For females, the heat is on

in Pets by

By Tracie Korol

There have been quite a few unknown dogs appearing in the neighborhood lately. I tried to grab the rangy Walker hound (he had a collar) but he darted away too quickly, heading in the direction of the end of the road. Later, I watched a Shepherdy-sort and his Chow-ish buddy cross my driveway, heading the same direction. The next day, Pooh, my neighbor dog, went AWOL.

When a dirty, scratched, scabby, smelly, exhausted Pooh staggered in my back door 24 hours later, I figured he had tangled with a varmint, been rolled by a car or, as we later discovered, sojourned in the thrall of the Lab at the end of the street. Yes, word was out in the ‘hood — but a little late — Miss Coco was in heat.
The heat cycle, or estrus, is the time of sexual receptivity in un-spayed female dogs. When estrus occurs, animals are said to be “in heat” or “in season.” Dogs generally have their first estrus cycle at 6-12 months of age. Some females of the large breeds, however, may not have their first estrus until they are 12-24 months of age. Miss Coco is about 1 year old. The complete cycle takes about six months, resulting in two estrus periods each year. Individual variation occurs, but it’s a pattern that repeats regularly.

Twice a year, when a dog goes into cycle, she may become snappish and irritable. Her vulva will swell slightly and she will excrete a bloody discharge. At this point, the irresponsible pet owner will chuck the dog outdoors because she smells, is picking at the kids and making a mess on the carpet. It’s only a matter of moments before all the neighborhood dogs know. The news, the smells, the pheromones, travel through the air faster than you can imagine. With scent receptors 400 to 4,000 times more effective than ours, it’s a guarantee that every intact, slack-jawed Darryl dog from miles around is going to show up in your yard pining for love before the end of Day One. If you live in the country, as I do, it’s possible to see a few coyotes loitering, too.
There is a myth that female dogs need to experience a heat or even have a litter to complete their womanhood. Not true. Estrus is a simple biological fact, not a chapter from a Harlequin romance. There is another myth that a dog cannot get pregnant on her first cycle. Again, not true. Responsible breeders generally will not breed a dog that early, waiting at least two years to see if serious problems — genetic defects, hip conditions — present in the line. Another myth is that dogs will no longer go into heat once they reach the age of menopause. Female dogs cycle throughout their life, they do not experience menopause (reproductive cycles ceasing with age) as human females do.
Given the opportunity, a female in heat will succumb to hormones every time, no matter the suitor or how many suitors. Given the opportunity, a male dog will jump over or tunnel under fences, or even leap through windows to complete his mission. I have heard the Romeos serenading Miss Coco every night for the better part of the month. It is a hazard to your dog and a danger to your family and neighbors to have unknown, intact, possibly aggressive dogs hanging around for upwards of three weeks —the average length of a heat cycle. Plus, it’s a nuisance.
I am adamant that if you are not a professional breeder, there is no reason to have a pet — male or female — that is not neutered. There are myriad health-related and behavioral benefits of neutering your pet. Plus, given that upwards onto 5,000 animals are euthanized annually at our local shelter alone, risking an unwanted pregnancy is a purely un-conscious act.  And at the very least, please consider your neighbors.