Dog Heat Cycle and Breeding

Kelly Roper
Mommy dog takes care of her pups

Although it may seem like dogs can turn up pregnant in the blink of an eye, it's actually a fairly complicated process. Just ask any breeder who has repeatedly tried and failed to produce a litter from her champion bitch; sometimes things just don't go according to plan. Successful dog breeding is all about the timing, so take a closer look at the biological issues behind the process.

Heat Cycle Indicates When to Breed

Estrus

Simply put, estrus is a bitch's fertile time, generally referred to as a heat cycle or "season". The first heat cycle typically takes place between six and nine months old, but breeds that mature more slowly may not experience a first heat until twelve to eighteen months of age.

Cycle Length

A normal heat cycle lasts approximately three weeks, during which time the dog will release a discharge that contains blood. There are numerous dog heat cycle signs and symptoms. In the beginning stages, known as proestrus, a bitch's vulva begins to swell, and you may notice her licking herself more than usual. Male dogs will also begin sniffing her more as her hormones begin to produce a scent that signals she is becoming ready to breed.

Dog Heat Cycle Chart

Weeks of Heat Heat Stages Signs and Symptoms
Week One Once the vulva begins to swell, the bitch will begin to produce a bloody discharge. The amount will vary from one bitch to the next, so it may or may not be noticeable.
Week Two Sometime around nine to twelve days, the color of the discharge lightens to a pinkish-tan color, and it's usually around this time, referred to as estrus, that the vulva softens and eggs are released from the ovaries. At this point, you may notice your bitch flirting with other dogs; this is a sign she is ready to accept a stud dog's advances.
Week Three If the heat cycle is allowed to continue uninterrupted, by the third week, the discharge begins to look bloody again. The amount will trail off until the cycle has concluded with anestrus.

Yearly, Bi-Yearly or Quarterly Cycles

On average, a healthy bitch comes into season every six months. However, this can vary, and some bitches only cycle once a year while others come into season on a quarterly basis. Quite often, bitches that come in quarterly are not fertile every season.

Signs That It's Time to Breed

Look for these signals that your bitch is ready to be bred:

  • General flirty/affectionate behavior
  • Tail held high and flagging
  • Pushing up rear when petted on the back
  • Willingness to stand and present vulva
  • Color change in discharge from red to pinkish-tan

How to Track a Dog's Heat Cycle

While you cannot predict to the day or week when a dog will come into her heat cycle, there are ways to track it so that you have a general idea of when it can occur. On the first day that your dog comes into heat, use a calendar to track the next eight to 10 days which will comprise her cycle. From there, use the calendar to track out the next five to eight months, as months five, six and seven are times when she may come into heat. Unfortunately you'll need to track your dog's heat cycles for a time before you get an idea of what her normal pattern is. It's also possible to determine how close a dog is to her heat cycle using hormone testing, but this can be quite cost prohibitive since you will need to do it regularly to establish a pattern. Another option is to try an app for tracking your dog's heat cycle, such as The Puppy Planner which is available for iOS and Android devices.

The Mating

Breeding usually takes place naturally without any human intervention beyond introducing the dam to the stud. However a little direction may be required if one or both of the dogs involved have never been bred before.

  • Typically, the male dog will become very excited when introduced to a receptive bitch, sniffing and licking at her vulva. Very quickly he will mount her from behind and begin to thrust.
  • When all goes as nature has designed, he will penetrate the bitch's vulva; this causes two glands directly behind the penis to swell considerably.
  • In response, the bitch's vulva will clamp around this swelling; this is referred to as a tie, and it's the moment when the dog and bitch become "stuck" together.
  • This period typically lasts from fifteen to thirty minutes, and it is at this point that sperm are being delivered to waiting eggs.

If the mating has been successful and the bitch conceives, she will deliver her pups between 58 and 63 days later. You can easily find your dog's due date by consulting a canine pregnancy calendar.

Best Time for Mating

There's no specific at-home way to tell the best time during heat for mating when ovulation occurs. Usually your dog will be most fertile between 9 to 10 days after she entered heat and she can remain this way for up to five days. According to VCA Hospitals, the most common sign is the color of the discharge, which becomes more of a pink, "salmon" color rather than blood red. You can also take your dog to the vet to have serum progesterone tests which can tell you when the best time of the heat cycle for mating is, but it does require you to take your dog for a series of tests every day or every other day during her cycle. DIY testing kits are available for purchase as well although they may not be as reliable as the tests performed by your vet.

Age and Mating

A dog can breed the first time she goes into heat, however, a responsible breeder will have important criteria in mind before allowing a dog to be bred. According to the American Kennel Club, you may not register any litters from a dam younger than eight months or older than 12 years. In addition, they strongly recommend that breeders consider several factors not related to age before breeding:

  1. Are you ready to have a litter? This includes not only knowledge of the process, but the equipment and supplies such as a proper whelping box, a quiet place for your dam, and the ability to care for her and the puppies.
  2. Will your dog further the breed? AKC advises you against "kennel blindness" and give your dog a critical eye. If your dog has medical, behavioral or other genetic flaws, you do not want to pass these on. Likewise, have you chosen a male dog that is also worthy of being bred and can further the good qualities of the breed?
  3. Are you ready for the expense of the many pre-breeding health checks and tests you should perform before breeding a dog such as OFA testing and a Polyneuropathy DNA test? If something goes wrong during the pregnancy, can you financially afford additional veterinary services such as a c-section which can be from $500 to $5,000?
  4. Are you committed to the time and expense of caring for a pregnant dog, her newborn puppies, as well as interviewing prospective homes and placing the dogs responsibly? This may include agreeing to take any of the dogs back in the future if something happens at their new home and the owners cannot care for him or her any longer.

Time Will Tell

Once a breeding has been completed, it will take some time to find out if it was a success. You'll be able to tell if a litter is on the way a lot sooner if you learn to spot the signs of pregnancy.

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Dog Heat Cycle and Breeding