Dogs have a much different way of doing things than humans—it’s no secret. No matter how relatable they are, they are still animals with instincts that we don’t always understand. If you have witnessed or heard of a dog eating placentas after birth, it might strike you as strange.
However, this is an act of nature that is easily understood if you look at the scientific facts. So, why exactly do dogs eat their puppy’s placenta? In short, dogs eat their placentas to instinctively clean up and reabsorb nutrients after labor. We’re going to go over all of that and more.
What is a Placenta? Do Dogs Have Placentas?
A placenta is an organ that is a direct result of pregnancy. The placenta is a crucial part of the fetal development process and uterine expansion, carrying all of the necessary oxygen and nutrients from the mother’s blood to the puppies and removing all of the harmful metabolic waste and carbon dioxide.
Dogs can have up to 12 puppies per litter, and each of them has their own placenta. Once the puppy is born, the placenta serves no more purpose once the puppy detaches. Sometimes it comes out on its own once the pup passes, and the mother tidies up the afterbirth.
Are Puppies Born with Umbilical Cords?
During the labor process, the mother will give birth to one puppy at a time. As each puppy comes out, the mother will lick them clean. Due to the specific type of canine placenta, puppies are often born surrounded by the amniotic sac (inner part of the placenta), which has the function of protecting the puppy during pregnancy.1 Puppies need to be released from it promptly upon birth, as otherwise, they may suffocate or aspirate fluid into their lungs.
At birth, the mother breaks this sac, releasing the puppy, and licks the puppy roughly, which stimulates their breathing. During this process, she gently severs the umbilical cord that connects the placenta to the pup.
Dogs typically give birth to a litter of four to six puppies at a time, but it can be a few more or less, depending on the breed. The birthing process itself can take 3 to 12 hours to complete, usually up to 6 hours, depending on the size of the litter, and should never take longer than 24 hours.
If the birth is taking longer than 12 hours, the mother is passing a lot of blood or thick green discharge, or she has been straining and having strong contractions for 20 to 30 minutes without delivering a puppy, you have to contact your veterinarian immediately.
Image Credit: Henk Vrieselaar, Shutterstock
Why Do Dogs Eat Placentas?
Sometimes the mother may not eat the placenta from each puppy, but she may eat a few. Not only is she instinctively cleaning up, but she’s also reaping the nutrients that the placenta provides, especially after an exhausting labor process. However, eating placenta is not a substitute for a balanced and healthy diet that a pregnant and then lactating female dog requires.
Some of the reasons scientific studies list as possible for why dogs may eat the placenta after birth involve the following:
- Hunger. Mother will be exhausted after delivery and may be instinctual to eat the placenta, as the obvious source of food. Having a litter of puppies takes a lot out of a lady. Eating the placenta is like the mother’s first meal served on a platter. It gives her back the nutrients that her body is losing as a way to recover and is rich in protein.
- Cleaning process. During delivery, the female dog cleans the puppy, by licking their head and then the rest of their body, releasing them from the amniotic sac, and biting at the umbilical cord. By eating the placenta, she is reducing contamination of the puppy and her immediate surroundings.
- Avoiding unnecessary attention. It is speculated that another reason may be reducing contamination of the environment and strong smells that may attract other animals, and most importantly predators, that will endanger litter survival.
- Acceptance of the litter. Ingesting the placenta, licking the puppy and the afterbirth fluids may be related to the mother’s acceptance and recognition of her puppies, ensuring the development of the mother-offspring bond, which increases the chances of puppies’ survival.
- Endocrine effects. Placental tissue and fluids may contain hormones, as there are receptors throughout it that enable some of them, like oxytocin and relaxin, to bind and exhibit effects. These hormones may help the mother with bonding, the birthing process itself, and milk production, but there is only outdated research into these effects so far.
- It may reduce the pain. Both amniotic fluid and placenta may contain substances that stimulate the release of endorphins and may suppress the pain the mother is experiencing during and after birth. More research is required to test this hypothesis in dogs.
As we can see from the previous list, there may be a few potential benefits of mother dogs eating placentas after birth. Some of these, however, don’t have strong scientific backing yet, so it’s best to consult with your vet during your dog’s pregnancy. These benefits have not been fully investigated or confirmed by scientific research in human medicine either.
Some dogs might go a little bit overboard with cleaning their puppies, so do supervise the process in order to stop any excessive licking that may lead to damage to the puppy’s umbilicus, legs, or other body areas.
There are also some potential health risks associated with dogs eating placentas, but these are usually rare. Eating placentas will unlikely be harmful to your dog, but the main issues may involve:
- You will lose the count of placentas, and ideally, you should record each as it’s passed.
- Placenta may be contaminated with bacteria and viruses which could lead to a stomach upset in some dogs, especially if they eat too many.
- Human placenta may be contaminated with heavy metals, but the significance of this for dogs is yet unknown.
- Mothers who are nervous or particularly stressed during birth may damage their puppies while trying to eat the placenta.
Why a Mother Would Eat a Puppy
As unfortunate as it sounds, in addition to eating placentas, sometimes a mother will try and eat a puppy. There are a few different reasons this can happen, although it is very uncommon.
Maternal infanticide, or a mother dog killing and then eating one or her puppies, is considered an abnormal and aggressive maternal behavior. Studies on various animal species, including dogs, have identified potential different causes for this behavior, some of which are high-stress levels of the mother, hereditary predisposition, poor environmental conditions, and low serotonin and oxytocin levels.
A study from 2018 aimed to investigate serum lipid and oxytocin levels of Kangal dogs having a previous history of maternal infanticide and cannibalism. The levels were significantly lower in these dogs, suggesting that oxytocin is an important factor in dogs for the normal onset of maternal behavior.
One of the reasons that is commonly mentioned in many sources and other pet sites is that something is wrong with the puppy and the mother picks this up. Some speculate this may also be an adaptive strategy to reduce litter size, adjust the sex ratio, as well as eliminate defective or sick offspring. In this case, the mother may kill and then eat the puppy, possibly to prevent contamination to the other litter members, but more research is required to confirm how dogs are able to recognize and utilize this approach.
Once all of the puppies are born, cleaned, and warm and the mother is comfortable and well, you can check out how much is left to clean up. Some are extremely clean, while others leave quite a mess. The bedding will need to be changed, and you will need to monitor each of the puppies several times per day.
Ensure each puppy has been latching on the mother’s nipple and nursing successfully, and it’s very important to get them all weighed and their weights recorded in the first 24 hours. This way you can monitor their growth and development and ensure they are doing well. Speak to your vet about routine worming and vaccinations the puppies will require as they grow.
Try not to disturb the mother as much as you can. As you probably know, she just went through quite a traumatic bodily experience, and it’s crucial that she forms a healthy and strong bond with her puppies without distractions. Also, be mindful that although she is your dog, some females, especially nervous or first moms, may become overprotective and even aggressive towards familiar and unfamiliar people who are trying to get too close to her puppies.
We have already mentioned counting placentas, if possible. If the mother doesn’t pass an equal number of placentas as the number of pups, this can lead to a condition called retained placenta. Usually, the placenta is passed during labor, up to 15 minutes after each puppy, or several of them. Or, if it stays in the uterus, it often disintegrates and passes out as discharge within 24–48 hours. Inflammation of the uterus called metritis may develop due to the retained placenta.
This condition requires veterinary attention and if you have not accounted for each placenta, it’s best to contact your vet for advice. Often the mother has actually eaten it while you weren’t looking, and it’s rarely a cause for concern, but it’s best to be safe rather than sorry.
Your vet may recommend that you monitor the mother for possible signs of retained placenta, such as lethargy, lack of appetite, vomiting, fever, discolored and often smelly green discharge, or showing puppy neglect. If one or more of these are present, or your female dog just isn’t quite right, it’s advisable to get them checked out by your vet promptly.
So, if your dog ate a few of their baby’s placentas after they were born, that is perfectly normal. In fact, it’s quite expected—not to mention, based on an evaluation of scientific literature, it may be healthy for your dog to be able to reap the beneficial nutritional value and improve the bond with her puppies, but certainly the harmful effects are negligible.
Do keep an eye on the mother, as some may get a stomach upset, and if you think she hasn’t passed all of the placentas, give your vet a call. Keep up with meticulous hand hygiene while your dog is giving birth to her puppies, for your protection and the pups’ as well.
Not every motherly instinct is the same. If the mother is trying to eat her puppies, it isn’t an everyday phenomenon, but it might be happening due to stress, hormone imbalance, illness, or lack of viability of a certain puppy. Do your best to stop this by closely monitoring what the mother is doing and by safely removing the puppies if she is showing signs of aggression.
If you have any questions or concerns regarding the birthing process, contact your veterinarian well in advance of the big day so you are informed and know what to expect when the time comes. This way, you will recognize any birthing complications or issues quickly, so your dog can get the required veterinary attention.