Whether you own female dogs that have not gone through surgical sterilization or you want to start a dog breeding business, knowing as much as possible about a female dog’s estrus cycle can make you a more informed owner. While each dog breed has its own standards, temperament and physical appearance, the heat cycles of all dogs are similar in the ways they present. How long is a dog in heat? This is one of the most important factors to learn about if you plan to breed your dog successfully.
Importance of Understanding the Heat Cycle
Many mammals, such as rodents, can and do breed at will, which explains how their numbers can grow quickly if males and females are not kept separated in a controlled environment. However, larger mammals, such as horses, cats and dogs, have a specific breeding period every few months during which they will accept a mate. This is known as the estrus, or heat, cycle. The animal’s behavior is likely to change during this time, and as a pet owner, understanding the importance of this cycle and how to react to it may help you assist your dog during its heat or give you the knowledge you need to become a better dog breeder.
Understanding the heat cycle may also help you support the health of your pet. For example, if you know your dog is in heat but acting strangely, you can react more quickly when it comes to getting her medical attention. Treating an estrus problem in your dog before it becomes worse can prevent sterility, severe illness or even death. If you notice your female dog presenting symptoms, you may wonder, “How long is a dog in heat and what do I do during this time?” Fortunately, there are a few actions you can take to make your dog feel comfortable and safe until the heat cycle passes or you can arrange to have her bred safely.
The First Heat Cycle
Your young female dog will likely go into her first heat at about 6 months of age. However, toy breeds may go into their first cycle at 4 months, while giant breeds, such as Great Danes, may not see their first heat until they are 2 years old. If you plan to breed your female, it is usually better to wait until her second or even third heat has passed until you make an attempt to breed, as dogs experiencing their first estrus are still probably too young for breeding.
You may not notice the first time your dog goes into heat because it may not present with any symptoms. This is called a silent heat and may come and go without any physical or mood changes. If you own a smaller dog and do not plan to breed her, it is a good idea to have her spayed between 12 and 14 weeks of age to prevent the first heat from occurring.
Signs of Heat
Being able to recognize when your dog is in heat can be easier when you understand the signs. There are three different stages to estrus in dogs. The first, which is called proestrus, is typically characterized by a swelling of the dog’s vulva. This may or may not come with a bloody discharge. You may notice your dog licking or cleaning its sanitary area more than usual, needing to urinate with more frequency, and she may become less independent and want to be with you more often.
During the second stage of heat, the true estrus, your dog will be ready to accept males and show signs of arousal, such as moving her tail to one side so she can be mounted. During this time, male dogs will be able to smell your dog’s discharge for miles, and other unspayed females may show aggression toward her. She may also challenge other females in the house for dominance during this time. If you want to breed your dog to a specific male, it is a good idea to keep her inside and away from other dogs. To ensure your female is ready to breed, you may want to consult a veterinarian first as a way to protect your dog’s health.
How Long Is a Dog in Heat?
Once a dog starts proestrus, you can expect it to last anywhere from 20 to 28 days. The age and size of your dog may affect how long the cycle continues. As your dog grows, you can expect this cycle twice a year, about six months apart. During proestrus and estrus, your dog’s discharge can become quite noticeable and give off an unpleasant odor if she is kept clean. Dogs with double or long coats may require grooming and bathing once their heat is over to prevent the scent from lingering.
At the height of your dog’s heat, it may be simpler to confine her to a single area in your home to reduce the mess of estrus and to ensure she does not mate with any strange males. Even well-behaved neighbor dogs might jump your fence and become aggressive if they smell your female, so supervision or confinement during this time can help reduce the chance of unwanted pregnancy or injury to any of your dogs. If you want to minimize the mess that comes with this cycle, you can fit your dogs with incontinence diapers or those made specifically for bleeding during estrus. You can find these products at most large pet stores or your veterinarian’s office.
Feeding Your Dog During Its Heat
Feeding a dog in heat can be tricky. Since the cycle lasts nearly a month and a dog’s appetite may change during that time, it may not get all the nutrition it needs. Once your pet starts its proestrus, you may need to monitor her food intake carefully and ensure that she is eating at every meal. Some dogs may turn down their usual food or experience an upset stomach. If your dog gets diarrhea during her heat, there are several steps you can take to ensure she eats properly.
First, it is a good idea to consult your veterinarian to ensure the heat is to blame for your dog’s lack of appetite. Once the vet confirms this is so, you can modify the dog’s diet to perk up its appetite. Baby food that contains meat, pumpkin and rice are all fine choices, but avoid spices like garlic. You can offer this alone or mix it with the dog’s usual kibble. Boiled chicken or lean hamburger and white rice can also soothe your dog’s stomach. Once you discover which food your dog prefers, you can offer it daily until the heat passes.
Choosing the Best Time To Breed
Once you know how long a dog is in heat, the next question you may ask is, “How do I know the best time to breed my female?” This is an important factor when it comes to producing healthy puppies and for the health of the female as well. The height of the cycle, the dog’s estrus, is probably the prime time to present a selected male, as this is the time the female is the most accepting and ready for coitus. If you are a beginning breeder, it is wise to perform a background check on possible matches, so you are aware of their health, temperament and history before choosing a mate for your female. This can result in a healthy litter of pups.
Your vet can help you discern when your female is prime for breeding by testing its hormone levels. You may be able to tell by the discharge, which typically becomes less bloody yet the odor increases. Your dog may flag its tail, or hold it to one side, a signal that she is ready to accept a male. Every dog is different, and as you gain experience as a breeder, the signs may become more obvious to you. If you are nervous or unsure about breeding your dog for the first time, you may want to look for a responsible and experienced breeder to act as a mentor. Having a seasoned professional with you at the session may help both you and your pet feel more at ease, as many dogs can sense their owner’s moods and often react to or mirror them.
A Final Word About the Estrus Cycle
Backyard breeders or owners who do not attempt to understand the estrus cycle or ask their vet, “How long is a dog in heat?” may find themselves with sick or malformed puppies and mother dogs who fail to whelp a litter or fall ill themselves. Part of being a responsible owner and breeder is educating yourself about this natural cycle and understanding what your female needs if she is to stay healthy. The more you know about how to care for your dog, the better the chances that she will present you with one or more litters of happy, healthy puppies throughout her adult life.