What To Expect When You're Expecting... A Heat Cycle
There is now more and more research coming out with the benefits of keeping dogs intact until they are older, given that the owner can be responsible for the task of making sure there are no unwanted pregnancies. Not only can heat cycles can be messy but scary & intimidating especially with all the physical, hormonal, and behavioral changes a female goes through (if you're a woman... you know the struggle).
Above all, feeling ill-prepared for anything as a dog owner equals a messy (and in this case bloody) ending. But with this "what to expect" guide, I can hopefully ease some of your fears and arm you with the information you need to be a pro at heat cycles for life!
Intact vs. Fixed
I first want to address that I am not a licensed veterinarian, and any information I share is not intended to replace the advice of a holistic or integrative veterinarian. I am simply sharing what I have learned through my research and formal education!
This is a very hypersensitive topic thus I am going to cover the facts as unbiased as possible.
Many vets across the world are advocates to spay and neuter pets at a young age. This is to prevent unwanted pregnancies as well as to avoid the disease of the reproductive organs. Vet school teaches the student to only perform surgeries where the sex organs are 100 % completely removed which prevents reproduction but also the reproductive hormones.
Science is endlessly growing and expanding which means new information is discovered daily. And there has been a growth in research that shows that early spay may not be the healthiest for our animals.
“ … [A]s we’re now learning,” writes veterinarian Dr. Patty Khuly in an article for Veterinary Practice News, “preventing reproductive disease isn’t necessarily a good enough reason to remove organs; not if those organs offer more benefits than they pose risks.”
There have been many small, breed-specific studies done mostly on breeds such as Golden Retrievers to scope out the true pros and cons of fixing an animal.
"We found in both breeds that neutering before the age of 6 months, which is common practice in the United States, significantly increased the occurrence of joint disorders – especially in the golden retrievers,” - Benjamin Hart
This graph created by Dr. Karen Becker shows the whole picture of fixing an animal:
As seen above, you can see that by removing sex organs, you prevent all disease that has to do with them. But in exchange, you can see the chances of many of the most common health conditions being increased such as obesity, CCL tears, hip dysplasia, bladder infections, several types of cancer, and more.
Just a reminder that if you are keeping the dog intact for breeding purposes, it's a completely different story! Just make sure to breed responsibly!
Overall, there are benefits and faults on both sides of the argument. But the most beneficial steps you can take is to research, research, research, and do what is best for you!
Learn more about spaying & neutering here...
What To Expect
I personally kept my female dog intact for health reasons even though she is a rescue. I literally got her off the streets, giving me a very unique situation to rescue while still keeping her intact. Whereas if I had gotten her from a shelter, she would have been spayed before I got her at 4 months of age.
Female dogs usually start maturing at around 6 months of age but it may vary from dog to dog. Smaller breeds tend to have their first heat cycle much earlier than larger breeds who may not reach their first estrous cycle until 8 months to 2 years of age.
It's usually pretty obvious when a dog goes into heat as there are several behavioral and physical signs such as...
Bloody colored discharge
Excess licking in the genital area
Receptive to male dogs (aka being ✨flirty✨)
More often than not, I see spotting on her bed and I know it's time to get her undies out from storage. I also keep track of when she starts and ends her periods on Google Calendar just for my own records and if needed for any medical records.
During her heat cycle, your dog will experience 4 different stages that each come with their own changes in the body and behavior.
1. Pro-estrus: This is the start of the heat cycle when the body is preparing to reproduce. Signs of this stage are swollen vulva, licking of the genital area, red discharge, clingy behavior, & change in behavior towards dogs, particularly males. This stage lasts anywhere from 2-22 days.
Stormy, for example, gets very cuddly and is attached to my hip and she gets very ✨flirty✨ with other dogs when she usually wants nothing to do with them. I also make sure to have at least 2 pairs of period panties I can rotate through and will stay secure. Just a reminder that every dog is different so they may act a bit different in every stage but these are just the "general" signs!
2. Estrus: Estrus is the stage where the female will be most ✨flirty✨ with male dogs and will probably be urinating a lot more frequently to mark her spot to tell the boys she is ready to breed. At this point, the discharge will start lightening in color and she will possibly present herself to male dogs which basically means they shove their butt's into a male dog's face to say "I'm ready!!!!"... Estrus lasts anywhere from 5-14 days.
This is the stage where Stormy is at her flirtiest of flirts and thinks that she is all that... I make sure to agree with her since she gets all the sassier in heat and may kill me with her glares if I don't.
3. Die-strus: This occurs right after the "heat" stage and either allows the body to return to normal, or prep the body for pregnancy. The vulva will return to its normal size, and discharge will fade. This phase lasts 60-90 days.
At this stage, I can comfortable take Stormy's period diapers off and she goes back to her independent, mild-dog liking self.
4. Anestrus: This is the uterine repair phase which is an inactive stage where there is not really any physical, sexual, or hormonal behavior noticed. Anestrus lasts from 3-4 months.
On average, dogs have 2 heat cycles per year around 6 months apart. But some dogs will have irregular cycles depending on age.
False pregnancy, also called pseudopregnancy, is quite common in intact females. This condition is where a dog exhibits signs of being pregnant when not actually being pregnant. This happens due to sometimes the hormone changes of the heat cycle tampering on for too long. This causes the body to react as though it is pregnant although it's not.
Signs of false pregnancy:
Swelling of mammary glands
If your dog is exhibiting any of the symptoms, take them to the vet to make sure that they're not pregnant. If you are 110% sure that they are not pregnant, the symptoms usually subside on their own. It's important not to stimulate the mammary glands especially if there is milk production as this will prolong the false pregnancy. If the false pregnancy goes on for longer than a couple of weeks, it might be a good idea to take her to your holistic or integrative vet.
Stormy has had a false pregnancy 2 times and both times she had milk production. The first time, I waited 2 weeks and the false pregnancy cures itself. The second time, I was knowledgeable with herbs and used apoptogenic herbs such as vitex berry which is an apoptogenic herb that balances estrogen & progesterone. Vitex berry has also been used to treat PMS & menopause symptoms all the way back to Ancient Greece.
With anything, please do not just add this to your dog's meal because I'm doing it! Do your research first, consult your vet, and make sure that it is something that would work well for your dog.
Tips & Tricks
Here are my tried and true tips & tricks to survive the heat cycle!
This is the most important part of the heat cycle! It’s basically just a reusable period pad made to fit and stay on dogs. You can either buy ones specifically made for dogs (as shown on Stormy) or you can even buy baby diapers and cut a tail hole if you want. There is some concern with period diapers as they can be a bit pricey and there may be a chance of infection. But, lucky for you, there’s a solution: women’s pads & laundry sanitizer! Amazon has a set of 3 reusable diapers for a decent price and you can also look on Etsy as well!
Custom diapers suggest you add in a women’s pad as the fabric is sewn together. This comes in handy as you can cut the pad in half to minimize waste! While the diaper is essential to keep blood off of the furniture and prevent drippage when they’re out and about, remember to remove the diaper when they go potty and a few times a day so they can clean themselves. I always wipe down the area with a fragrant-free baby wipe to ensure no infections occur and everything is as clean as possible.
Your dog may lick the diaper as she's trying to clean herself. Stormy does this and it's not a big deal. Sometimes if she's very determined I'll put her in her crate and remove the diaper so she can clean herself and be satisfied. After a few minutes, I'll take her out and put the diaper back on.
Feeding a fresh food diet will provide her with the nutrients and fuel she needs to get through her heat. But some dogs, not all, will go through a period of time where they lack an appetite which leads to some unhealthy weight loss. If this happens, the secret weapon to that is...baby food! It sounds a bit weird but they can’t resist! Steer clear of the veggie-only and go for the meat flavors. Make sure to take a look at the ingredients and find a food that is clean and okay to feed.
On the other hand, if your dog is like mine, her appetite actually increases versus decreasing when in heat. Therefore, I usually increase her food intake a little to help her have the extra boost she needs for those few days.
Whether your dog has a decreased or increased appetite, I always love going liquid calories/nutrients in the form of raw goat's milk, kefir, and bone broth! It's a super-easy way to give them the extra calories and nutrients that they need.
More often than not, owners often keep their dog inside when she is in heat. While this is okay for some lower drive dogs, high drive dogs still need physical stimulation. Take your girl on walks but make sure to keep them leashed if they do not have a reliable recall. I also love doing canine conditioning & fitness with balancing discs (Fit Paws), and horse feeders. Exercise can also help them with menstrual cramps just like it does with us, women!
If you can't get outside for whatever reason, you can also provide mental enrichment through puzzle toys, toppls, and chews which will also add some more calories if they lack an appetite.
I love giving herbs that will support my bitch through her season such as a raspberry leaf. Raspberry leaf relieves menstrual pains, back pain, and is a fantastic strengthener and toner for the uterus. I especially love this herb for myself since there's been so much literature showing its effects of helping PMS symptoms, cramps, and nausea. The constituents in this herb help tone and tighten muscles in the pelvic area, including the walls of your uterus, which can help make delivery easier. I usually add around a teaspoon of organic leaves to her food or make a tea for her and flood her food with it. My favorite place to source herbs from is Mountain Rose Herbs.
The most important thing to do when your girl is in heat is to give her some extra love and attention! They may be more attached and needy than usually due to hormones (if you’re a woman… you understand). Personally, my dog gets very cuddly and wants to be touching me constantly which I don’t mind at all since she usually likes her space. It may seem like the heat cycle will never end when it starts but I promise you can get through it and it will benefit your dog for the better!
As always, I hope you enjoyed & Always Keep Exploring!
📢Disclaimer: Any information shared is to be used at your own discretion. I am sharing what I personally have learned through my own independent research as well as formal education. I am not a licensed veterinarian, and any information I share is not intended to replace the advice of a holistic or integrative veterinarian.