Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, former veterinarian assistant and author of Brain Training for Dogs.
Female dogs, especially those who are intact, may exhibit distinct behaviors that are typical of their sex. Most of these behavior changes are particularly noticeable when the dog is in heat (estrus) and if appliable, during the dog's pregnancy and nursing times. Spayed female dogs may show less distinct behavior changes than non-spayed female dogs; however, they still show different behaviors that distinguish them from males.
A female dog's estrus generally takes place twice a year beginning at around the age of six months. There are some differences among breeds. Large or giant breeds may go in heat at a later age, sometimes around 12–18 months. These breeds may also go into heat less often. In rare cases, female dogs may go into ''silent heats'' where the symptoms are quite subtle and barely noticeable by the owner.
What Does It Mean for a Dog to Be in Heat?
The female dog's heat is divided into four different phases.
This phase generally lasts an average of seven to ten days. This is when the dog's reproductive tissues swell and is accompanied by a bloody discharge. The dog will typically also lick herself repeatedly in order to keep herself clean.
Behavior wise, the dog may lose appetite and appear a bit more irritable in some cases. Male dogs may appear to be very interested in her, but she will act standoffish and appear not be interested as of yet.
This phase generally lasts six to ten days and is the phase often referred by breeders as ''standing heat''. The bloody discharge is replaced by a pinkish or straw-colored discharge that proves the dog is very likely at the peak of her heat when she is more likely to become pregnant. This is when the female dog will accept the male dog and will stand still for the male to breed.
This phase concludes the dog's heat. Indeed, most females from this point on will no longer be interested in males. Male dogs, however, may still decide to stick around for a bit.
This phase is an inactive phase as it appears to be a quiet time for the dog's reproductive organs, however, the dog's pituitary gland and ovaries are in reality getting ready for the next proestrus cycle.
Dogs that did not get pregnant while in heat, may develop at times a ''false pregnancy''. A dog affected by false pregnancy may be found pacing around the home looking for blankets and paper to shred to build a suitable place to raise puppies. The dog may also decide to adopt a stuffed animal or any other inanimate object and treat it like a puppy. Sometimes, the dog may also grow overprotective of it and guard it from strangers.
False Pregnancies vs. Real Pregnancies in Dogs
Surprisingly, physical changes may affect dogs with false pregnancy as well. Some may develop symptoms strongly suggesting a real pregnancy, such as weight gain, abdominal swelling, nesting, clinginess to owner, and even vaginal discharges.
Dogs that become actually pregnant will exhibit signs and behaviors very closely resembling false pregnancy. Indeed it is often difficult to tell the two apart unless a veterinarian is given the opportunity to test the dog for pregnancy.
Once the dog gives birth, the dog may become possessive of her litter. This is only temporary in most cases, and gradually weans away as the puppies start growing and getting more independent. However, many new mothers will not mind their owners touching their puppies.
Other Female Dog Behaviors
Female dogs generally squat to urinate, unlike male dogs that show a preference to lift their leg. They also are not as engaged in ''marking territory '' as males; however, there can be exceptions. Some female dogs may be found ''humping'' like males do, but this is not sexual behavior; rather it is an attempt to demonstrate dominance.
In a multi-dog household, many times female dogs may not get along with other females. Indeed. bitch fights may turn out bloody and even fatal in some circumstances. However, they mostly do well with males.
Compared to males, females may have more mood swings even though they can be pretty sweet most of the time. Female dogs may also have a more maternal instinct which may do better in households with children. Of course, each dog is different and no generalizations can be really made when it comes to canine behavior.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: My bitch's heat cycle is due in 4 months time. At the moment, she is wandering around the house whining and sometimes howling. Is this related to her cycle or symptoms of something else?
Answer: If her next heat cycle is due in 4 months, this is likely not related to her cycle. However, in an intact female dog, we should worry about the possibility of pyometra. Pyometra is an infected uterus, and the condition is hormonally driven and usually occurs 1 week to 3 months after a heat cycle. This can turn into a life-threatening condition, especially if the pyometra is closed. Of course, there may be other things going on such as your dog smelling some critter or hearing some other dogs. If this is an unusual behavior for her, it may be best to see the vet to rule out medical causes.
© 2009 Adrienne Farricelli
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on July 25, 2020:
If she checked out fine at the vet, it could be that all the stress of her first cycle tired her out, but if this persists, it may be worthy getting a second opinion.
Claire Loakes on July 21, 2020:
Hi, my jack Russell has finished her first season 5 weeks ago. However her personality has changed all off a sudden. She is lethargic, doesn’t want to play just not herself. I have taken her vet and physically she is ok. Could this all be her hormones returning to normal following her first season?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on June 20, 2020:
Yes, local swelling and licking along with the swelling are all signs that point to the heat cycle. Of course, see your vet if you notice any worrisome signs (fever, lethargy, decreased appetite/drinking)
PPaula on June 15, 2020:
My dogs private area was bleeding (Looked like she was on her first cycle) But the area was swollen. Now she does not stop licking and it is still swollen. Is this part of the heat symptoms she is only 1 & 1 month.
Tamara Holmes on April 08, 2020:
Hello, my working cocker spaniel has had her first season, this has now come to the end. Her mood has changes, such as she is upset and will not play with her most favorite tug toys. IS this common, or not even related? Thank you
Lisa on October 29, 2019:
H there, My pup came on heat for the first time at 6 months old and her cycle seemed to last almost 2 months. Afterwards she displayed symptoms of being pregnant ( i knew she wasn't) and it seemed she was having a phantom pregnancy.
Almost 2 months on from her cycle finishing she seems to still attract certain male dogs like shes still in heat. She pees almost 10 times on a walk like she did when she was in heat also. I wonder if it is because of the phantom pregnancy or if there is an underlying medical issue?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on August 23, 2019:
This sounds like flagging behavior that is seen in female dogs when they are in estrus more than anything else. Female dogs when in estrus will move their tails to the side and out of the way when they are at the peak portion of the heat cycle. This is when they allow male dogs to breed. Other than that, not sure what else this could be. Perhaps mention this to your vet just to be safe. Some dogs assume the 'praying position" when they have tummy problems, but it would be odd for your dog to do that when touched or talked to, which is more likely seen instead in female dogs when they "flag."
Ashley on August 20, 2019:
I have a question. My female yorkie is done with her first heat. She is acting so strange. When i go to pet her or even talk to her, she stiffens her tail and loops it to one side or the other. And kind of raises her butt. Her attitude has changed to be more i dont want to say fearful but... Something like that. Im worried about her.