Heat Cycle: Understanding Estrus Cycle in Pets, Caring for a Dog or Cat in Heat and Identifying Signs of False Pregnancy

by Aug 9, 2019Pet Lifestyle

If you parent a female cat or dog that is not spayed, they will go in heat. Heat is the set of hormonal changes in the body of your female pet – preparing her for reproduction; just like human females. However, human and canine/feline heat cycles are very different. If you want to help your pet have an easier heat, it’s very important to understand what is happening in their body.
This article will talk about:

  1. Heat in Dogs and Cats
  2. The Heat Cycle in Dogs
  3. The Heat Cycle in Cats
  4. The First Heat
  5. False Pregnancy (or Pseudo Pregnancy)
  6. Caring for a Dog or Cat on Heat
  7. Walking your Dog on Heat
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Heat in Dogs and Cats

The heat cycle in dogs and cats is Estrous, as compared to a Menstrual Cycle in humans. Don’t get baffled by the terms. The basic difference between the two is that animals with an Estrous cycle (like dogs and cats) reabsorb the endometrium (innermost layer of the uterus), while those with a Menstrual cycle shed it.
This is why the amount of bloody discharge is significantly lower in dogs and cats than humans. The Estrous cycle in dogs and cats also means that they are not sexually active all year round; only when they are in heat. The purpose of this sexual activeness is also procreation, not recreation. That is, dogs and cats don’t have sex for pleasure.
Dogs are Monoestrous animals, meaning they go in heat once (or twice) a year. While cats are Polyestrous, they undergo heat multiple times a year. The cycle in both of them is similar, with varying durations.
Your pet dog or cat will experience their first heat when they are between 4 months to a year old, depending on their breed. Smaller dogs mature sooner in their younger years as compared to bigger breeds, hence the difference. Your dog may experience heat once or twice a year, depending on their breed. Your cat will experience heat every 2 or 3 weeks until they are spayed. Which may make it seem like they are in heat all year long, also causing a lot of stress on their body.

ALSO READ: Dog Aging Chart: Calculating your Pet’s Age in Dog Years, Life Expectancy & Age-Related Problems in Dogs

Heat in Dogs & Cats, Heat Cycle in Pets, Dogs & Cats Estrus Heat Cycle, Pseudo or False Pregnancy

Heat Cycle in Dogs

The estrous heat cycle can be divided into four phases; Proestrus, Estrus, Diestrus or Metestrus, and Anestrus.

Stage 1: Proestrus

The proestrus stage in dogs can last approximately 4-20 days. It is the first stage of the Estrous Cycle and can be identified by a swollen vulva and bloody discharge. She may also lick her rear end excessively to clean herself. Proestrus is also when the male dogs will start being attracted to her, but she will be non-receptive. Inside her body, estrogen levels reach their peak and follicles in the ovary start to grow. The endometrium starts developing and the vagina and uterus descent.

Stage 2: Estrus

The Estrus stage lasts an average of 9 days based on behavioral signs but can range from 4 to 24 days. These are your dog’s fertile days. You will observe frequent urination and marking behavior during this stage. Her urine contains pheromones and hormones that signal her reproductive state to other dogs. She will be receptive to male dogs during this stage.
Changes you will be able to observe include a swollen but softer vulva. The bloody discharge will now change color to be slightly yellow or wheatish and mucus-y in texture. Inside her body, the discharge decreases. Estrogen levels drop and progesterone levels go higher.
This is the period when you are required to be careful to avoid accidental pregnancy. Get your dog spayed if you are not planning on breeding her. Breeding irresponsibly can cause multiple health hazards for your pet, the litter to come and their generations to follow. It should never be carried out by inexperienced pet parents. Spaying is a good way to avoid accidental pregnancies and many other health issues in your female dog.

ALSO READ: Pet Sterilization: The Benefits & Risks of Spaying or Neutering Your Dog or Cat

Stage 3: Diestrus or Metestrus

The Diestrus phase lasts about 2 months. This is when the vulva will start shrinking to its normal size. She will also stop attracting male dogs or will not be receptive to them. Estrogen levels are low. The progesterone that had started rising in the estrus phase reaches its peak during the first 3-4 weeks of diestrus and then starts settling back to normal by the end of it, irrespective of whether they are pregnant or not.
If your dog happened to accidentally mate with a male dog, the early symptoms of pregnancy may start showing up now. If predisposed to, she may also experience a false pregnancy. This can be extremely confusing. We’ve discussed false pregnancies later in this article.
Heat in Dogs & Cats, Heat Cycle in Pets, Dogs & Cats Estrus Heat Cycle, Pseudo or False Pregnancy

Stage 4: Anestrus

Anestrus is the period between Diestrus and the next Proestrus. There will be no discharge, swelling of the vulva or any other symptoms. Here, the uterus prepares itself for the next possible pregnancy. Anestrus lasts about 4 months but could be shorter or longer depending on your pet and their breed. She or the male dogs around her will no longer be interested in mating.

Heat Cycle in Cats

Stage 1: Proestrus

Proestrus in cats is similar to dogs but lasts about one to four days. The vulva enlarges slightly and can appear moist. There will be no discharge in this phase. Their appetite may increase, they may utter low calls, and be overly affectionate or even demanding to you. At this stage, FSH (Follicle Stimulating Hormone) in her body is promoting egg development.

Stage 2: Estrus

Cats have very little to no discharge even in the estrus phase. However, during estrus is when she is ready to mate. You will observe frequent urination and spraying. Her urine has both pheromones and hormones to signal her fertile state to the tomcats around. She may rub against items, roll, and even assume the breeding position often. The cries may become loud and disturbing, like that of a child in pain. She may try to escape from the house, or a tomcat could find their way in. It is important to remain extremely vigilant to avoid any mishaps. The length of estrus can vary from cat to cat but generally lasts about 10 to 14 days.

Stage 3: Metestrus

As estrus passes, your feline friend will start returning to normal behavior. She will not attract or accept toms any longer. The wailing goes away too. Just like dogs, your cat can experience a false pregnancy. Symptoms like nesting, self-nursing, motherly activities, swollen mammary glands, loss of appetite and depression can indicate a pregnancy (or false pregnancy). If you suspect your cat being truly pregnant or going through a false pregnancy, contact your veterinarian.

Stage 4: Anestrus

Anestrus is the stage between Metestrus and the next Proestrus where your cat is not ready to reproduce and does not want to mate. It usually lasts one to two weeks.
Know that estrus is a lifelong occurrence once your cat has her first heat. It will keep repeating every two to three weeks until they are mated or spayed. Mating cats on your own is never a wise thing to do. It can cause extreme complications and even be life-threatening to your cat, her litter and their generations to come. Going in heat so often can be detrimental to your cat’s health. They can stress their reproductive system out causing health issues and drastically lose weight. Not that dog and cat overpopulation isn’t a menace in India. Spaying your cat is ideal for her to have a long and healthy life.
Heat in Dogs & Cats, Heat Cycle in Pets, Dogs & Cats Estrus Heat Cycle, Pseudo or False Pregnancy

The First Heat

There is no fixed chart for when your pet will have their first heat. Depending on the decision you make, they may or may not be spayed before their first heat. While heat does indicate that your animal has reached puberty or is mature, they are not yet mature enough to carry a litter. They can, however, get pregnant during their first heat. If you’ve decided to spay them after their first heat, be extremely cautious and vigilant at all times to avoid accidental pregnancies or mismating.

False Pregnancy in Dogs & Cats

False Pregnancies (also known as Pseudo Pregnancy) are common among intact, unspayed female dogs. They’re also observed in cats, though not as often as in dogs. They occur because the rise and drop of progesterone during Estrus and Diestrus phase are the same as when they are pregnant. This may make your female’s body and mind believe she is pregnant. The symptoms of false pregnancy are the same as a regular pregnancy. You will notice lethargy, morning sickness, loss of appetite, nausea, weight gain, mammary enlargement, and even milk production. She may also start making a nest in anticipation of the non-existent upcoming puppies. When they fail to arrive she may adopt a surrogate ‘puppy’, a toy or object, to care for.
In the wild, some dogs and cats in the pack develop pseudo pregnancies to feed and care for the young ones while their mother (pack leader) is out to hunt or scavenge for food. It’s Nature’s beautiful scheme to ensure that the pack survives.
Heat in Dogs & Cats, Heat Cycle in Pets, Dogs & Cats Estrus Heat Cycle, Pseudo or False Pregnancy
The only way to be assured that your pet is going through is a false pregnancy, is to be 100% sure that she did not accidentally mate with anyone during the Estrus phase. In any case, reach out to your veterinarian to speak about what is happening. If you feel unsure, there are medical diagnostic procedures to help determine the state of the pregnancy.
While false pregnancy is completely normal and not a disease, if your pet is undergoing a false pregnancy it is very stressful and uncomfortable to her mind and body. If it has happened once, the possibility of it reoccurring every time is very high. Medications for this do exist but they have their own harmful side-effects. Your best resort is to have your pet spayed to spare her the ordeal.

Caring for a Pet Dog or Cat in Heat

  1. Do not let them out alone or off-leash
    Keeping your pet safe from males and unwanted pregnancy should you be your first and foremost concern when she is in heat. Know that male dogs can smell your female in heat even 8 kms away. They will come for her, following the scent for several kilometers.
    Being in heat can make your female behave differently. She may be extremely restless or try to escape. Males, on the other hand, are also willing to do whatever it takes to get to the female. Whether that be jumping fences, climbing or even digging. You can also expect aggression from both genders when stopped from doing so.
    While keeping your dog indoors is the safest thing to do, she does need to get out of the house to calm down and to relieve herself. It is not entirely impossible to walk a dog in heat (more on that below).
    If you parent a female cat, have your windows netted and keep an eye on your cat at all times. Everything from the urine, to calls, are to invite the toms over. Don’t be surprised to find some waiting at your door or at your window.
  2. Extra attention
    Being in heat is not all physical changes, your pet is experiencing mental changes too. While behavioral changes should be expected, always be there for your pet. Sit with them, brush them, play with them, talk to them. However, do not try to force them into anything. If they feel tired and want to sleep, let them do so. Be available and throw in some extra cuddles.
    You can also offer them a warm place to sit or sleep, play some calming music or diffuse some essential oils. If your cat calms down to catnip, you could use some.
  3. Heat in Dogs & Cats, Heat Cycle in Pets, Dogs & Cats Estrus Heat Cycle, Pseudo or False Pregnancy

  4. Practice good hygiene
    Your pet will lick themselves to keep the area clean. Incorporating some hygienic practices, though, can help you both have a better, happier experience of heat. Use dog/cat diapers to contain the discharge and avoid staining around the house. Dog diapers also help slightly conceal the smell from males. If your pet doesn’t like the feeling of diapers, spot clean them from time to time.
    Your pet is likely to urine mark when in heat. Keep your cat’s litter box clean to encourage her to use it. Take your dog out to relieve herself too. If they do spray around the house, make sure to clean the spot as soon as possible to minimize the diffusion of the smell, and discourage your pet from repeating it.
  5. Watch their appetite
    Appetite changes are very subjective to pets. Some have a reduced appetite when in heat, while some others have an increased one. If your pet is one of the latter, consider giving them multiple smaller meals throughout the day, and make up for the extra food with some activity. We can understand if you feel tempted to offer them treats. But keep them as limited as possible or offer natural treats like carrots, beans, apples, etc. These not only work as safer treats, but will also help her body with the good nutrition she may need.
    Irregular heat or one that lasts an abnormally small number of days can cause health issues or be a sign of an underlying issue. Track your pet’s heat and reach out to your vet in case of irregularities.


How to walk a dog on heat

Isolating your pet is the best way to avoid mishaps when they are in heat. However, your dog may still need to go out for her daily business. Going out will also help calm her if she is feeling restless. While slightly difficult, it is not entirely impossible to walk your dog when in heat. Here’s how you can do it.

  1. The leash is a must!
    Not even the best obedience training will work when instincts take over. Having your dog on a leash will make it easier to control your pet if it seems like something may go wrong. Male dogs will be attracted to your female when she is in heat. Like we mentioned earlier, they can smell her from even 8 kms away and will thus come tracing her smell.
  2. Cover the trail
    If you’ve gone out with your pet in heat and then wondered how the dogs lined up outside your door, it is because they followed the scent of your female right to your home. To avoid sleepless nights with your pet restless at home and the males restless at your door, leave no trail behind. A good way to do this is to take your pet to the park or their spot in a car and let her out there. Bring her back home in the vehicle too. This takes away the risk of leaving a clear traceable trail.
  3. Heat in Dogs & Cats, Heat Cycle in Pets, Dogs & Cats Estrus Heat Cycle, Pseudo or False Pregnancy

  4. Avoid male dogs
    Possibly the worst fear of walking your female in heat is encountering a male dog. Dogs generally do not immediately mate, but a meeting could soon turn into mating. Your best bet is to keep her away from the males. If you notice a person walking their male pet dog, signal to them that yours is in heat. This will make them vigilant too, and you crossing the track less awkward. Know that mating isn’t your only enemy, male dogs can be aggressive towards your female in her earlier or later days of heat when she isn’t ready to mate.
    Other precautions like having her wear a diaper conceals the scent for a bit and also works as a first layer of protection. But know that diapers are not contraceptives and mating can occur through them too. Use a bit of menthol on the tip of your dog’s tail. While this isn’t a fool-proof way to mask the scent, it does reduce its effect a little.
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We know that going through heat can be stressful for both you and your pet. You are definitely required to take some extra efforts for the safety of your pet, but we’re sure your furball is worth it all. Along with all the measures mentioned, patience too goes a long way. Be patient with your pet as her body goes through something unexperienced before. Give her your time and love, and do not panic. Work with your vet and trainer to ensure your pet has a smooth heat.
If you’re looking for a more permanent solution, spaying your pet is ideal. Know that spayed female cats and dogs do not go in heat or get pregnant. You can speak with your veterinarian to determine the ideal time to get your pet spayed. Spaying can be done at any point in your pet’s heat cycle. However, it is recommended to push it until her heat ends to avoid excessive bleeding that can occur by operating during Estrus.
Have more questions about your pet dog or cat going in heat? Leave them down in the comments!

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