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Understanding when the Bitch is in heat

Often times the failure of the bitch to conceive during an organized effort to mate dogs is because the "breeders" do not understand the oestrus cycle.

Of course, if the average dog owner just wishes to get his or her bitch pregnant, he/she needs only to open the gate or lower the fence. Enough canine beaus will arrive to "court" the female in heat. However, I do believe that an increasing number of dog-owners want to control the mating process so that they can get the best possible litter of puppies. By that I mean a litter resulting from a mating with a male dog of their choice. Perhaps this is a result of an improved consciousness vis-a-vis our pets. (Dare we hope that this improvement in the way we look at our pets itself has resulted from increased veterinary activity and columns such as this one?)

Pre-heat (Proestrus) Phase

The actual "heat" (Oestrus) period could last anywhere from four to 14 days. However, even before this actual period of female receptivity and acquiescence arrives, physiological (hormonal) changes are occurring in her body that ensure that the "heat" will be normal and stable. This "pre-heat period (Proestrus) takes about a week (six to nine days).

During this period, the vulva (the tissue surrounding the entrance to the vagina) becomes swollen and firm.

Because more blood is circulating in that area, the vulva has a pinkish red colour, which, of course, you can really only see if that part of the dog is white or has a light colour. Droplets of dark red blood can be seen emanating from the vagina. Please don't panic and think that your dog is haemorrhaging! It is also during this proestrus period that the bitch produces chemical substances (Pheromones) which attract the male dogs and the scent of which they can detect a mile away. These substances are discharged in her urine whenever she relieves herself.

It is important for breeders to note the following:

  • During this proestrus period, the ovaries of the bitch coming in heat will not be shedding eggs! In other words she cannot get pregnant during this period.

  • She will not allow the male to jump her. She will snarl; she will move away from his advances; she will sit down and therefore signal her non-acceptance of his romantic ardour.

  • It therefore makes no sense to bring the male and female together at this stage. The idea that they will get to "know each other better", during this pre-heat phase, does not hold too much water. In fact, if he is a too aggressive male she might react so viciously as to do him harm. Very rarely would the male dog injure the female with bites during the heat period.birkconfused


Oestrus (Standing Heat) Phase

Simply put, this is the period when the female stands to be ridden (mated). This is the period when she is most receptive. Actually, she flirts with the male.

The signs of true "heat" (Oestrus) are:

  • Discharge of light coloured blood ("pinkish" red as compared with the dark red blood that I mentioned above during the pre-heat period).

  • The swelling of the vulva, though still present, is now softer as opposed to the firmness during the "pre-heat" period.

  • The bitch aggressively attracts the male. She lifts and wags her tail so as to expose the vulva. She lifts her pelvis (hip) so as to allow easier entry. She docilely stands still to be mated.


This period lasts for a week to two weeks.

N.B: There are tests that your veterinarian can undertake which could help with the exact diagnosis as to when your bitch is at her prime receptivity period. For example, we could take smears of the fluid that is coming from the vagina and smears from the vagina lining, and examine them for the type, number and form of certain cells. (We could also use test strips similar to those used for testing for sugar - but this test could be misleading).

The Oestrus Phase of the cycle ends when the bitch refuses to be further molested by the male. In fact, you'd better get him away from her quickly. She tends to get crotchety at his presence, since she has no more use for him.

I should mention, in passing, that once a bitch has had her first heat which means that she has reached the age of puberty (and possibly maturity), the size of her breasts and vulva will not revert to that which was present before. They become slightly enlarged permanently.

We won't deal with other technical phases of "heat", for example the phase (Metoestrus) of uterine recovery (if she didn't get pregnant), of the phase (Anoestrus) of reproductive inactivity. These are of no interest to us within this context of the actual breeding cycle and "heat" period.

Have an enjoyable week.

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