider this ailment to be a genuine emergency. If you have calcium tablets or milk at home, administer some immediately. Speak with your vet; he/she will tell you the dosage according to the size of the dog. Get the dog to the vet as soon as possible. He/she will administer the calcium in the vein immediately. Don’t go bombarding the animal with calcium because that could work deleteriously on the heart, creating an arrythmia. If there is a rise in temperature (anything above 103°-104° F), use anti-fever medication. Take away the pups/kittens (cats get milk fever too; rarely, with largely the same symptoms). Your vet will tell you how to feed the pups and when to put them back with the mother. If they are already three weeks old they can be weaned completely.
Speak with your vet on matters related to the feeding of a high quality, nutritionally balanced diet during pregnancy and lactation. Food and water must always be available.
You can consider feeding the pups supplements (milk replacer) early in lactation, and solid food after 3-4 weeks of age.
Do not feed oral calcium during pregnancy without discussing this with your vet. But calcium supplementation during peak milk production may be helpful, especially in the bitches that have a history of milk fever episodes.
Please implement disease preventative measures (vaccinations, routine dewormings, monthly anti-heartworm medication, etc) and adopt-a-pet from the GSPCA’s Animal Clinic and Shelter at Robb Street and Orange Walk, if you have the wherewithal to care well for the animals. Do not stray your unwanted pets, take them to the GSPCA’s Clinic and Shelter instead. If you do not wish your pet to have puppies or kittens, you may exploit the GSPCA’s free spay and neutering programme. If you see anyone being cruel to an animal, or if you need any technical information, please get in touch with the Clinic and Shelter by calling 226-4237.