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Medicine LibreTexts

13.08: Pregnancy

The Placenta And Foetal Membranes

As the embryo increases in size, the placentaumbilical cord and foetal membranes(often known collectively as the placenta) develop to provide it with nutrients and remove waste products (see diagram 13.12). In later stages of development the embryo becomes known as a foetus.

The placenta is the organ that attaches the foetus to the wall of the uterus. In it the blood of the foetus and mother flow close to each other but never mix (see diagram 13.13). The closeness of the maternal and foetal blood systems allows diffusion between them. Oxygen and nutrients diffuse from the mother’s blood into that of the foetus and carbon dioxide and excretory products diffuse in the other direction. Most maternal hormones (except adrenaline), antibodies, almost all drugs (including alcohol), lead and DDT also pass across the placenta. However, it protects the foetus from infection with bacteria and most viruses.

Anatomy and physiology of animals Development & implantation of the embryo.jpg

Diagram 13.11 - Development and implantation of the embryo

Anatomy and physiology of animals Foetus and placenta.jpg

Diagram 13.12. The foetus and placenta

The foetus is attached to the placenta by the umbilical cord. It contains arteries that carry blood to the placenta and a vein that returns blood to the foetus. The developing foetus becomes surrounded by membranes. These enclose the amniotic fluid that protects the foetus from knocks and other trauma (see diagram 13.12).

Anatomy and physiology of animals Maternal and foetal blood flow in the placenta.jpg

Diagram 13.13 - Maternal and foetal blood flow in the placenta

Hormones During Pregnancy

The corpus luteum continues to secrete progesterone and oestrogen during pregnancy. These maintain the lining of the uterus and prepare the mammary glands for milk secretion. Later in the pregnancy the placenta itself takes over the secretion of these hormones.

Chorionic gonadotrophin is another hormone secreted by the placenta and placental membranes. It prevents uterine contractions before labour and prepares the mammary glands for lactation. Towards the end of pregnancy the placenta and ovaries secrete relaxin, a hormone that eases the joint between the two parts of the pelvis and helps dilate the cervix ready for birth.

Pregnancy Testing

The easiest method of pregnancy detection is ultrasound which is noninvasive and very reliable Later in gestation pregnancy can be detected by taking x-rays.

In dogs and cats a blood test can be used to detect the hormone relaxin.

In mares and cows palpation of the uterus via the rectum is the classic way to determine pregnancy. It can also be done by detecting the hormones progesterone or equine chorionic gonagotrophin (eCG) in the urine. A new sensitive test measures the amount of the hormone, oestrone sulphate, present in a sample of faeces. The hormone is produced by the foal and placenta, and is only present when there is a living foal.

In most animals, once pregnancy is advanced, there is a window of time during which an experienced veterinarian can determine pregnancy by feeling the abdomen.

Gestation Period

The young of many animals (e.g. pigs, horses and elephants) are born at an advanced state of development, able to stand and even run to escape predators soon after they are born. These animals have a relatively long gestation period that varies with their size e.g. from 114 days in the pig to 640 days in the elephant.

In contrast, cats, dogs, mice, rabbits and higher primates are relatively immature when born and totally dependent on their parents for survival. Their gestation period is shorter and varies from 25 days in the mouse to 31 days in rabbits and 258 days in the gorilla.

The babies of marsupials are born at an extremely immature stage and migrate to the pouch where they attach to a teat to complete their development. Kangaroo joeys, for example, are born 33 days after conception and opossums after only 8 days.


  • Ruth Lawson (Otago Polytechnic; Dunedin, New Zealand)