Breeding Soundness Examination of the Bitch

Author: Sharon M. Albright, DVM CCRT

The canine breeding soundness exam (BSE) is a valuable tool to help identify bitches that may be challenged with fertility issues. It also provides baseline information that can aid fertility and breeding decisions throughout the life of a bitch. The Veterinary Clinics of North America, a trusted reference journal for practicing veterinarians, recently published a summary of the breeding soundness examination of the bitch. The author is Dr. Carla Barstow, a diplomate of the American College of Theriogenologists (ACT) and recipient of a 2016 theriogenology residency grant at Auburn University, provided through the American Kennel Club/AKC Canine Health Foundation/Theriogenology Foundation Theriogenology Residency Program. This program is a collaboration among these organizations to increase the number of trained practitioners in companion animal theriogenology and clinical genetics.

(Theriogenology is the branch of veterinary medicine concerned with reproduction, including the physiology and pathology of male and female reproductive systems, and the clinical practice of veterinary obstetrics, gynecology, and andrology; veterinary specialists in theriogenology are denoted as ACT diplomates.)

What should you expect during the BSE of a bitch? A thorough history is important. The veterinarian will ask about the bitch’s breeding history and your future breeding plans. Dr. Barstow recommends a meticulous review of the bitch’s medications, over the counter supplements, diet and vaccination history. She also suggests discussing the bitch’s regular diet plus what the bitch will need to meet the increased needs of pregnancy and lactation. Your veterinarian will also discuss appropriate genetic health testing recommended by the breed Parent Club, which should be completed before breeding takes place. The Canine Health Information Center (CHIC) and are good resources to review the genetic tests recommended for each breed and the laboratories that offer them. Both organizations have partnered with the AKC Canine Health Foundation (CHF) to support owners, breeders, and veterinarians in the appropriate selection and use of DNA testing for dogs.

Next, a thorough physical examination will assess the bitch’s general condition. An appropriate body condition score, adequate respiratory function, and healthy cardiovascular and musculoskeletal systems are needed to support a successful pregnancy. For brachycephalic breeds, remember that any respiratory compromise can impact uterine oxygenation and health. The extra weight of a pregnant uterus can exacerbate musculoskeletal problems. If noted, skin abnormalities may indicate underlying disease. Finally, many endocrine and neurologic diseases such as hypothyroidism and epilepsy are heritable and should be ruled out prior to breeding.

The reproductive tract will then be examined. The vulva and vagina will be assessed for abnormalities. Digital vaginal examination is best done while the bitch is in proestrus or estrus and should be completed after obtaining any cultures of the reproductive organs. Although the veterinarian will not be able to feel the non-pregnant uterus, abdominal palpation is still needed to identify other abnormalities. The mammary chains and teats will also be palpated.

Bitches should be tested for Brucellosis before every breeding. Brucella canis is a bacterial disease transmitted through infected body fluids and tissues (such as the placenta, semen, or urine) and direct dog to dog contact. It causes infertility in dogs and can also infect humans. It is reportable to many public health agencies and regular testing is a critical part of your breeding program’s success. CHF has awarded several grants focusing on more accurate diagnosis and prevention strategies for this important disease. Learn what you need to know from CHF’s Canine Brucellosis fact sheet.

Based on the information collected and physical exam findings, additional diagnostic tests may be needed. Ultrasound is a non-invasive way to examine the ovaries and uterus. Vaginoscopy allows visualization of any vaginal abnormalities noted on palpation and those in the cranial vagina not accessible by palpation. Vaginal cytology is used to determine the stage of the bitch’s estrus cycle and should also be done anytime there is abnormal vaginal discharge. Vaginal culture is not recommended because the vagina is not a sterile environment. In contrast, the uterus should be a relatively sterile environment, so uterine culture results may be useful if correlated with uterine cytology. Finally, if indicated, uterine biopsies can be obtained using surgical or non-surgical technique.

A thorough breeding soundness exam and honest consultation with a veterinarian can greatly improve the future reproductive potential of a bitch. Utilize your veterinary team to maximize the health of your bitch and her progeny.

CHF has a robust portfolio of canine health research focused on reproduction. Learn more about these studies and all of our research at As mentioned above, CHF and its partners at the AKC and Theriogenology Foundation maintain a competitive grants program to provide funding for veterinary residency programs providing specialty training in all aspects of companion animal reproductive medicine and surgery and clinical genetics. Along with breeders like you, we remain committed to addressing the health needs of all dogs across their entire lifetime.

Reference: Vet Clin Small Anim 48 (2018) 547–566.

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