Vet Talk

Why ‘The Miracle of Life’ may not be the Best at-home Science Project

What if we bred her? Just once. Let the kids see the miracle of birth.

Published: July 02, 2012

What to Expect when you’re Thinking about Expecting lots of Little Feet

Let’s talk about the birds and the bees, shall we?  You know you want to do it.  From the moment you stared into those brown eyes, you couldn’t get the thought out of your head.  What if…

…we bred her. Just once. Just to let the kids see the miracle of birth. Just to let them experience raising a newborn foal/kid/lamb/calf/puppy/kitten/armadillo.

Then the rational justifications began – she has great bloodlines.  We can sell the foal/kid/lamb/calf/litter/whatever-a-baby-armadillo-is, and recoup our investment.  This could be the start of a new business. We’ve been thinking about raising animals; this would be a great start.

Before you knew it, you were researching potential mates online (for your animal, I’m not getting personal here.)  You brought home books and magazines.  You found yourself daydreaming while cleaning your mare’s stall, imagining the snuffling of a soft, tiny muzzle in the straw.  You pictured your Golden Retriever curled in her bed, head arched proudly over the roly-poly balls of fluff. You pictured your smiling children wiping the afterbirth from the bright-eyed faces of pygmy goat kids.

The infatuation stage is intoxicating, isn’t it?  In any relationship, there’s nothing better than that wide-eyed magical point where the possibilities seem limitless and the romantic movie images fill the imagination.  Here’s a hint: if you are picturing Hugh Jackman cuddling that new foal, things have slipped over the edge.  This is where you need a Joan Cusack-style friend.  Someone who, between slurps of coffee, points out where things could go awry.  Here I am, your friendly devil’s advocate, cup of tea in hand because coffee makes me jittery. I’m armed with a few facts, figures, and years of experiences with not only the fluffy, heartwarming side of animal birth, but the colder, darker, and more expensive side. 

There is a host of reasons to breed an animal, and an equally long list of reasons not to breed.  Before you book that appointment with the stud (sire, not Brad Pitt), let’s start by asking some tough questions:

1. What is your goal for this breeding?

2. What is your financial situation?

3. What is your plan for the offspring?

4. What is your level of experience with this type of animal? 

5. How familiar are you with the birth process? 

Let’s take a look at each of these questions and some of the reasons to ask them.  It’s hard to answer any question without adequate information.

What is your goal?

Well, duh, to get a baby unicorn. No, what do you really want to achieve?  Are you hoping to begin a breeding program? Start a business?  If so, how far have you researched this breed?  Do you know the market demand?  Has the demand for this breed or species been consistent over a period of years, or did it skyrocket recently, suggesting that this may be a “fad” animal?  Consider the poor llama.  In the 1980s, llamas were the thing, the future of livestock, but over the last few years, I have been asked plaintively by any number of folks saddled with teenage llamas, “Do you know anyone who wants a guard animal?  Free?”  Are there genetic diseases or other problematic conditions associated with this breed?  Do you know the prevalence in your animals’ bloodlines?

Is your goal more personal?  Do you wish to breed an animal for your own use and companionship?  If so, have you looked at buying or adopting an already-living animal?  In the case of animals such as horses, it is not often only more cost-effective in the long run to purchase a horse that is trained and performance ready, but it is much easier in an adult animal to assess personality and capabilities.

Or do you want your kids to witness “the miracle of life?”

This last question is touchy and treads in the mine-fields of both pet ownership and parenting.  Let me put on my flak jacket and wade in.  I have three kids and I’m a big fan of educating them on the workings of the body.  But one memory from my oldest daughter’s younger years sticks out.  Caitlin grew up around the clinic.  She spent weekends on call, rode with me during vacations, lost boots in the mud, handed me bandage supplies, and even held a sheep’s prolapsed uterus for me while I worked to replace it.  I only saw her horrified once.

A pygmy goat was brought in for difficulty in labor.  I was in the middle of trying to extricate one of the kids when my husband and daughter wandered in.  They opted to stay to watch.  Caitlin’s eyes widened a little at the slime of amniotic fluid and blood that coated the floor, and me, but she held it together until the doe realized that the combination of my hand and the kid’s head in her vagina was rather uncomfortable.  The goat bawled – ok, screamed -- and Caitlin ran crying from the exam room.

Birth may be a miracle, but it is not pretty, clean, or comfortable.  It is messy, often noisy, and with animals it usually takes place in the middle of the night.  Sometimes it goes horribly wrong.  Sure, you’re prepared for your children to witness a birth.  You’re ready for a little mess.  But are you ready to cope with birthing problems?  How do you plan to tell your kids that the baby is stuck?   That your pet may need an operation?  If you are breeding a large animal such as a horse, there may not be time to get the mother to a surgical facility.  And if things go downhill, as they sometimes do, there is a very real chance that you may have to explain to your children why the baby animal(s) - or even the mother – died.

Let’s move on to question 2: finances.

You have likely budgeted for the stud fees and possibly for some of the ultrasound examinations, but have you factored in the following:

1. Veterinary fees for exams, artificial insemination (depending on species), ultrasound appointments, and delivery assistance if required.

2. Repeating the first three items on the above list if your female(s) fails to “take” on the first breeding.

3. Food adequate to supply appropriate nutrition to your female throughout her pregnancy (nearly a year for horses and cattle), through her lactation, and for her young.

4. Emergency care for your female or for the young? Can you afford a C-section ($1500-3000 or more depending on complications) if required? Hospitalization? Surgery if one of the offspring has a birth defect?  Any of  these situations can easily run into thousands of dollars regardless of species.

5. Routine neonatal care: examination; genetic testing depending on breed and species; blood work depending on species and circumstances of the birth.

6. Living quarters for the new additions. Do you have proper beds and a safe room for puppies and kittens? Heat lamps and a warm shed for lambs and kids? A proper foaling stall and foal-proof turnout area for horses?

7. Routine care: vaccinations, deworming, veterinary care, training, etc.

You know that guy on the deck of the aircraft carrier in almost every military action movie, the one frantically waving his arms screaming “Wave off!  Wave off!” as the plane heads for what we know will be a failed landing?  Veterinarians sometimes feel just like that guy.  It is painful to watch someone who has scraped together just enough money to cover the breeding fees and ultrasounds face the painful choices that crop up when things don’t go according to plan.

Speaking of plans, that brings us to question 3: what is your plan for the offspring?

Let’s assume that all goes swimmingly and you have one or many cute, little, bouncing whatever(s).  It’s hard to think of partings so early, but this is critical:  Who will provide the home for this animal?  The dog and cat overpopulation issue has saturated the media for years, but here are a few numbers to drive the point home:

  • 3 to 4 million companion animals are euthanized in shelters every year.
  • Only 10% of animals that are received by shelters are spayed or neutered.

The bottom line: We have more animals than homes.

This problem is not limited to house pets. Everyone wants horses, right?  Reality check: horses are large, potentially dangerous, and very, very expensive – and they may live 20 to 30 years.  Assume an average farrier fee of $100 per complete set of four shoes.  Multiply that by a frequency of once every 6 to 7 weeks.  That’s $700 a year for shoes.  Now multiply again by an average lifespan; let’s be conservative and say 20 years.  Congratulations.  In your horse’s life, you will have spent $14,000 just on his feet.  This is only one example in the vast array of horse-related expenses, and not even the most pricey example at that.  But what happens when an owner’s circumstances change?  When they can no longer afford or no longer use the horse.  A 2007 study estimated that approximately 170,000 horses become unwanted every year in the United States.  In the current economy, this number is likely far higher.

Let’s move on to question 4. What is your level of experience with this type of animal?

Breeding and handling young animals adds a whole new dimension to animal husbandry, so it’s a good idea to have a solid background in the appropriate care and management of whatever species you plan to breed.  While the process of reproduction may seem fairly similar across the mammalian board – no eggs or cocoons, young drink milk, etc – every species has its own reproductive quirks and young animals of every species have specific needs.  For almost any domestic species, some degree of handling and training will be necessary.  Just as adult humans are easier to work with (most of the time) than juveniles of the species, so are adult animals.  Get comfortable with feeding, caring for, exercising, and handling adults before branching out into the young.  For large animals such as horses, this familiarity is not only wise; it will save your life.  Foals look cute, but they start life at 70 to 100 pounds and only get bigger from there. Their bodies grow much faster than their brains.  Dealing with a protective mare and a rambunctious foal without a solid foundation in horsemanship is asking for a ride to the hospital in a limousine with pretty red lights.

This brings us to question 5. How familiar are you with the birth process?

Having children of your own doesn’t count.  What do you know about this species?  Do you know the gestation length?  Do you know what gestation means?  Do you understand the nutritional requirements of the mother in late gestation?  Do you know the physical and behavioral signs that mean birth is near?  Have you witnessed and assisted with deliveries in this species before?  Do you know the stages of labor?  Do you know how soon after the water breaks to expect full delivery?  Do you know the normal delivery positions for this species?  For litter-bearing animals, do you know what interval to expect between births?  Do you know some of the common mal-positionings, or other complications of birth for this species?  Do you know how to assist with delivery or how to determine if professional assistance is required?  Labor complications (dystocias) are fortunately rare in most species, though certain breeds have significantly higher dystocia rates (small breed dogs, pygmy goats).  However, when labor goes awry, prompt and effective correction is required to save both mother and offspring.

In Sleepless in Seattle, Meg Ryan’s friend tells her “You want to be in love in a movie.”  Do you want to raise animals, or do you want to raise animals in a movie?  Take a close look at your own life and bank account as you ponder some of these questions and decide whether the miracle of birth is appropriate for you.

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