Misty’s dilemma – eclampsia in a new mum

Misty, a lovely little 1 year old Jack Russell Terrier arrived at the Animal Emergency Centre in Woolloongabba one night panting loudly, with a high temperature, a rapid, irregular heart beat and struggling to stand. Her legs seemed to be stuck in rigid spasm and her muscles were trembling.

Misty had given birth to a healthy litter of 6 puppies only three weeks prior to her visit. Misty was a natural mum and her owners reported that she barely let the pups out of her sight for even a moment. All the puppies were feeding very well and growing rapidly!

On the day she arrived at the AEC however, Misty hd seemed out of sorts. She wasn’t really interested in eating and seemed to be quite weak. As the evening progressed her owners became more concerned as she started to shake and pant uncontrollably. They decided to get her to the emergency centre straight away.

On presentation to the Animal Emergency Centre, the veterinarian on duty was suspicious her clinical symptoms were due to a condition called ‘Puerperal Tetany’ or ‘Eclampsia’, which is also known as ‘Milk Fever’. Eclampsia occurs when the body has very low levels of calcium due to lactation (production of milk). Blood was taken for immediate testing and an intravenous catheter was placed.

Blood tests confirmed that Misty had a dangerously low calcium level. Misty was given two vials of calcium via her intravenous catheter very slowly over 20 minutes while her heart rate, blood pressure and ECG trace were monitored. Within thirty minutes of administration of the calcium Misty was a new dog! She ate a large bowl of food, ceased panting and her muscle spasms also resolved. She was even able to give us a little tail wag. Her heart rate and temperature also normalised.

Misty was monitored in hospital overnight and was able to go home to her owners and her puppies the next day. Her owners were given calcium supplements to add to her food while she continued to lactate. They were also advised to minimise some of Misty’s feeding of her puppies by starting to wean the puppies and bottle feed them a few times a day. Misty made a complete recovery and all six puppies went to their new homes about six weeks later.

“Eclampsia” is a potentially life-threatening condition if left untreated. It usually occurs in the first four weeks of lactation when milk production is at its peak. Small dog breeds with large litter sizes are at most risk of developing the condition as they are unable to match calcium intake with the calcium drain of lactation to feed hungry puppies.

Low blood calcium can lead to tremors, convulsions, swelling on the brain and death if untreated. Clinical symptoms are similar to Misty’s; dogs are often restless, panting, drooling, hypersensitive, exhibiting gait changes, muscle tremors/spasms and convulsions leading to death.

The condition may be avoided by feeding mum a very high-quality, well balanced diet during pregnancy and lactation such as a good-quality puppy food. The dam should have access to food ad lib during lactation. In addition, small dogs with large litters will likely benefit from calcium supplementation during lactation. Puppies should be weaned as soon as possible from mum, by starting to bottle-feed for a few feeds a day with a milk-replacer and attempting early weaning to solid food from 3-4 weeks of age.

The prognosis for dogs that are treated quickly following symptoms of eclampsia is excellent and most will make a very rapid recovery once they have been given intravenous calcium. Prognosis is poor if treatment is delayed.

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