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Dogs in Heat

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Dogs in heat need special care.  Estrus or “heat” is part of the reproductive cycle in female dogs.  Dogs come into their first heat between about 6 and 24 months of age, with small breeds coming into heat sooner and large breeds later.  Dogs typically have two heats per year, and each lasts about 18-24 days.

The first signs of heat are typically a swollen vulva and a bloody vaginal discharge.  In the early stages, female dogs show some interest in male dogs but do not allow themselves to be mated.  Later, the female, or bitch, will actively court the male dog, and this is when mating occurs.  In the later stages of heat, the bloody vaginal discharge can become clear or stop altogether, but the female will still seek a mate and can become pregnant until the heat cycle is over.

The best way to control the heat cycle is to have your female dog spayed at 6 months of age.  There is no health reason why female dogs need to experience a first heat or ever have puppies.  In fact, spaying before the first heat cycle dramatically reduces the risk of mammary cancer later in life.  Spaying has many other positive health benefits, including eliminating the possibility of pyometra, which is a serious and sometimes life-threatening uterine infection.  Spaying also cuts down on your pet’s desire to find a mate, thereby decreasing the risk of wandering or running away and getting hit by a car.  In addition, ensuring that pets cannot reproduce prevents unwanted litters, reducing the number of homeless animals in shelters.

Obviously, spaying is not an option in the small percentage of purebred dogs used for breeding purposes.  Sometimes, hormonal medications can be given if needed to temporarily prevent or stop a heat cycle, although certain risks (eg, inducing a uterine infection) are involved.  Your veterinarian can advise you on the appropriate uses and risks of these medications.  It is also important to talk to your vet before deciding to have your dog bred.  Breeding requires a substantial commitment of time and money, and you should be as prepared and knowledgeable as possible before making the decision to breed your pet.

Q&A

When does a dog first come into heat?

Female dogs come into their first heat between 6 and 24 months of age, with small breeds coming into heat sooner and large breeds later.

Shouldn’t my dog have at least one heat cycle?

No!  There is no medical reason for a dog to experience a heat. In fact, having your dog spayed before its first heat significantly reduces many health risks later in life.

Can dogs become pregnant throughout the heat cycle?

Dogs in heat initially resist mating, then actively seek a male and allow themselves to be mated.  Dogs can become pregnant until the end of the heat cycle, which can last up to 24 days.

Do dogs go through menopause?

No; female dogs continue to go into heat throughout their lives, although the length of time between heats usually increases with older age.

What is the best way to control the heat cycle?

The best way to control the heat cycle is to have your female dog spayed.  Dogs that are to be used for breeding can be given hormonal medications if needed to temporarily prevent or stop a heat cycle, but certain risks are involved.

Credit: Written and reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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