How can I tell if my dog is in heat and how to handle it

Dear dog-lover,

This comprehensive article is solely dedicated to female dogs in heat so that after reading the owner would have a complete understanding of this period and how to handle it.

Symptoms of heat vary throughout the cycle. It is crucial to recognize them if you are an owner of a female dog that is not sterilized. However, sometimes they might not be as obvious or apparent, therefore, in this article, we’ll go farther than just the symptoms that may indicate a certain phase of the heat.

But first, a short background on the topic…

As you may know, the heat cycle is part of the reproductive system in dogs ensuring they can become pregnant and have babies. When female dogs are approximately 6 months old, they reach their sexual maturity. Please note that this may vary as some dogs may have the first heat cycle a bit earlier, whereas others only after quite a while. This also depends on a breed – smaller breeds, in general, may go into heat sooner and more often from then on, whereas some larger breeds, St. Bernards, for instance, only once or twice a year. The estrous cycle (heat) lasts from 2 to 4 weeks. Although it is rare, some individual dogs don’t come into heat even after they are over the age of two, in which case we would recommend visiting a veterinarian (this is not to intimidate you but there are several things that might be going on health-wise that may have caused it).

Symptoms of a female dog in heat

Different stages of the heat cycle have different hormonal activity in your female dog, and they develop different symptoms. Please note that it is also important to observe all the symptoms before making any presumptions as there are some that may indicate various things.

Phase No. 1:

This phase is actually that happens right before the real heat, or you could tell these signs indicate the very beginning of the cycle.

  • The change of appetite. You may notice an increased appetite during the period because due to additional energy required for the body. With that being said, some dogs other dogs who become less active and more lethargic, in fact, may show quite the contrary, i.e., decreased appetite.
  • Red discharge from the vulva. This is often called spotting or bleeding although it’s not what the medical world refers to as “bleeding”. The lining of the uterus is prepared to become receptive and becomes softer during this phase of the heat. You may notice this spotting on the floor, however, some dogs tend to clean themselves more properly, therefore, drops on the floor are less noticeable. A relatively easy way to check whether your dog is spotting or not is to wipe her vulva with a white napkin or a piece of rag. If you see red (the shade may vary), you have an indicator that your dog’s heat cycle has begun. HOWEVER, please note that discharges from the vulva can also be a sign of medical conditions  (inflammations and even tumors, to name a couple), therefore, it’s necessary to observe other symptoms as well before presuming your dog is in heat.
  • The change in behavior. It’s very likely that your dog’s behavior will change already in this phase of heat. A lot of dogs become restless and ebullient. If you notice this, read ahead this article to find out how to calm a female dog in heat. Yet, in some cases, it’s quite the contrary – they become less active. Also, aggression spurts towards other dogs and even people may occur, too. You have to consider though that usually more pronounced behavior changes occur during the second phase of the heat.
  • Other symptoms include temperature increase (again, may indicate also some other medical conditions), excessive licking of the genital area, and enlargement of vulva when the cells of the uterus will enlarge (not that visible for all breeds; in general, more visible for short-haired breeds). A vet could easily confirm or deny the latter if you visit a clinic to make sure.

During this phase that usually lasts around 7 to 10 days, your female dog won’t be willing to mate despite the changes in behavior and everything else.however, you cannot know for sure how long it will last as may actually vary from a couple days to a couple weeks. Because of this, you cannot you to watch out since the very beginning – it’s not okay to unleash the dog and just keep an eye on it from a distance.

HM tip: The truth is, you cannot know for sure how long it will last as may actually vary from a couple days to a couple weeks. Because of this, you have to watch out since the very beginning – it’s not okay to unleash the dog and just keep an eye on it from a distance even if you think your dear companion hasn’t reached phase two when it can result in pregnancy.

Phase No. 2:

Estrus or standing heat is the second phase of heat, and it is where the “real” heat starts.

  • Color change in discharge. The red discharge from the vulva may become pink or yellowish as the phase approaches. In general, it can be less noticeable during the standing heat. Usually, vulva itself becomes softer and the swelling gradually declines.
  • Your female dog will become willing to mate. As we mentioned before, during the first phase of heat your dog may become reserved and even aggressive towards male dogs. Now it will become way more attracted to them in every way.
  • Increased urination. This is prominent during the standing heat although may be noticeable during the first phase as well. You can compare urine to a marker that tells other dogs that it is in heat. Your four-legged friend may dispense urine in smaller amounts over different locations to attract the males. Note that this is one more thing that can be a sign of other medical conditions too, however, you should not worry for that if other symptoms of the heat are there as well.
  • Change in gait. You can perform a test to tell if your dog has already reached the estrus phase: Scratch its lower back above the base of the tail. If your pet pushes back and pushes its tail to the side, it’s quite obvious it’s in the standing heat. Your dog may also swing its hips and wag its tail up high while walking which can be considered as an invitational move.
  • In addition to some of the symptoms of the first phase such as the change in temperature and appetite, your female dog may also experience more drastic changes in behavior as well. For example, The dog may express its natural desire in excessive barking and howling and may experience some sleep disorder.

Other ways to know for sure your dog is in heat

A lot of times, the presence of the above symptoms is a good enough indicator to find out if your dog is in heat. However, to be completely sure, you must run tests at a veterinary clinic.

What if avoiding pregnancy is not what you’re looking for, and, in fact, it’s quite the contrary and you’d like to know how to find the best time to breed your dog? Well, if you want to schedule the best day for breeding your dog, relying on symptoms might not be enough – you should run vaginal cytology and hormonal tests. As these tests can be quite costly for most people, it is mostly picked for accuracy when the owners intend to breed its pet. Please visit a clinic for more info.

HM tip: If you plan to breed your dog, we do not recommend doing in the first cycle of heat in the lifetime of the dog. There’s a common misconception that a dog cannot get pregnant during its first cycle but that’s not actually true. Anyhow, if you have the plan to breed the dog, it is recommended to pay a visit to a clinic first.


How to tell it’s over?

Both phases of heat shouldn’t last longer than 3, maybe 4 weeks at most. If it’s longer, don’t hesitate to visit a vet clinic as prolonged heats may be an indicator of some health issues. You can tell the heat has ended when your female dog is no longer willing mate and male dogs are losing an interest in her too. When dog exits the heat, it enters the next the phases (non-heat) of diestrus and anestrus, but that’s not what we’re focusing on this time.

HM tip: To find out whether the heat has ended, you may perform the same test we suggested before – scratch your dog’s lower back above the base of the tail. If the dog is no longer pushing backward and not wagging its tail to the side, the chances are the heat cycle is over. However, you shouldn’t rely on this alone and give it at least a few more days and repeat the test. Patience may really pay off, besides, if your dog’s out of heat, it’ll be much easier to handle anyway (e.g., on walks) as the increased activity will significantly decrease now.

As the heat ends, you’ll likely notice changes in behavior. Yes, a loss in interest in male dogs is also an indicator, however, it’s a gradual, not sudden change, therefore, can be sometimes quite tricky to tell for sure (as mentioned before, the only thing that can help you tell you for sure or 100% are vaginal cytology and hormonal tests).

You can also keep a track on a calendar for your comfort, however, please note that this the least reliable method to tell when the heat has started or ended, or in which phase it is exactly, as the lengths of heat cycles can vary as mentioned before.

Should I just spay (sterilize) my dog?

If you don’t plan on breeding your dog, it is in fact recommended by veterinarians to spay it (bear in mind the outcome is irreversible!). This may save you a lot of trouble, and, if done professionally, should in no way harm the overall happiness of your pet.

Here is the list of some benefits of spaying apart from the fact that it rules out the pregnancy:

  • Limited wandering around
  • Decreased howling and barking
  • Better obedience – studies show that spayed dogs are more obedient in general (definitely more trainable at all times)
  • Decreased territory marking and aggression
  • Excludes some genital related diseases (at the same time, some female dogs may encounter urinary incontinence after sterilization; also, there’s always a risk of complications when performing any kind of surgical operations)

Some people think that obesity can be a problem for sterilized dogs, and while it’s not a complete lie, the sterilization itself doesn’t cause it directly – it is the lack of activities (as we have mentioned before, the heat has an impact on the level of energy and activity). Be sure to exercise your dog on daily basis – if you have kids, maybe they have more spare time to deal with that (read more on various dog breed activity requirements in our article about best dog breeds for families with kids).

What to do if I own both a male and female dog?

Oh boy… Okay, the answer is simple but the tricky part might be the execution of it. Simply put, you need to separate your male and female dog. But you cannot just locked them away in separate rooms and walk outside separately, and expect they will behave – they sense the scents much better than humans. Because of this, you can either force this method on them but expect many sleepless nights because of howls and growls, or you can be smart about it and use a more elaborate plan. If you cannot take your male dog away for a while (a relative in a countryside perhaps?), please do ensure you don’t just lock them behind different doors but also use different plan for walks, etc. – your male shouldn’t feel the scent in a corridor (when going for a walk) or kitchen (where having a meal), and this means you should have at least two different exits (not a reality for everyone, is it?). Also, don’t feed them both (or do any activity for that matter) in the same places during this period. Some sprays that mask the scent are also not so bad, but the male dog still mustn’t get in very near proximity of the female dog as even the best “masks” won’t help in such cases.

Final tailwind notes and tips by hmtip

  • While in heat, ALWAYS walk your dog on a leash or, preferably, a harness (we recommend taking a look at our picks for best dog harness). Although daily walks are necessary, you have to be extra cautious during the heat. If your dear companion gets out of your reach, the chances are you won’t be able to summon it back at once. Even if you live in a private house with a fence, don’t leave your dog out in the yard alone – even there a leash might be required.
  • Pay extra attention. No, we do not mean only when taking a walk with it. You should have a spare time to play with it, brush it, and basically do everything to make your female dog comfortable during this period. Balance the activities also based on the dog’s behavior and level of energy – as we said, some become restless, whereas others have decreased desire for various physical activities.
  • If every member of the household is out of the house, leave your four-legged friend with a good chew or toy (see the best interactive dog toys). Upon your return, take the toy away and spend some personal face-to-face time with your dearest friend.
  • Consider using dog pants or diapers. While most dogs may not enjoy wearing them, if you can get your companion to settle down wearing those, it’s not a bad idea if you want to keep your floor clean, especially during the first phase of heat. Note that these pants won’t stop male dogs from approaching your lady, therefore, it’s for indoors purposes only.

There are also commercial products to mask the scent when you walk your female dog, however, most of them will not work when a male dog gets close enough. It’s not a bad idea to first drive your female dog from your house to certain spot and start walking it there instead of the doorway of your house as this can help you to hide the trails back to your home – this can get very irritating if you own a private house.

If you are unsure of anything regards the heat cycle, please consider paying a visit to a vet. After all, we can tell for sure what’s the individual case only after close-up observations and tests.

With care,
Your hmtip team




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