Most female dogs adopted from shelters have either already been spayed or come with a contract that makes you responsible for getting the dog spayed when it’s old enough. In that case, you don’t need to worry about your dog going into heat. However, puppies purchased from breeders are normally too young for spaying, leaving it up to you whether or not to spay them.
If you have an unaltered female dog, it is important to learn as much as possible about taking care of her while she is in heat. You should know when your dog will reach sexual maturity, how long a heat cycle lasts, and what to expect during these cycles. If you don’t want your dog to have puppies, it is best to get her spayed.
Dog Estrus Cycle
According to the American Kennel Club (AKC), dogs reach sexual maturity around six months. Smaller breeds may go into heat as young as four months, while larger breeds may take nearly two years to reach sexual maturity. During the heat cycle, there are noticeable behavior changes and physical signs.
After a female reaches sexual maturity, heat cycles reoccur every six months. They can occur more frequently in smaller breeds and less frequently in larger breeds. A single heat cycle usually lasts two to four weeks. Your dog can get pregnant at any time during its heat cycle. Unlike humans who reach menopause at a certain age, dogs experience heat cycles throughout their lives, but the time between cycles becomes longer.
Stages of The Estrus Cycle
Generally, a dog’s estrus (reproductive) cycle occurs in four distinct phases. Each stage has different signs, including behavioral and physical changes. The four stages of an estrus cycle are:
Proestrus is the first stage of the heat cycle when you will start to notice behavioral and physical changes in your dog. Based on various factors, this stage can last anywhere from nine days to twenty-seven days. During this stage, male dogs will try to approach the female, but she will not be receptive to them. Some pets could even be aggressive and irritable during this stage.
The most notable sign during this stage is the swelling of the vulva. Your dog’s vulva can appear more prominent and red, and she will also release bloody or straw-colored discharge during this time. The discharge is not excessive, and most dogs only bleed a little. However, large breeds tend to bleed more than smaller dogs. Dogs tend to lick their urogenital areas more than usual during this stage.
Remember that even though your dog bleeds, she should not be in pain. Agitation and restlessness are normal during the heat cycle but consult your veterinarian immediately if your dog is in pain and appears in genuine discomfort.
The Estrus stage is usually what most people refer to as “going into heat” since this is when your pet will become more receptive to male dogs. This stage can last four to twenty-four days but averages around nine days. During this phase, female dogs are fertile and receptive to advances by male dogs.
The vulva is less swollen and the amount of discharge also decreases. As the cycle progresses, the color and appearance of the discharge also change. According to VCA Hospitals, the discharge appears bloody and thick during the Proestrus stage but changes to thin, blood-tinted discharge.
During this stage, your dog becomes more affectionate and starts begging to go outside. When a female dog is in the Estrus stage, her vaginal secretions and urine contain pheromones that attract male dogs. She will urinate more often and mark areas around the house. Behaviors such as mounting and humping also occur during this stage.
The Diestrus stage lasts eight weeks, and your female dog will stop being receptive to male dogs. The vulva will return to its normal size, and discharge stops.
Anestrus is the time between the Diestrus and Proestrus stages. This stage can last around three to five months. The dog’s body rests and prepares for the next heat cycle.
Caring For A Dog In Heat
Caring for a dog in heat can be challenging if you don’t know what to expect. Once you know when your dog will go into heat and the signs to watch for, you can prepare to care for your dog during this time.
Calm Her Down
Dogs in heat are usually agitated and restless—struggling to deal with the hormonal and physical changes occurring within their body. Ensure your dog has access to a quiet, relaxing environment where she feels safe and calm. Use puzzle toys and play with her to soothe her anxiety and keep her engaged. Dogs are very affectionate during this time so cuddle your pet as frequently as possible.
Taking care of your dog’s hygiene is very important during this time. You will have to find a way to manage the bloody discharge that occurs during heat cycles. Some dogs can bleed a lot and stain carpets and furniture. You can purchase disposable diapers for your pet to keep the discharge contained. There is no such thing as tampons for dogs, but you can find menstrual diapers that are thick and highly absorbent. Some dogs may resist wearing a diaper so it is best to cover furniture or restrict your dog to surfaces you can wipe away.
During her heat cycle, your dog will urinate more often, leading to occasional accidents around the house. Do not reprimand or punish your dog for this behavior since it is normal and a part of owning an unaltered female dog. You can take your dog outside more frequently, so she doesn’t mark objects around the house.
When taking your dog outside, always keep her on a leash. Supervise outdoor time and try to limit any exposure to intact males. If you don’t want your dog to get pregnant, avoid taking her to public places such as dog parks and pet stores.
Females in heat can try to escape the house to search for a mate. Make sure to check your house and yard for any escape routes. Do not leave your dog unsupervised when she is in heat.
Many dogs experience changes in appetite when in heat. Due to the hormonal and physical changes, they can experience an increase or decrease in appetite. Feed your dog a healthy and fulfilling diet with ample protein. Some dogs may struggle to eat, so you might have to entice them with a special meal or wet food.
Getting Your Dog Spayed
If you don’t want your dog to get pregnant, it is important to get her spayed. Dogs that go into heat repeatedly without pregnancies can develop multiple health issues such as pseudocyesis and pyometra. Spaying your dog can prevent uterine infections and breast tumors and increase your pet’s lifespan. It also reduces the occurrence of behaviors such as aggression and irritability that usually occur during heat cycles.