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How Many Litters Can a Dog Legally Have? The Ethics of Breeding

The number of litters a breeder allows their mother dog (known as a dam) to legally have is a huge factor separating reputable breeders from puppy mills. The United Kennel Club and regulations in other countries recommend registered litters to 4 or 5 from the same dam.

But as of this post, the United States has no legal limit on the number of litters a single dog can produce. However, an ethical breeder will be taking many factors into consideration when it comes to the number of litters their dogs produce. (Read why it's not wrong to buy puppies from a dog breeder here.)

The main point to consider is that there is no one size fits all approach when it comes to dog breeding. Just like in humans, reproduction can be complicated with dogs! Some seem to have incredibly easy pregnancies, deliveries, etc. while others may struggle for various reasons or even unknown causes.

A good breeder should be taking into account a large number of factors and be willing to retire a dog early if needed, while other dogs may be able to easily have 5 subsequent pregnancies with zero health concerns.

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A dog is capable of having over ten litters in her lifetime, however, most dogs will not be able to produce this number of healthy litters and remain healthy herself. One obvious sign that a female should be retired is that her litter size drops drastically. Small litters or litters that for one reason or another have some health complications (like umbilical hernias) can happen even among young, fit mothers, but they can also be a sign a mother is older and needs to retire from breeding.

A best practice is 4-6 litters per dog

Most reputable breeders will cap even their fittest, best mothers at around 4-6 litters so that she can be spayed while she is still young and at her healthiest. Reasons that a reputable breeder may have to retire a dog sooner would be difficult deliveries that may require C-sections or other common reproductive related difficulties such as recurrent mastitis or uterine infections.

However, most well-bred dogs are able to have a good handful of litters with no health concerns. Remaining active during pregnancy and whelping and being able to maintain a healthy weight during nursing are signs that your dam is feeling good and able to continue producing litters.

Physical health is one factor that breeders should be highly aware of, but a dam’s emotional health matters, too. A breeder should always be in touch with their dogs and show a high degree of concern for their wellbeing. Some dogs seem to really enjoy being mothers and spend extra time with their pups and actively choose to play with them, bring them treat/toys, etc.

Other times, a dog may not seem to jive with motherhood. A breeder should be willing to retire a dog early if they simply do not seem to enjoy being a mom. This can look like a dog not wanting to spend time with her puppies, seeming particularly anxious during the whelping process, etc. A breeder who is in tune with her parent dogs will likely retire some earlier than expected for reasons such as these.

Besides actual number of litters, there are other questions to consider when it comes to the ethics of breeding your dam. When and how often your dog should be bred are also questions that every breeder must grapple with. And similar to the topic of number of litters, the answers to these questions do vary based on size and breed of dog as well as other factors.

Even reproductive vets tend to disagree when it comes to the answers to these questions. As an example, previously, skipping heats between pregnancies was strongly encouraged in the breeding community. However, newer research has suggested that the more heats a dog has in her lifetime, the greater the risk of pyometra and other health concerns.

Research shared by Dr. Claudia Orlandi PhD, suggested that a breeding female should not skip any heat cycles until she is retired. The study involved dissecting the uteri of retired females. The uteri that had the most scarring and “damage” were from those who had skipped a number of heat cycles.

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So some breeders feel strongly about breeding their females back to back, while others insist that skipping heats allows their females to completely recover physically between pregnancies. Regardless of their answer, your breeder should be able to tell you why they breed their female as often as they do in a way that shows concern for their dog.

Aside from the legally allowed number of litters, the age at which a dog starts breeding is also important

When it comes to what age to start breeding your dog, most breeders aim to begin on the second or third heat. Younger dogs tend to recover faster from pregnancy and delivery, so the earlier you start breeding your dog, the better, if she’s fully grown. If your dog is too young, she may not be fully grown and/or mentally mature enough to have a successful, healthy litter.

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While smaller dogs are often full grown by 12 months of age, larger breed dogs may take up to two years. A female typically has her first heat between 6 and 12 months of age, and cycles every 6 months after that. As a result, reputable breeders typically skip the first heat (or two for larger breed dogs) to ensure the dog is fully developed before becoming pregnant.

In conclusion, there is a lot of conflicting research when it comes to when, how often, and how many litters a dam should produce in her lifetime. Even among reputable breeders, you may find different answers to all of these questions. However, your breeder should be able to answer these questions honestly and with transparency and be able to give thoughtful answers that show concern for their dog’s health.

A reputable breeder should be working closely with a veterinarian who can help them answer some of these tough questions based on medical research. Your breeder should seem knowledgeable about their dogs’ health and be able to back up their answers to any of these breeding questions with research and/or veterinarian counsel.

Breeders who seem to dodge these questions or give short, unthoughtful answers may not be putting their dog’s health first. As a buyer, doing your due diligence and finding a breeder who can and will take the time to answer these questions and show concern for the health of their parent dogs will likely pay off in the long run with a healthy, well-tempered pup!

Be sure to do your research about the legal litter limits in your country before buying a puppy.

Jenna the JLDD Team

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