Canine Maternal Hydrops: A Potentially Deadly Condition We Know Too Little About

Medical articles

I remember reading several posts about hydrops, a devastating complication of some pregnancies in Golden Retrievers, on Facebook and in groups I belonged too.  Breeders I knew were losing litters and, sometimes, even their bitches.  I was concerned and felt horrible for those affected, but I filed it away because it did not involve me.  But hydrops would involve me soon and thank goodness for the concerned breeders who had been compelled to share information.

I bred one of my girls, Cheers, to a dog I had admired for years and was very excited when the pregnancy was confirmed during an ultrasound performed at approximately 30 day post ovulation.  The ultrasound was pretty routine and the vet predicted about six puppies. 

A couple weeks after the ultrasound I realized Cheers looked much bigger than she should if she was having six puppies.  The pups should have been half grown for Cheers to be that large.  Then I noticed that her abdomen was rock hard.  There was no room for more growth and we were at the beginning of the largest growth phase for the puppies. I discussed Cheers’ symptoms with a breeder I respected who had experience with hydrops. We agreed that hydrops could be what we were dealing with in Cheers’ pregnancy.

Bitches deliver their litters 63 days, plus or minus one, from the day of ovulation.  As Cheers neared days 55 and 56, her symptoms increased.  Edema began in the vulva (left) and the hocks.  Labored breathing increased her panting, so I decreased the size of her meals and water consumption.  I contemplated whether I was really dealing with a Hydrops case or if she just had a lot of puppies in a small body.  An x-ray at my veterinarian confirmed extra fluid.  It was obvious, despite the blurriness of the film that we were certainly dealing with both a hydrops pregnancy and a litter larger than six puppies. It might interest you to know that my vet knew nothing about hydrops, had not heard of it, and obviously was not going to be able to help me in this situation.  I went home, continued my regimen, and hoped we would be able to ride this out.

On day 59 things got worse and I became very worried about Cheers and her well-being.   I visited the Veterinary Specialty Clinic for more help and another ultrasound.  I was disappointed when they were not familiar with hydrops and tried to convince me I was wrong.  Fortunately for me, the board certified surgeon was mentored by a theriogenologist and she called her for more information.  The surgeon educated herself, let me know we were most likely looking at a C-section, and scheduled one for Monday (day 61).  We knew from the information the surgeon’s mentor gave us that we would need to be pushing fluids and replenishing what Cheers lost as fast as possible.  We also knew we had to put the puppies on antibiotics immediately. 

Despite the best laid plans, we ended up doing an emergency C-section on Sunday night (day 60).  There were 11 puppies, we lost three at the vet and another a few days later when he did not thrive.  I was lucky, it could have been much worse. 

The biggest problem remains… what is hydrops?

The answer to that question is complicated.  We really have no idea what causes hydrops, though many things have been suggested.  Thoughts range from environmental factors to the blood type of the puppies and the mother being at odds.  We simply do not know the cause and a pattern has not developed.  Research continues, and a possible study would help answer some questions about preventing this complication, but for now we must concern ourselves with the signs, symptoms, and how we can limit the risk to our canines.  Although my experience has been limited to Golden Retrievers, hydrops has been seen in many other breeds.  It is a problem we all must address, and be ready to deal with as the symptoms arise, in order to save our affected litters.  

Symptoms vary and all or none of these symptoms can be present:

  1. Size and weight increase that is out of proportion to the expected number of puppies  (For reference: A typical Golden Retriever bitch will gain two pounds per puppy.)

  2. Abdomen that is hard to the touch

  3. Edema or swelling of the vulva, hocks, and feet

  4. Leaking of clear fluid

  5. Unclear, blurry x-ray at day 55-56

  6. Ultrasound showing excess fluid

  7. Heavy vomiting close to delivery

  8. Early temperature drop, not beginning labor

  9. Most expel large amounts of fluid during c- section which must be replaced by IV

  10. Decrease in condition in the last two weeks of pregnancy.

Treatment involves managing the symptoms as they present themselves.   At this point, there is no treatment regimen defined by veterinarians.  C-sections are necessary in most, if not all, cases.  Sometimes a premature C-section must be performed to save your bitch. You have to be ready to make a decision before your girl crashes and you lose everything.  Some say a low-sodium, more Adkins-type diet and 500-1000 mg. of dandelion root twice daily can help. You may want to slow weight gain (without starving) and give a diuretic to decrease the fluid.  The diuretic of choice is spironolactone.   Another common practice is injecting Dexamethasone to mature the lungs of the puppies faster, giving them a much great chance of survival should they be born early.   Most importantly, give your bitch IV fluids with a large bore needle during the C-section and give the puppies antibiotics following the C-section.

Knowledge and education continues as we experience hydrops more and more frequently.  It is important to note that this condition is most common in first pregnancies, does not always happen to the same bitch on subsequent pregnancies, and may or may not be passed on to offspring.  Until we know more, it’s our best bet is to learn from each other and share our information openly.

Author: Julie Caruthers