Pregnancy Diagnosis

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The Ultrasonographic Diagnosis of Pregnancy in the Dog and Cat

Linda E. Luther, DVM, DACVIM (SAIM)

The Normal Uterus

The normal uterus is difficult to visualize in the dog (normal size 0.5 – 1 cm), and usually not visualized in the cat. A full urinary bladder provides a good acoustic window. The body of the uterus lies dorsal to the bladder and ventral to the colon, and is either close to the midline, or just to one side of it. The uterine horns are difficult to visualize unless they are enlarged. The normal uterine lumen is usually not distinguishable.

Gestational Age Defined

In the dog, pregnancy does not necessarily begin on the day of mating. During the canine reproductive cycle, estrogen peaks followed by the luteinizing hormone (LH) peak 1-3 days later. Ovulation occurs 1-3 days after the LH peak. The dog is in estrus or ‘heat’ starting at the LH peak or several days before or after, estrus lasts for 5-9 days, breeding may occur on multiple days, and the male’s sperm is fertile for 4-6 days. All of these factors result in an uncertain conception date, and thus variable gestation length (56-72 days) when counting after the breeding date. Canine gestation length is fairly consistent (65 ± 1 days) when counting after the LH surge. Assessment of gestational age ultrasonographically is thus defined in relation to days after the LH peak. In the cat, conception takes place shortly after breeding, and their gestational age is 61 ±1 days. Cat’s ovarian activity is influenced by the photoperiod. Ovulation in the cat is usually induced by breeding, but can be spontaneous. Often, without ovulation or pregnancy, a cat will cycle every 10-14 days.

Methods of Pregnancy Diagnosis

No blood or urine test exists to confirm pregnancy in the dog or cat. Pregnant dogs and cats are typically not hormonally distinct from non-pregnant animals in the post estrus period. Dogs and cats do not have an estrus cycle every 3-4 weeks like humans do, thus they cannot be observed for a ‘missed’ cycle. Methods of pregnancy diagnosis used include abdominal palpation, radiography and ultrasound.

Abdominal Palpation

At approximately 28 days post LH peak in the dog (range 21 to 35 days) and 30 days post breeding in the cat, the individual gestational sacs can be palpated. As the uterus gets larger, the individual sacs can no longer be differentiated. The large uterus can often still be palpated, but pathologic conditions of the uterus cannot be distinguished from pregnancy.


Litter size can be most accurately predicted radiographically (93% accurate). At approximately 45 days post LH peak in the dog and 36-45 days post breeding in the cat, fetal mineralization can be seen radiographically. Possible reasons for missing a diagnosis of pregnancy radiographically include masking by overlying viscera with ingesta, underexposure and scant fetal mineralization. The fetal skeletons must be seen to confirm pregnancy. An enlarged uterus could be due to disease such as pyometra.


Ultrasound is an excellent way to determine if an animal is pregnant, if the fetuses are viable and what the gestational age is. Ultrasound generally is not an accurate method of determining litter size. Fasting the patient before the pregnancy check ultrasound exam is often not necessary. Breeders should be informed ahead of time that the animal will be shaved, as some will object to this. The exam can be started from the caudal midabdomen, imaging the urinary bladder first, then examining dorsally for the uterine body. The left uterine horn is followed cranially, and then the right uterine horn is followed caudally. The uterine horns bend in multiple directions rather than lie in a straight line when a large litter is present, and fetuses can be seen literally ‘everywhere’ in the abdomen. In this situation, a systematic approach to view every fetus, but each fetus only once becomes challenging.

Ultrasound is a very sensitive and specific imaging method to diagnose pregnancy if it is performed at least 30 days after breeding in the dog and at least 16 days after breeding in the cat. Pregnancy has been diagnosed as early as 10 days after breeding in the dog and 11 days after breeding in the cat. False negative exams can occur due to overlooking a fetus, which could happen due to gas or fecal material creating shadows. False positives could occur due to viewing a loop of small intestine, but most of the time imaging in a second plane reveals that intestine becomes tubular, whereas a gestational sac does not. Visualization of a gestational sac is considered to confirm pregnancy. Uterine enlargement will precede the formation of the gestational sac, but that is not a specific finding. Cardiac activity and fetal movement are predictable signs of fetal viability. Visualization of the embryo and cardiac activity usually occur on the same day. Initially, cardiac activity appears as a flutter within the embryo tissue. The fetal heart rate is usually twice the maternal heart rate, and usually is between 200 and 220 beats per minute (bpm). Fetal activity can include swallowing, hiccoughs, and body and limb movements.

Prediction of gestational age can be accomplished by assessing for the presence of fetal structures (See Tables 1 and 2) as well as measuring the gestation sac (GSD), crown-rump length (CRL), and head diameter (HD) and body diameters (BD) of the fetus (See Tables 3 and 4). The timeline of appearance of fetal structures is constant between breeds, and these observations should always be used along with the measurements that are taken to most accurately predict gestational age. When obtaining measurements, at least two fetuses should be used. In dogs, the accuracy of measurements (using GSD, CRL or HD) is best at 30 days post LH peak. The accuracy is not affected by litter size, but in toy and miniature breeds (? 9 kg), one day should be added to the calculated gestational age. In giant breeds (> 40 kg), two days should be subtracted from the calculated age. In the last 3 weeks of gestation, the accuracy falls to about 50%, and the head diameter measurement should be used as it is the most reliable. Overall, the accuracy of prediction of gestational age at any time during gestation, once adjusting for body weight as described above, is 87% ± 2 days from the predicted age.

Fetal Number cannot be Accurately Judged with Ultrasound.

A reason for this could be that only a small section of the reproductive tract can be imaged at one time, allowing fetuses to be counted more than once or not at all. Fetal resorption may also be a factor. The tendency is to overestimate the size of small litters, and underestimate the size of large litters. One can probably say it is a ‘small litter’ or a ‘large litter’, but otherwise the accuracy is very poor (one study quotes 18% accurate when the exam is done 30-50 days post-breeding, and only 8% when done 50 days post breeding). Many veterinarians and clients are not aware of this limitation of ultrasound, thus they are expecting to get a fetal number along with the diagnosis of pregnancy and prediction of gestational age. The statement, “The litter size will probably be whatever is counted, plus or minus 5”, seems to get the point across that ultrasound is not an accurate way of predicting fetal number.

Pregnancy Abnormalities

When a fetus dies before 25-35 days post ovulation, resorption usually occurs. The resorption rate of the entire litter has been reported to be 11% in dogs. Approximately 5-13% of dogs may resorb one or more fetuses, but carry the rest to term. When fetuses die after 35 days, they are usually aborted. Signs of fetal death include increased echogenicity of the embryonic fluid, loss of cardiac activity, loss of fetal activity, loss of detail of fetal structures, collapse of the conceptus and uterine wall and intrauterine or fetal gas (not to be confused with overlying intestinal gas).

Ultrasound can be used to monitor fetal development. The canine embryo grows 1 mm per day from 17 to 30 days post LH peak, after which the growth is exponential. If growth is slow, or development of a fetal structure is not observed 2 or more days after it is expected, the fetus has a greater chance of being resorbed or aborted. Fetal congenital abnormalities have been infrequently reported in veterinary medicine. Fetal stress due to hypoxia, such as might occur during dystocia, is manifested as a slowing of the heart rate. Fetal distress is severe if the heart rate drops below 180 bpm.

The ultrasonographic appearance of the post partum uterus has been described, but evaluation of uterine involution is rarely indicated in a standard practice. The appearance of a retained placenta has not been described, and the placenta would most likely blend into the uterine wall and other luminal contents. Sub-involution of placental sites occurs in the dog, but the ultrasonographic appearance of this has not been described.

Table 1.

Timing of recognition of canine fetal structures (from Mattoon and Nyland, 2002).

Fetal structure Days post LH Peak Days before parturition
Gestational sac 20
Embryo 23-25
Cardiac activity 23-25
Yolk sac, U shaped 25-28
Yolk sac, tubular 27-31
Fetal orientation (head and body) 28
Limb buds, fetal movement 35
Fetal skeleton 33-39
Stomach, urinary bladder 35-39 26-30
Lungs: hyperechoic vs. liver 38-42
Kidneys, eyes 39-47
Cardiac chambers 40
Intestines 57-63


Table 2.

Timing of recognition of feline fetal structures (from Davidson et al., 1986).

Structure Days post breeding Days before parturition
Uterine enlargement
Gestational sac
Fetal pole (echogenic linear density) 15-17 44-46
Cardiac activity 16-18 43-45
Fetal membranes 21-24 37-40
Fetal morphology 26-28 33-35
Fetal movements 28-30 31-33


Table 3.

Fetal structure measurements (from Kutzler et al., 2003).

Measurement Details
Gestational sac diameter (GSD) Anechoic space is measured.
Average two dimensions taken at 90º.
Crown-rump length (CRL) Days 26-29: Total length.
After day 30: Most rostral crown to base of tail.
Head diameter (HD) Days 30-35: Same plane as CRL. Measure outside edge.
After day 35 (skeleton seen): Biparietal diameter
Body diameter (BD) Days 26-29: Same plane as CRL
After day 30: Transverse plane at level of liver/stomach
Average two dimensions taken at 90º.


Table 4.

Formulas to predict gestational age (GA) and days before parturition in the dog and cat (from Mattoon and Nyland, 2002 and Zambelli, 2002; GSD=gestational sac diameter; CRL=crown-rump length; HD=head diameter; BD=body diameter; GA=gestational age.

Dog (± 3 days) Cat (± 2 days)
Less than 40 days (measurements in cms):
(6 x GSD) + 20 (BEST)
(3 x CRL) + 27
Less than 30 days (measurements in mms):
(1.0901 x GSD) – 0.9372
(1.0099 x CRL) – 0.03378
More than 40 days (measurements in cms):
(15 x HD) + 20 (BEST)
(7 x BD) + 29
(6 x HD) + (3 x BD) + 30
More than 40 days (measurements in cms):
(25 x HD) + 3
(11 x BD) + 21
Days before parturition
65 - GA
Days before parturition
61 - GA



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