You may have heard of a condition called eclampsia that causes seizures in pregnant women, but did you know that eclampsia can also affect lactating female dogs? Eclampsia in dogs differs from the type that affects humans in that it is related to calcium levels and not blood pressure (as is the case in pregnant women). Although it is relatively uncommon, eclampsia in dogs is a life-threatening condition can endanger the life of a nursing dog and her puppies.
What Is Eclampsia in Dogs?
Eclampsia is a condition in lactating dogs that leads to weakness, muscle stiffness, seizures, and even death. It is caused by low levels of calcium in the blood. In dogs, eclampsia is also called puerperal tetany, puerperal hypocalcemia, postpartum hypocalcemia, or periparturient hypocalcemia. Eclampsia in dogs may be referred to slangily as milk fever by some people.
Signs of Eclampsia in Dogs
- Difficulty walking and/or drunken gait (ataxia)
- Muscle stiffness or tetany (involuntary contraction of muscles)
- Tremors, twitching, and/or muscle spasms (from mild to severe)
- Restlessness (often displayed by pacing and/or whining)
- Unusual behavior like aggression or withdrawal from family
- Confusion and disorientation
- Sensitivity to sound, light, and touch
- Excessive salivation
The signs of eclampsia in dogs often come on suddenly, but they may appear subtle at first. Signs will gradually worsen over a short period of time. Without treatment, eclampsia can cause seizures or even coma, which ultimately results in death.
If you suspect your dog is experiencing eclampsia, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately. The sooner treatment begins, the better the chances of the dog's survival.
Causes of Eclampsia in Dogs
Eclampsia in dogs is caused by dangerously low calcium levels in the blood. This condition typically occurs in lactating dogs when their puppies are one to five weeks of age. Rarely, it may affect a female dog that is pregnant or whelping. Hypocalcemia, or low calcium, develops when the mother dog loses too much calcium to her milk production.
Eclampsia is most common in small breed dogs or dogs with large litters due to the high milk demand of the puppies. The body produces milk faster than it can take in calcium. Eclampsia may also be caused by poor nutrition during gestation. In addition, calcium supplementation in pregnant dogs may affect the body's ability to regulate calcium levels, causing them to drop once the dog begins lactating.
Diagnosing Eclampsia in Dogs
If your pregnant or nursing dog shows any signs of illness, it's essential to visit your veterinarian as soon as possible. Your vet will gather information about your dog's medical history, lifestyle, diet, and current clinical signs. A full physical examination will be done on your dog. Next, your vet will collect a blood sample to evaluate serum chemistry, blood cell counts, and organ function. A urine sample may be collected as well. Your vet will make a diagnosis and recommend treatment based on the results of the exam and testing. If lab tests reveal hypocalcemia and your dog has the corresponding signs, a diagnosis of eclampsia will be made.
If your veterinarian diagnoses your dog with eclampsia, it is important to begin treatment immediately. The dog will be admitted to the hospital and administered intravenous calcium while being closely monitored. The calcium must be given slowly and carefully to avoid complications such as arrhythmia (irregular heart rate) and bradycardia (slow heart rate). Additional medications may be used to control signs like seizures and muscle stiffness.
Once calcium levels return to normal, the dog will be sent home with oral calcium and vitamin D supplements. It is generally best for the puppies to stop nursing for about 12-24 hours. They should be given a canine milk replacement formula until it is safe for the mother to nurse again. The puppies should be weaned off their mother's milk as soon as possible.
How to Prevent Eclampsia in Dogs
The best way to prevent eclampsia in dogs is to avoid supplementing the pregnant dog with calcium during pregnancy. Your vet may recommend starting calcium supplementation at the end of gestation or after whelping if your dog has a high risk of developing eclampsia. Puppies may need to be supplemented with formula beginning around three to four weeks of age to avoid the decrease of the mother's calcium levels. Risk factors include:
- Small breed dogs
- Dogs expected to whelp a large litters
- History of eclampsia in past pregnancies
Be sure to feed your pregnant dog a high-quality diet that is formulated for growth according to AAFCO standards. During pregnancy, your dog should get regular check-ups by a veterinarian with experience in canine reproduction.