When your dog is in heat, you have two goals: keep her comfortable and prevent her from getting pregnant. Unless you are a licensed breeder who knows what’s up when it comes to caring for a litter of puppies, a pregnant dog isn’t a walk in the park. Speaking of walks in the park, get ready to change up your walk routine and other habits while your dog is in heat! She’ll want to mate, as will any male dog within a hundred miles (an exaggeration, but not by much). Prepare to soothe her symptoms, supervise her whereabouts, and have her spayed when it’s all over.
What does it mean when a dog is in heat?
When a dog is in heat, she goes through four stages of a fertility cycle. Often called estrus, this cycle is sort of like a human menstrual cycle. It definitely involves bloody discharge, but unlike humans who menstruate, dogs only experience estrus about once every six months. The first time it happens is usually around six months of age, though some large breeds don’t begin until 18 months or so. Heat lasts anywhere from one to three weeks. Typically, it runs around nine days. During estrus, your dog’s vulva will swell and she’ll experience bleeding—not to mention other symptoms many people who menstruate know well, like irritability and a change in appetite.
What to do when your dog is in heat
While in heat, female dogs are eager to mate, and male dogs are more than happy to oblige. It’s biology, and those urges are strong. Your job when your dog is in heat is to prevent pregnancy from happening (unless you’re a licensed breeder with a chosen mate ready and waiting) and make sure your pup is as comfortable as possible.
1. Do: Supervise
Be extra diligent and observant around your dog while she’s in heat. Ensure she doesn’t lash out uncharacteristically. She may be more aggressive or irritable during this time, so additional supervision around others, especially small kids or other unspayed female dogs, is wise. This is as much for their safety as her well-being! She’s probably not enjoying the hormone surges and won’t feel like herself.
2. Don’t: Let her near male dogs
We cannot emphasize enough the determination of an unneutered male dog when he’s around a female dog in heat. It only takes a few seconds for a male (who can smell a female in heat up to three miles away) to mount and do his thing. It’s even been recommended to close your windows to contain your dog’s scent inside! If you let your dog into the yard, take extra care to ensure the fence is high enough so she can’t scale it. (Again, supervision is extremely important. You never know when a male dog may try to jump the fence!)
For multi-dog households, this can be a tricky task. It may be worth boarding your male dogs somewhere for a bit or sending them to stay with a family member. Otherwise, ensure the dog in heat has a section of the home to herself (with sturdy, fool-proof barriers between her and any male dogs in the house).
3. Do: Take careful walks
Walking your dog while she’s in heat is probably unavoidable. Be prepared to take new routes to avoid homes that you know have male dogs. Change up the schedule (if possible) to walk during less busy times of day. Keep in mind: Well-trained dogs may act differently when in heat. Don’t assume she’ll come when called or heel when asked!
4. Do: Track symptoms
Your vet may ask you about your dog’s symptoms - when they began, how intense they were, how long they lasted - so take notes. This is especially important when it comes to spay surgeries. If you plan to wait to have your dog spayed until later in her life (though this is not recommended), you’ll want to know what to watch for in your particular dog as her next cycle begins. If you plan on spaying her as early as possible, you’ll need to let the vet know when she is out of heat. Spay surgery during heat is riskier and more difficult.
5. Do: Buy diapers
To avoid your dog trailing discharge through the house, buy some doggie diapers. There are disposable and washable dog diapers on the market. Just make sure you purchase ones designed specifically for females!
6. Do: Keep her comfortable
The diapers, the hormones, the biological urge to breed and the blatant barriers in her way—all of these are uncomfortable circumstances. Do what you can to keep your pup cozy and happy. This could mean high-value treats or extra snuggle time.
7. Don’t: Smother her
Some dogs in heat show no change in demeanor while others retreat into their own worlds. Take a hint and respond to her signals rather than overwhelming her with affection. If she seeks you out or relaxes in your presence, do more of that! If she prefers solitude and gets annoyed easily, let her do her thing. Do ensure she’s getting ample rest and sleeping well, as heat can wear a girl out.
Signs of a Dog in Heat
There are several ways to tell if your dog is in heat. These vary between dogs, as all canines are individuals and may exhibit unique symptoms (especially when it comes to temperament!).
- Swollen vulva
- Bloody vaginal discharge (red or pink)
- Frequent urination (sometimes around the home as a form of marking)
- Frequent licking of the genitals
- Disinterest in playtime
- Change in appetite
- Change in energy
Fun fact: If you’ve got a Basenji or a Tibetan Mastiff, chances are they’ll go into heat in the spring! These are the only breeds with seasonal regularity.
Preventing Pregnancy While Your Dog Is in Heat
Preventing pregnancy in your dog is important because it decreases the number of homeless dogs filling up animal shelters. Since dogs can only get pregnant when they are in heat, keeping tabs on their whereabouts and behavior during this time is crucial. Everything mentioned above—supervision, careful walks, diapers—will protect your pup from pregnancy!
The only sure-fire way to prevent pregnancy in your dog is spay surgery. Vets remove the uterus and ovaries during this procedure and it is permanent. Though it sounds intense, especially because it requires general anesthesia, it’s very common and trained vets are pros at performing it safely. After being spayed, female dogs no longer go into heat!
The ASPCA also acknowledges several major health benefits to dogs who are spayed, including fewer uterine infections over the course of her lifetime and a lowered risk of cancerous tumors. (Plus, spay surgery is way less expensive for you than caring for multiple litters of puppies.)
Though slightly controversial, most vets recommend having dogs spayed before they go into heat for the first time. The American Animal Hospital Association suggests spaying small breeds around six months old or before their first heat and large breeds after they’ve stopped growing, which could be closer to a year and come after one or two estrus cycles.
Most puppies are spayed around six to nine months old depending on their health. Though spay surgery in adult dogs is possible, it tends to be a riskier procedure, especially if your dog struggles with any other health issues. Should your dog go into heat before you’re able to schedule spay surgery, wait until at least one month after the estrus cycle ends to have her spayed.
The controversy comes from some research suggesting spaying too early could lead to joint problems or an increased risk of cancer later in life. There is no definitive answer. Definitely discuss the options with your vet! A dog’s breed, health and age are factors to consider.