The exact time depends in part, on the maturity of the bitch and small breeds will usually mature earlier than larger bitches, with the “giant” breeds, such as Great Danes and Mastiffs, sometimes waiting until they are 18 months old. Most bitches will reach puberty when they are between six and ten months old.
When a bitch comes “in season” or “on heat”, her vulva becomes swollen and a varying amount of blood-tinged fluid will be passed. Some bitches will spend a lot of time cleaning themselves, other will make a mess, for you to clean up! Bitches become attractive to male dogs from the moment that they start their season, until it finishes, three weeks later, but they are not usually interested in their admirers until seven to ten days have passed, when they are at their most fertile. Mating at this time will probably be successful, but a bitch can become pregnant if mated before or after this time, so the whole of the three weeks should be considered “risky”.
If you are not intending to breed form her, spaying (neutering) should be considered. In addition to preventing unwanted pregnancies and stopping the inconvenience of the six monthly cycle of seasons, the operation has other benefits:
- Reduction in the risk of developing mammary cancer.
- Prevention of pyometra – a toxic uterine infection, common in older unspayed bitches, but can occur at any age. Emergency surgery is required in these cases.
- Reduction in the incidence of diabetes and other tumours where the female hormone cycle can be a trigger factor.
Spaying is a surgical operation, that involves a full ovario-hysterectomy – the removal of both ovaries and the uterus (womb). It is performed under a general anaesthetic and a full health check is done before surgery is undertaken. Pre-anaesthetic blood tests may be advisable if a bitch is older, but can be useful at any age, in detecting early problems such as liver and kidney disease.
We aim to perform the operation, two to three months after she has finished a season, when the hormone levels and blood supply to the uterus are “normal”. For non-breeding bitches this will be after the first season and for breeding bitches, we would advise spaying at the end of their breeding lives to remove the risk of pyometra, while they are still fit and healthy.
Most of the disadvantages of this operation are fallacies. The most quoted is that the bitch will become fat, characterless and useless as a guard dog. Obesity is probably the most commonly quoted disadvantages but judicious feeding of a correct diet without excessive titbits should adequately control any problems of fatness, just as it does in the entire animals. She will not become characterless and her guarding ability, intelligence, playfulness and affection are not usually significantly altered in the spayed female.
When the three weeks are over, the bitch will pass into a pregnancy-like state, even if she has not been mated or if a mating was unsuccessful. “Pseudo-pregnancy mimics a normal pregnancy and the bitch may show many signs of appearing to be in whelp, such as producing milk and pretending to go into labour and “nesting”. This may last for six to nine weeks, at which point the bitch should revert to normal. There is usually a gap of six to nine months between seasons.
If you are intending to breed from your bitch, then you will need to make sure that she is kept away from other dogs and only mated by your chosen stud dog. You may need to restrict her to an area that is easy to clean, and be prepared that you may be unable to exercise her outside your property for three weeks.