Surprisingly often, pet parents rescue or adopt female dogs that are billed as spayed but…aren’t. There’s really no great way to tell that your female dog hasn’t actually been spayed unless she has a visible scar, but those are often difficult to see anyway between her skin and fur.
Why does it matter? Because a female dog in heat presents a lot of signs, some of them worrying if you don’t understand why they’re happening. In some cases, a dog in heat can actually develop pyometra, a condition that can be life-threatening if left without treatment.
Here’s what to expect if you’re surprised your dog is going into heat.
0-30 Minutes In: Notice the Changes
Many of the first signs of a dog going into heat are behavioral, which means they can be subtle. Dogs generally go into heat around twice a year, so you may have only had your rescued pooch for a couple of weeks or month before her heat sets in. That makes it even trickier to spot behavioral abnormalities. You might notice your dog being sleepier than usual, or more agitated. She may get more clingy or the opposite, needing space. Some dogs tail-tuck, which means they literally try and hide their private parts with their tails.
The more obvious signs of a female dog in heat are physical, but they vary widely dog-to-dog. A swollen vulva is the most common physical sign, but that can be hard to spot unless you’re specifically looking. Bleeding doesn’t always happen but when it does, it’s usually light at first, then heavier the last few days. Unexpected vaginal bleeding is the first sign for many pet parents that their dog isn’t spayed; it can be really alarming if you’re not anticipating it!
30-60 Minutes In: Create a Plan
Once your dog is in heat, there’s really no getting around it. You’ve got to help her ride it out. If your dog is bleeding, she’ll probably keep the mess minimal by licking herself clean. It’s still a good idea to put towels down on your furniture, though, and she may need a bath or some spot-cleaning.
You also want to think back on any variances you’ve seen in her routine over the last couple of days. Some dogs in heat get extra-hungry while some don’t want much to eat. Others need more rest than usual, which some have energy to spare.
Un-spayed dogs occasionally develop what’s known as pyometra, an infection in the uterus. The effects of the infection usually show up a few weeks after the dog’s last complete heat cycle and van vary widely. It’s entirely possible to mistake pyometra for an unexpected heat cycle, but pyometra must be treated quickly and aggressively by a professional.
The signs of pyometra can include an oozing, pussy discharge, lethargy, lack of appetite, fever, and in the most serious cases, a distended abdomen. If you have any suspicion that your dog isn’t in heat but has pyometra, call your veterinarian immediately or take her to an emergency clinic if it’s after hours.
30 Minutes-2 Hours In: Go Into Lockdown
Your dog’s “heat” doesn’t technically begin until her vulva softens and her bleeding all but stops; this is when she’s actually fertile. You may notice she stops tail-tucking and wants to go outside (to breed!) Your biggest priority now is keeping her indoors. Male dogs can smell females in heat from miles away and will cross oceans to mate with them. Don’t let this heat surprise turn into a puppy surprise.
Once her heat is over (usually 1-3 weeks after her symptoms began), it’s time to schedule an appointment for her to be spayed. Every heat cycle your dog goes through increases her risk of cancer, so the sooner the better. Most vets agree that dogs over 4-6 months of age can safely handle the spaying procedure.
Questions about your dog’s heat cycle?