‘In heat’ refers to your dog’s oestrus cycle, which is related to the period during which she can become pregnant. This season can last for two to three weeks. And in that time, you may see some symptoms and behaviours that you don’t usually see. Understanding her behaviour during that time is vital in order to keep her healthy and happy.
What age do dogs have their first heat?
Individual personality, breed and size will make a big difference in your dog's heat cycle. As a rough guide, you can expect your female dog to go into heat at around six months old, and to repeat the cycle every six months after that for the rest of her life. The cycles might become further apart as she gets older. A large breed may take longer to have that first cycle, and have fewer cycles per year. Smaller breeds are the other way around. Anyway, it is advisable to prevent your dog from becoming pregnant during her first or second time of being ‘in heat’, as her body is not yet fully mature.
Physical signs of a female dog in heat
An unspayed female dog's hormones will cause changes in her behaviour when she reaches puberty. Her vulva will become swollen, and she will urinate more often. She might be marking her territory around the home and neighbourhood. There might also be some bloody discharge. The amount of blood and discharge will differ from dog to dog. You might not even notice it if it’s a small amount and your dog has long fur. It changes in colour from blood-red to pink and watery as the days pass.
Behavioural signs of a female dog in heat
Here's the romantic part. When your female dog is in season, she is receptive to mating and therefore looking for a mate, whether she knows it or not. Those hormones and pheromones can be detected by male dogs from quite a distance away. Like it or not, every dog in your neighbourhood knows your pet is thinking about it. You might even notice that the local males start ‘marking the territory’ around your home. When she meets one of those males in person, you might see her ‘present herself’ by lifting her behind and swooshing her tail to one side. This lady is very direct.
During this period, other behavioural symptoms include: excessive licking to the genital area, mounting/humping, and nervousness or anxiousness.
How to care for a female dog in heat
To avoid an unwanted pregnancy, you shouldn’t leave your dog outside while she’s in heat. You don’t know what the local boys will do to get into your garden! And bear in mind that she may become aggressive or domineering amongst your other pets. You can keep them apart, or let them figure out their group dynamics between themselves. She might, however, also become frustrated and restless, if she is kept inside and isolated all the time. So make sure you keep her busy!
Your female dog will ovulate a few days into her season. This is when she is most fertile. However, she might become pregnant due to mating at any point in her oestrus cycle. You should speak to your vet if you’re planning to let your dog mate, or if she manages to mate out of your control. If you catch your female dog mating with another dog, and they become ‘tied’, you should not try to separate them, as this can cause severe physical damage to your dog. It will take 5-10 minutes for them to separate naturally.
How to avoid ‘in heat’ behaviour
Spaying is the surgical removal of your dog’s ovaries and uterus. It will prevent your dog from getting pregnant as well as any other mating-related behaviours. Spaying or neutering your dog, especially if done early, can also reduce her chances of getting affected by certain kinds of health issues later on in life, including cancers or infections. And of course, spaying your dog will prevent her from going into heat twice a year. Spaying a female dog is a common way that people solve some of the issues that arise with owning one. However, some dogs might become more anxious as a result of having been spayed. Speak to your vet and consider both sides of the argument before making this big decision.