HOT,HOT,HOT! (THE GIRLS)
Whenever someone asks me about female dogs, I feel like I am jumping down a rabbit’s hole because often the answer is “it depends”. Picking up from the last installment on intact dogs, let’s review that male dogs are known as “dogs” and female dogs are known as “bitches” and we will use those terms in this blog to indicate which gender we are talking about. As a side note, I should mention that when I talk about a puppy, I am talking about a dog under the age of about twenty weeks. I have had clients who talk about their “puppies” who are now 12 years old!
So what exactly is going on with bitches? Let’s start with how reproduction works in dogs. Humans, all primates, bats and one shrew all have a menstrual cycle. All other mammals have an oestrus or estrus cycle; the word is spelled differently depending on where in the world you live. We are going to spell it “estrus” because that is how we commonly see it here in Canada. In a menstrual cycle, you can ONLY get pregnant on a few days that happen between your periods. In an estrous cycle, dogs can ONLY get pregnant for a few days during their heat cycle. In the simplest of explanations, in humans, be cannot get pregnant during a period, when we are producing menstrual blood, and in dogs, they can only get pregnant when they are expressing blood. This little fact has been the result of several unplanned litters in families who are new to living with an intact bitch. Because this is a dog blog, I am not going to go any further into the details around human reproduction than I have right here.
The dog heat cycle can be divided into four sections, and dogs can come into heat every 4 to 8 months, with a very few bitches only coming into heat once a year. The first phase is proestrus. Proestrus is the part of the heat cycle that starts when the bitch first exhibits a bloody discharge from her vagina, and continues until she is reproductively receptive. Often male dogs will be very interested in the bitch, but she will not be interested in their attentions, and she may even be aggressive towards them. The problem that novice owners have is that there is no visible difference between proestrus when the bitch cannot get pregnant and the next phase where she CAN get pregnant. Add to this that in a bitch’s first heat, she may not actually discharge enough blood for you to notice that she has come into heat. This is where you have to really know your dog’s body well, because a few other signs can be observed. The first of these signs is a swollen vulva.
So how do you get a good look at your bitch’s vulva? Quite simply, you make examining her down there a regular part of your health check. Check regularly from the time she comes home at 8 weeks, and from time to time, dab it with a paper towel. When she is in heat, you will usually get some clear to red discharge on the paper towel. At that point, the only responsible thing to do is to keep her on leash and away from the boys. Proestrus lasts an average of 9 days but can be over in as little as 3 days or last as long as 17 days.
Proestrus is perhaps the most difficult time for dog trainers because their bitch may be super cuddly one moment and then grumpy the next, especially towards male dogs. Sometimes, bitches in proestrus may be intolerant of other dogs altogether. And occasionally bitches will experience some cramping. Throughout this phase, continuing training is important. Putting a dog up and not training her during proestrus is not going to help her to mind her manners! Instead, it is important to patiently teach her that even though she may be extra friendly to the people or less than friendly to other dogs, or whatever variation of hormonal changes she may go through, it is important to keep learning and practicing all that she has already mastered.
When you come to class, please dress your girls in panties with a panty liner, but do come to class. For the gentlemen in the audience, you should know that pantyliners have an adhesive strip on the backside to stick to the panty. You remove the backing off the pantyliner and stick it to the panty, put the panties on your bitch, and you are good to go. Change the panty liner at least once a day or when it looks full if she has a heavy discharge. Dogs don’t usually have as significant a discharge as humans do though so you don’t usually have to change the pantyliners multiple times per day. When she is outside, or in her crate she doesn’t need to wear her panties, but when she is loose in the house or at class, she does. Make sure you take her panties off so that she can urinate and defecate. We suggest crating bitches in heat overnight so that they can groom themselves, but other than wearing panties there is nothing you really need to do to keep your house from getting covered in drips of blood. It helps to teach your young dogs to wear panties early, when they are quite young. You can buy dog panties at most pet stores, but many people just use a pair of boy’s underwear and pull the tail through the pocket. You will need to use her panties through proestrus and estrus.
Next up is estrus, which is commonly known as standing heat. Estrus is the phase of the cycle where your bitch can get pregnant and can last between 3 and 21 days, although again, the average is about 9 days. During this phase, you may notice less discharge, and many bitches appear to have no discharge at all, or it may be clear; just because you don’t see discharge, don’t assume she is no longer in heat. This is exactly when she is most likely to be fertile if she is bred. Other signs include losing hair on her belly, and her nipples may get enlarged, but just like in humans, everyone is an individual and each dog’s hormones are going to impact her a little differently than every other bitch. The biggest tell that you will have that your bitch is in the estrus phase is that she will start to flirt with the boys; turning her back on them and flagging her tail. She may mark even though she doesn’t normally. And she will be receptive to male dogs who want to breed her. When she is super receptive like this, it is essential that you keep her away from any males who could breed her, and continue to train and set good boundaries. Be aware that a fence is not a good enough boundary between a bitch in heat and an intact male; more than one litter has been conceived through a chain link fence!
During estrus we particularly want the girls in class. We don’t recommend that you do off leash recalls through milling dogs; that is a recipe for either an unplanned litter or a dog fight between two interested males, however, we do want your girls in heat in class. Use your leash, make sure that the instructor knows that your bitch is in season, put pants on your girl, and come train. It is best to ask to not be placed right beside an intact male, but other than these simple guidelines, training really isn’t any different when your bitch is in heat and when she is not. If you are careful and keep track of your bitch, and she is not covered (one of the technical terms for being bred) by an intact male, she should not get pregnant. If however you suspect she may have been impregnated by an intact male, call your vet right away for advice. They may advise you to have her spayed to ensure that there are no unwanted puppies. Keep in mind that you have to actually accompany your bitch outside when she goes to the toilet EVEN if you have a fenced yard. Many intact bitches have jumped the fence, or had an intact male come over the fence to breed. If you don’t have a fenced yard, take your girl out to toilet on leash, 100% of the time. Together proestrus and estrus lasts about 21 days from the first day of discharge, so this is a three week commitment, however, it is worth it if it prevents your dog from getting pregnant.
Following estrus, the bitch will go through diestrus. This starts the first day that a bitch would refuse a male because she is not longer fertile, and continues for 58 to 63 days if your bitch gets pregnant, and ends when the bitch welps, or 60 to 90 days if she is not pregnant.
Some bitches will go through a pseudopregnancy (the veterinary term for a false pregnancy) even if they have not been bred. If this happens, your bitch will look and behave like she is pregnant. She may begin lactating, nesting and she can even become aggressive as though she is guarding a litter. Pseudopregnancy is caused by a hormonal imbalance, however it is a relatively normal situation and will usually clear up without any medical help at all. If you think your bitch is experiencing a pseudopregnancy, but you are not sure, call your vet! Once you know, you can usually carry on with her as normal, unless she is really unsettled in which case keeping her home for a week or so should give her body a chance to settle down. If you are in doubt, call your vet for their medical opinion.
Diestrus is also the time when pyometra is most likely to occur. Pyometra is an infection of the uterus, and it can be fatal. If you have an intact bitch, it is your responsibility to keep an eye on her health on a daily basis, and this is yet another instance where being familiar with your bitch’s vulva can stand you in good stead. If your bitch is lethargic, stressed and panting, or if there is an abnormal discharge of her vulva, or if she is drinking or peeing excessively, call your vet. In fact when it comes to your dog’s health, any time you notice something out of the ordinary, call your vet! This is so important that we wrote a blog about it called “Who’re ya gonna call?” and you can read that at https://mrsbehaviour.com/2015/06/26/whore-ya-gonna-call/ . Calling when nothing is wrong is not a big deal, but not calling if your bitch has pyometra could cost her her life. If you have an intact bitch, it is very worthwhile to have a careful discussion with your vet about what the signs and symptoms of pyometra are so that you can be prepared in case of emergency.
The final phase of a bitch’s cycle is anestrus and this is the period between the end of diestrus and the beginning of proestrus. During this time, your intact bitch will behave pretty much the same way that a spayed bitch would. She cannot get pregnant and she should be fairly even keeled in terms of her behaviour. This is the time when you would normally spay a bitch if you are going to do that. With the whole production of proestrus, estrus and diestrus and all the things that happen during those times, you might be asking yourself why anyone would want to live with an intact bitch at all, so here you go; I will attempt to answer that question!
To begin with, if you have a bitch who is a spectacular example of her breed, or if she is particularly talented at a sport or some specific work, then you may wish to breed her with a specific goal of producing another dog as good as or better than she is. This is by far the most common reason to keep a bitch intact. Be aware though that doing a great job as a breeder is a huge responsibility, and it may cost more than you will make off a litter. If you are very lucky, you will only lose the cost of two or three pups in your first litter (there are a lot of costs associated with breeding a litter of puppies; consider that a good friend of mine just took a week off work to drive her bitch to the stud every day for a week, and in the end the bitch did not get pregnant; can you afford to lose a week’s wages and pay gas to drive your dog out to a date every day for a week?). More likely you will be many thousands of dollars in the hole at the end of the day and you may not produce the puppy you were looking for.
More and more research is showing that bitches may benefit from going through one or more heat cycles before they are spayed. There are indications that bitches who are left intact are less likely to suffer from aggression and anxiety, and they may have fewer orthopedic issues. Notice though that I am using a lot of “may” and “less likely” and “could” statements. We don’t have all the answers to these questions yet, so each case should be carefully considered with your veterinarian, taking into account your dog’s close relatives, disease risk in your breed, confidence in your breed, aggression in your breed along with as much current research as you can find. See the resources section below for links to studies and research. Be aware too that a blog like this is based on my opinion and experience; it is no substitute for the years your vet spent in school, or the newest research that is out there, so when you are choosing when to spay your bitch, you are going to have to do some digging to decide what is best for your dog.
I would be greatly remiss if I did not share the cons to having an intact bitch. We know for certain that every heat cycle that your bitch goes through increases her chances for mammary cancer. If this is not a huge concern for the close relatives in your bitch’s pedigree, then you may not need to worry about it. But if your bitch has a close relative who had breast cancer, you may want to spay sooner rather than later. If you live in a household full of young people who are going to forget to put your dog on a leash to go out when she is in heat, or if you have intact males in the house, you may want to spay before you have to deal with an “oopps litter”. Each situation has to be considered on its own merit.
Of course, you cannot let your bitch in heat interact with any intact males. If you regularly walk in an area where she might encounter an intact male, including in your neighbourhood or at the dog park, you are going to have to keep her away from there. You absolutely cannot run her off leash! Be aware too that if you run her in wilderness areas off leash, coyotes and wolves absolutely CAN impregnate a domestic dog, so that must not happen. Don’t assume that you can stop an intact male from breeding your bitch just because you have her on leash; many males will become very aggressive if you try and stop them from breeding, and if the male is not being handled on leash, you really don’t have much of a chance of stopping him. Finally, if you have an intact male in your home, don’t be surprised if he goes off his food while she is in heat, or begins howling, or even tries to dig through a door to get to her. It is often easier to board your intact males with a friend while your bitch is in heat. It is not entirely uncommon for small time breeders to board one another’s boys while the girls are receptive.
The bottom line is that if you have a young bitch and she is in classes with us at Dogs in the Park, you don’t have to stop coming to class just because your young girl has gone into heat. Small breed bitches can come into heat as early as 20 weeks (but just to be safe, consider that this could happen even earlier!), and giant breed bitches may not come into heat until they are 18 to 24 months of age or older. You may be thinking “but that is right in the middle of when we recommend that dogs are actively in training” and you would be right. We know that bitches will come into heat unexpectedly the first time and we don’t want you to stop training just because this normal event has occurred. Note when the first day of bloody discharge has occurred, and count 21 days past that and you can keep your girl in training classes by being sensible and take care not to let her get pregnant!