What to do when your bitch comes into season (heat)
The female heat or season generally occurs twice a year. Just like the menstrual cycle in women, a female dog’s reproductive system will undergo a cyclical rhythm called the oestrous cycle. The length of each cycle may vary between dogs, but once established it tends to be relatively regular. Proestrus is the time during which a bloody discharge from the vulva of the bitch is first noticed. During this stage ovaries have follicles that are maturing, ready to produce the eggs (ova) at ovulation. In most bitches proestrus lasts about 6-12 days, but in some cases it can last up to twenty-eight days. The bitch will become receptive to male dogs at the end of proestrus. Oestrus is the period following proestrus during which breeding can occur. Some bitches will cease bleeding when proestrus ends, others will continue to produce a bloody discharge throughout the full oestrus period. Ovulation usually occurs about 10-11 days after the onset of bleeding (about 24 hours after oestrus begins). The eggs can be fertilised up to 4 days after ovulation occurs, in some bitches. Oestrus usually lasts between 5 and 9 days, but can last up to 28 days.
It can be stressful when your bitch comes into season (also referred to as "being on heat" or “oestrus”), especially if it is for the first time. Apart from the mess, you will also have to contend with the risk of an unwanted pregnancy if your bitch is very young, you do not wish to use her for breeding, or you wish to breed from her but only with a specific male. Most bitches come into season at 5-8 months of age and by this age the majority of dog-owners will have already decided whether they intend having the bitch sterilised (speyed), or whether they wish to breed from her. If your bitch has caught you by surprise by coming into season earlier than expected, and you have already decided against breeding from her, it is wise to speak with your vet about the earliest date that the vet will be comfortable performing the sterilisation surgery (“spey”) and make an appointment to have it done as soon as possible. Most vets in the UK will not be comfortable with the increased risk associated with speying a bitch whilst she is in oestrus and will usually recommend that the surgery is done 6-12 weeks after the bleeding stops, as this will be in the middle of her next reproductive cycle.
Regardless of whether you plan to breed from your bitch or not you will almost certainly want to avoid the risk of pregnancy during (at least) the first season, as your bitch will not yet be fully grown and developed. Bitches that are bred at a young age run a higher risk of dystocia (difficulty during whelping, that often necessitates a caesarean) and are less likely to be attentive mothers. There are a number of steps you can take to minimise the risk, but beware that a moment’s inattention on your part during your bitch’s season can result in an unwanted pregnancy.
Tips to avoid pregnancy whilst your bitch is in season
- One of the safest ways is to avoid walking her when she is in season. Alternatively you could walk her at different hours to the times at which most other owners walk their dogs, i.e. early in the morning and late in the evening. It’s also sensible to avoid areas popular with other dog owners.
- If you do choose to walk her make sure that she is not allowed out of sight - it is preferable to keep her on a lead.
- Make sure your back garden is secure: this prevents her from escaping in search of male dogs and prevents male dogs accessing your yard to get to your bitch.
- If you keep an entire (un-neutered) male dog with an entire (un-speyed) bitch, then you will have to make arrangements for their accommodation during the bitch’s fertile period. The safest approach is to keep them on separate properties during this time, but this is often only a viable option if you have friends or family that are prepared to look after one dog for you. If this is not the case for you an alternative is to put one dog in a kennel (the male is the better choice because of the risk of the bitch being mated whilst kennelled), but most owners are disinclined towards this option. The only other option is to keep the two dogs separated on your property – but take care not to underestimate how strong the instinct will be for male and female to seek one another out whilst the bitch is in oestrus! You will need to keep this up for at least 28 days from the date the bleeding was first noticed. Unfortunately family ties do not mean anything to dogs either - don't think that being litter mates will prevent dogs from mating with each other.
- A product exists called Bitch Spray that can help mask the smell that makes the bitch attractive to male dogs during oestrus. This may help, in combination with the other tips given above.
Avoiding mess in the house
Whilst taking care to avoid an unwanted pregnancy is usually the first priority for the owner of a bitch that is in season there are also the mess and hygiene issues associated with canine oestrus to consider. In most cases a bitch will produce very little bloody discharge during her first season, but even small amounts of discharge can be unpleasant to deal with. In some households it is not possible to confine the bitch to parts of the house with easy-to-clean hard floors. In such instances it may be worth considering Hygiene Pants. These are available for dogs of all sizes and help to stop furniture and carpets becoming stained by the discharge (especially during the bloody stage). These are made from stretch nylon for easy washing and have adjustable straps. You simply apply a replacement pad inside the pants, just like a sanitary towel.
Whatever your circumstances it is important to be well prepared and informed before the first season if you own an entire female dog. If your dog is accidentally mated you should discuss the possibility of the unwanted pregnancy with your vet, who will be able to advise you of the best course of action. It is still possible to spey bitches in the early stages of pregnancy. There are also abortion treatments that your veterinary surgeon can administer that are relatively quick and simple. If you own a bitch pup and you have made a firm decision against breeding from her we suggest you talk to your vet about having her speyed (generally 6 months is the recommended age)– not only does early speying have health benefits for the bitch, it also means that you will be spared the worry and inconvenience of your bitch coming into season at all.