“Hey, Where Did My Vet Go?!”

Today’s Whelping Challenges and the Boston Terrier

It’s 3 pm on a Saturday and your bitch has started labor three days earlier than expected.  A quick phone call to your vet, who had promised he’d be available for a section, causes instant panic when the receptionist tells you that due to other emergency surgeries, they cannot do a c-section on your girl. So you call your backup vet and are given the same story… their surgeries are booked that day and being a weekend, they will be closing early.  A call to a local emergency clinic reveals a packed schedule as well. Time ticks by as you search for a fourth backup plan, never imagining the first three would fail. A second emergency clinic across town will fit you in, but it’s their policy to spay any sectioned bitches… so either agree to that, or find another clinic. So now you have an “if all else fails” option that would sacrifice your bitch’s breeding career. Time ticks by, the labor isn’t going away, and decisions could literally mean life or death.

This is a breeder’s nightmare. But sadly this is similar to what multiple breeders have experienced in just the past few months, some have even lost puppies.  In one case an inexperienced emergency veterinarian went overboard on the anesthesia and lost half of the litter and nearly lost the dam. This is no minor problem for our breed.

An Ongoing Issue

Though most assume the pandemic and a surge of puppy buying is to blame for the lack of veterinary availability, the AVMA reported that new adoptions didn’t appear to have as much influence on the shortage as we thought. This has been an ongoing issue in the field.  The turnover rate for vet techs, pre-pandemic, was already at 23% and veterinary turnover was at 16%, which is much higher than for human doctors. It’s not an easy field and sadly suicide rates are higher for those in the veterinary field than the general population. Due to a low number of veterinary professionals graduating and moving into the field, combined with the increased demand for vet care, Mars Veterinary Health predicts a need for 41,000 new veterinarians by 2030, which is a shortage of about 15,000 veterinarians projected in the next eight years.

Now let’s throw a monkey wrench into the already problematic ratio of vets to pets. Many vets fresh out of college have been taught to approach their new practice with an animal rights, not animal welfare, mentality. This creates more of an anti-breeder, and even a bit of anti-brachy, state of mind, which is bad news for us. Veterinarians also have a higher rate of early retirement than other medical doctors, and since the industry tends to be female dominated, many took the opportunity during Covid to make the decision to stay home with children. So as the trusted vets retire, much of the next generation has been raised on the “adopt don’t shop” mantra, and more recently the “all brachys are bad” messaging. Sadly this will likely increase more forced spay policies or flat out refusals of elective c-sections. Just as it is difficult to find a vet who will crop ears, elective sections could easily dwindle as well. High demand allows vets to pick and choose who they will work with. Our flat faced electively sectioned breed is not on the top of the popularity list, making it possible that our future selection of vets will be limited.

Not A Recent Development

Dystocia in the Boston Terrier is not a thing that has developed in recent years. There is mention of a need for c-sections for smaller bitches in “The Complete Boston Terrier” by William Denlinger published in 1955. He states, “It is well to understand that if one is going to breed many litters of Boston Terriers, one is going to have to resort to the Caesarian section sooner or later.” And since that time, sections have gone from emergency only, to pre-planned and the preferred method of delivery. Many breeders have never even learned what to do should their bitch actually start delivering naturally in front of them. One of the biggest experiences in being a dog breeder is completely skipped over as we rush to section our litters every time. The very concept of this is completely foreign to most other breeders whose breeds always deliver naturally. Whereas some Boston breeders are very critical of those who make their bitches endure labor, other breeders are often are very critical of those of us who make our bitches endure surgery without knowing whether or not it’s even necessary. To most of the rest of the canine world, our way of thinking is completely backwards.

The harsh truth however, is that WE HAVE MADE THE CHOICE TO BE IN THIS SITUATION. Not consciously, but our actions as breeders and the actions of breeders before us brought the breed to this point. So then did we make mistakes and make irresponsible decisions as breeders on this journey? ABSOLUTELY NOT.

The best thing for us to do as breeders is to breed the very best quality we have, and to do what is best for the dogs and litters right in front of us. Removing a large number of beautiful bitches from the gene pool when diversity and consistency is needed would not have been beneficial, especially over seventy years ago. And as breeders it’s our responsibility to do what is safest for the dam and her litter in that moment. With c-sections taking away most of the risk of losing puppies during a natural delivery, that is more often the safest choice. WE DID NOTHING WRONG.

But the long term results are what we are stuck with, and our reliance upon a veterinary team and major surgery to successfully deliver a litter was a negative thing for our breed. Yes, our breed IS man-made. But we must make sure there is no risk of suffering with what we have created. With a decrease in veterinary services, there is a very real risk of suffering. And should the availability of services continue to decrease, the risk to our dams will increase. This is a problem.

There have been many arguments on the topic over the years. One common suggestion is to “breed Bostons with wider hips”. The argument against that is we would be breeding against the standard. However nowhere does the standard say we need narrow hips. We should have a square dog on all four corners and if we have a decent chest, we should have a matching rear. Right now we have plenty of bitches who could stand to use some width in the rear to match their fronts. However this is not the issue. You do not automatically get free whelpers from big rears. You get free whelpers from wide and round pelvic openings.

The Science Behind the Problem

In a study in 1999 by A. Eneroth et al from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, it was determined that the following factors contributed to dystocia in Boston Terriers. Small litter size was a main contributing factor, which in turn affected puppy size, and puppy size in turn affected the size of the puppies’ heads. There was a marked difference between puppies being delivered at 6.7 ounces versus 7.4.  The other factor was that the pelvic opening in some bitches was flatter on top, making the opening more of a square than a circle, and preventing puppies from passing through as easily. (IMAGE) This is inherited.  It has been a common belief that natural births are in certain dam lines and not in others, and the fact that it’s pelvic structure being passed down makes perfect sense. It would seem to make sense then, that pelvic structure and free whelping ability can also be inherited from the sire, since the structure of the bitches on his side of the pedigree would also contribute to the structure of the resulting female puppies.

The study suggested that breeders could determine which bitches were more likely to free whelp with the use of radiographs. The study took place in 1999 and its findings were again discussed at the World Small Animal Veterinary Association World Congress in 2003. It has been discussed in multiple publications and groups since that time, however there has been very little spoken about actually putting this information to use to increase free whelping in our breed. It’s something we know, but not something we use. Should that change?

In certain other European countries, future offspring cannot be registered if a bitch has a second c-section. Once is fine, but if it happens again, the bitch must be removed from a breeding program. Natural births are viewed in a much more positive light in other countries, and many more breeders allow their bitches to free whelp, or at least to try. It is considered a positive quality by most, and even a must-have for some. You will find a larger number of natural births overseas because they are allowed to try. We might be surprised at how many can give birth on their own without any problems. 

Pictured are x-rays done during the final week of pregnancy.

  • Figure 1 is of an 18 lb bitch who free whelped easily, from free whelping lines
  • Figure 2 and 3 are from bitches who were not allowed to free whelp.
    • 2 was a 15 lb bitch who came from a long line of sectioned bitches
    • 3 was a 13 lb bitch who came from a long line of free whelpers on one side of her pedigree but not the other.
    • The pelvic openings are round, however notice that 2 is not as wide as in figure 1.  3 shows potential for free whelping but due to small size she was automatically sectioned.
  • Figure 4 shows a very square pelvic opening. Notice how low and flat the top of the opening is. This bitch was 15 lbs and sectioned without any attempt at allowing her to deliver naturally.
  • Figure 5 is of a 13 lb bitch whose dam could not free whelp but she free whelped easily. Her sire came from free whelping lines and though her dam didn’t free whelp, the tail female line in the previous generation had several strong free whelpers.

The Future

So how do we move in the direction of increasing the number of natural births in our Bostons? We tend to breed away from structural faults in our dogs. Should a restrictive pelvic opening join those faults? This is not to say anyone should throw away a gorgeous sound bitch based on an x-ray of her pelvis. But would it be beneficial to know which dogs do carry these abilities so that it could be considered, along with all of the other positives, in a potential mate?

Should we consider pulling in lines that we might not normally add, or importing lines that are known free whelpers from other countries? What about utilizing outcrossed pedigrees more often in an effort to increase litter size? A lack of genetic diversity has been known to reduce litter size, and in our breed many are big fans of line breeding for beautiful consistency. But trying something new here and there may be a viable option.  This isn’t meant to suggest breeders should do anything they are not comfortable with, but wouldn’t it be a good idea to increase the chances of a bitch being able to deliver her puppies naturally “just in case” of emergency?  Especially if those potential emergencies are likely to increase for many breeders in the U.S..

We cannot change our breed overnight. It’s uncertain if we can change it in any significant way overall. But big changes often start with baby steps and not a big leap. We should take a better look at our x-rays of our bitches and make some mental notes. Keep track of some overseas lines that tend to have free whelped litters that are a quality we admire. Consider making notes on our pedigrees of any known free whelping lines. Stop buying into the idea that hoping a bitch can deliver naturally is what “cheap breeders” and “backyard breeders” do. Stop viewing elective sections as the only responsible way litters should arrive.  We need to open our minds, because this is much more than that. This is the big picture.