If you’ve ever had an unspayed female dog in your home before, chances are you bought mountains of doggy diapers. Unlike cats, dogs experience more discharge during their heat cycle, or estrus phase, but that is only one of the signs indicating your pooch is ready to mate. Having an unspayed dog—especially if you also have an intact male dog—in your home can be a challenge, but knowing what to expect can help prevent problems from arising.
When Should I Expect My Dog's First Heat?
The age of a dog’s first heat cycle varies greatly between breeds. Toy breeds can come into heat for the first time as young as four months, while large and giant breeds may be as old as two years before experiencing a first heat cycle. On average, most dogs will have their first heat cycle between six and 15 months of age.
What Signs Indicate That My Dog Is in Heat?
The more aware you are of your dog's cycle, the more prepared you will be for any physical and behavioral changes that may occur during her heat. During each phase of her heat cycle, you will notice different changes, and they may include the following seven signs:
- Swollen vulva
- Bloody or straw-colored discharge from the vulva
- Mounting behavior
- Excessive licking of the genital area
- Agitated, nervous, or aggressive behavior
- Urinating more frequently
- Change in tail position
With clues gleaned from your female dog’s physical appearance and behavior, you can determine which stage of her heat cycle she is experiencing.
What are the Four Stages of the Canine Heat Cycle?
During your dog’s heat cycle, she will experience four phases, noted by various changes in her body and behavior. The four stages of the canine heat cycle are as follows:
- Proestrus: Proestrus is the start of the heat period where your dog’s body is preparing to mate. Signs seen during this phase include a swollen vulva, blood-tinged discharge, excessive licking of the genital area, clingy behavior, and aggression toward male dogs. Your dog may also hold her tail close to her body.
- Estrus: The estrus phase is the mating phase where your female dog will be receptive to males. You may notice that your dog seems to be urinating more frequently than normal, as she is marking spots to indicate her readiness to breed. Although she may be leaving urine marks in areas, her vaginal discharge will slow and may change to a straw color. Since your dog is ready to mate, she will approach males with her tail held to the side, but will be aggressive towards other females.
- Diestrus: This phase occurs directly after the “in heat” stage and allows your dog’s body to either return to normal or develop into pregnancy. Her vulva will return to a normal size and vaginal discharge will disappear.
- Anestrus: Anestrus is an inactive phase, and no signs of hormonal or sexual behavior are noticed.
How Often Will My Dog Go into Heat?
Dogs have an average of two heat cycles per year, roughly six months apart. Some females will have irregular cycles, especially if they are very young or very old. Small breeds may cycle three times per year, while giant breeds may only cycle once every 12 months. Unlike some other species, canine estrous cycles are not dependent on the seasons, sunlight, or temperature.
What Should I Do if My Dog Is in Heat?
If your dog is experiencing her first heat cycle, it can be an unsettling situation for both of you. Follow these tips to ensure her heat goes as smoothly as possible:
- Never let your dog out in the yard alone. Do not underestimate a male dog’s drive to find a female who is emitting breeding pheromones. You may walk outside to find a strange male dog tied to your female.
- Never let your dog off her leash when she’s in heat. Although your dog may have excellent obedience skills, her recall ability may fall by the wayside when she’s influenced by her hormones and is intent on finding a male.
- Ensure your dog’s ID tags and microchip information are up-to-date. If the unthinkable happens and your dog escapes from your yard or runs off, ensure you can be reunited with legible, updated ID tags and current microchip contact info.
- Consult your veterinarian if you notice signs of illness. Occasionally, a female dog can experience health issues after a heat cycle when the uterine lining remains thickened and produces more fluid, creating the ideal environment for bacterial growth. This can lead to a life-threatening pyometra, or uterine infection. A pet with a pyometra may drink excessively, have a fever, vaginal discharge, decreased appetite, or appear lethargic.
- Consider spaying your dog after her heat cycle is over. If you have no plans to breed your dog, consider waiting until after her heat cycle is over to spay her. Your veterinarian can advise you on the appropriate age to spay your pet, and will likely recommend that you wait until she is finished with her estrus phase to spay her.
At What Age Should I Spay My Dog?
Although veterinarians used to recommend spaying your dog as young as four months old to ensure she never experienced a heat cycle to prevent mammary cancer, current research is leaning toward allowing large- and giant-breed dogs to grow before removing the hormones necessary for skeletal development. Discuss health concerns with your veterinarian before deciding what age is appropriate to spay your dog.