Are you worried about managing your female Labrador when she is in season? Unsure of what to expect when she comes into heat for the first time, or what will be expected of you?
We are going to take a look at the Labrador heat cycle, and find out what your bitch’s season will be like.
We’ll discuss how often she will come on heat, how long it will last, and the impact it could have on her behavior and how you care for her.
Managing your bitch in season is an important responsibility, but with a little knowledge and planning it shouldn’t have to cause you too many problems.
When Will My Female Lab Have Her First Season?
If you have brought a female Labrador puppy into your home, you will probably at some point have to deal with her coming into season.
Many vets now prefer to wait until after a Labrador’s first season to spay, so even if you are planning on having her neutered you will need to manage at least one season beforehand.
Your unspayed Lab will likely have her first season any time from six months of age onwards.
The average age is between nine and twelve months. Some large breed female dogs won’t have their first heat until as late as eighteen to twenty four months old.
How Often Do Labs go into Heat?
Your female Lab’s season will normally form a fairly regular pattern. Although the pattern may vary widely from dog to dog.
The space in between seasons will usually be somewhere between every six months and annually.
An eight to ten month cycle is longer than average but still considered to be normal, and occasionally a bitch will come into season every three or four months.
Although variations in heat cycles is normal, it is a good idea to chat to your vet if your bitch’s heat cycles are very different from the average six monthly interval, and especially if they suddenly change to a new pattern.
This is just a precaution in case there is an underlying health issue that needs looking at
Understanding seasons (heat) in female dogs – oestrus and proestrus
The hormones your female dog produces as she reaches maturity set in motion a rhythm or pattern of hormonal balance which control the fertility of your girl and which carries on throughout her life.
This hormonal cycle is composed of four parts
Anoestrus is the period of time when your bitch is not in season – it literally means ‘no heat’. During this period your Labrador is not sexually attractive to male dogs and she cannot get pregnant.
Proestrus is the first part of her heat cycle. The time when her uterus (or womb) is being prepared for pregnancy. This is the part where her vulva swells and she starts to bleed and you become aware that she is on heat.
During proestrus your female dog will be attractive to male dogs but not yet likely to willingly permit a male dog to mate with her.
Oestrus is the second part of the heat cycle. This is when your bitch becomes fertile. At this point her bloody discharge may become paler and more watery, and your bitch will probably be willing to stand and allow a male dog to mate with her.
Indeed she may be very flirtatious and encouraging to male dogs and some bitches will actively seek to escape from your premises to find the boy dog of their dreams.
Dioestrus is the part of the cycle following oestrus and in a wild dog will almost always embrace pregnancy and whelping.
In domestic dogs, we usually prevent pregnancy. Most bitches never have puppies, and during dioestrus the hormonal levels of progesterone in the dog which would normally support a pregnancy, can cause problems.
False pregnancy and infections of the uterus (pyometra) are very common during this period.
At the end of dioestrus your bitch’s hormones fall and she returns to anoestrus again, until the next season comes along.
Signs your Female Labrador is Coming Into Season
There are usually some clear signs when your bitch is in season, but it is not always obvious so if you think she might be approaching that time you need to keep an eye on her.
Physical appearance and swelling
The first thing you are likely to notice is that your female dog’s vulva (external genitalia) becomes very swollen and puffy. It may be literally three or four times it’s normal size.
Together with a bloody discharge, these symptoms tell you that your girl has come into season.
As your girl move into her fertile phase, the bleeding may stop or become more watery
Although you might expect the main sign to be profuse bleeding, it isn’t always obvious. In fact, sometimes all you will see are very small markings on the floor or in the dog’s bed.
Increased cleaning and licking
Most Labs are very good at keeping themselves clean. Which can provide another good sign that she is in season. If she is swollen and she is licking her genitals considerably more than usual, her heat has probably started.
A quick test
If you are not sure whether or not your Labrador is bleeding, gently wipe a piece of clean cotton wool or a white tissue over her vulva.
Changes in your dog’s behavior during her season
You might notice a slight change in her temperament in the few days before you see any physical signs.
These could include increased sleepiness, or her showing more of an inclination to ‘be together’. Some bitches will be very clingy to their owners around this time.
Others will be more excitable than normal in response to the changes in estrogen. They may also show some odd behavior, such as cocking a leg to pee in the manner of a male dog.
Humping and flagging
Many female dogs will also hump other dogs, male or female, when they are on heat. Some female dogs, especially puppies, will hump other dogs in play, so if there are no other symptoms, humping does not mean your bitch is in season.
Flagging is when she turns her tail to one side when you run your hand down her back and over her rump. This behavior usually takes place during oestrus when she is ready to mate.
How Do I Know My Girl Is In Season?
If your female Lab is over four months old, has a swollen vulva, pink staining when you wipe her vulva with a clean white tissue or cotton wool, she is almost certainly on heat.
If you are worried or not sure, do chat to your vet over the phone, but don’t take her into his surgery without talking to him first, in case there are male dogs in the waiting room.
Your priority now is to make sure your bitch does not become pregnant. We’ll look at that in a moment
How long will my dog’s season last?
Your female Labrador’s season will last approximately three to four weeks. The time that she will ovulate is about ten days to a fortnight in.
At this point the colour of her discharge may change from pink to colorless and her flagging will increase.
How long your a female dog spends in each stage of her heat (proestrus and oestrus) varies widely from dog to dog. On average oestrus begins 7-10 days after the start of your girl’s season, but you simply cannot assume that she will be average.
Without getting your vet to carry out tests, it is very difficult to tell exactly when your girl is fertile, and for that reason, you have to assume she could get pregnant at any point after the first symptoms of heat appear and for the next three to four weeks.
Keeping track of your dog’s heat cycles
It is a very good idea to record the date in your diary when your bitch comes on heat, and make a note that she may come on heat again in about six month’s time.
That way you’ll be prepared and ready to look out for the signs in future. Many bitches do have a regular pattern to their cycles, which you will be able to spot with careful record keeping.
Can My Female Have Puppies in her First Season?
There is a risk of pregnancy during any time that your bitch comes into season. Including the very first time.
If she is on heat, she will be susceptible to male advances, and may conceive if mated. But this does not mean that this is a good idea.
Most Labs are still puppies, very young and physically immature at the time they have their first season, and it is not good for them to be mated at this stage. There is also a greater risk of problems during whelping if they do concieve.
If this is only her first season, your young Labrador Retriever is likely to still be far too immature to cope with a litter of puppies or to show good maternal instincts.
You will also find that some of the health tests you will need to have carried out to ensure the future safety of your dog’s puppies cannot be screened by this point.
If you are thinking of breeding from your bitch at some point, do check out this article for more help and guidance on making the right decisions.
What should I do when my Labrador comes into season?
There are several important aspects to managing your dog on heat.
- Preventing pregnancy
- Caring for your bitch, and your home during her season
- Ensuring your bitch remains healthy in the weeks afterwards
Let’s take pregnancy first
How to prevent your female dog getting pregnant
A serious word of caution is required if you are intending to keep an entire male dog with an un-spayed girl.
During her season they will need to be kept completely apart, ideally in a different house! Here’s why.
Separating your own dogs while your bitch is on heat
You can try and separate your dogs at home using barriers such as tall dog gates or closed doors but this is fraught with difficulty and very risky. It is also very easy to underestimate just how high a dog can jump if he really wants something special!
It is amazing just how quickly dogs can mate when you don’t want them to, and it only needs one person to leave the door open for a couple of minutes.
Male dogs may become distressed
Your male dog will be able to tell that his female friend is on heat, and will be even more keen than normal to be in her company.
He may scratch and howl at the doors between them relentlessly, or pace up and down whining.
This is both stressful for you to watch and listen to, and upsetting to both of your dogs.
Will brother and sister dogs mate?
YES! Please note, that dogs have no concept of ‘incest’.
The fact that your dogs are brother and sister will not prevent them mating and if they do mate, any puppies will be greatly at risk from inherited diseases due to their similar genetic make up.
The presence of a bitch in heat in the house can also cause a male dog to mark the area with urine. An act which can continue even after her season has been complete!
So I strongly recommend that you send your male dog to stay with a friend for the next four weeks. Neutering him once your bitch is in season will not help at this point, as he will still be fertile for the next few weeks.
But what about the morning after pill for dogs?
You might think that there will be an injection or pill that will put things right if you make a mistake and your dogs get together.
But in dogs these hormonal injections have been found to be very risky and they are no longer used.
So if your dog gets mated, there is no easy way out the situation. You must keep your female dog away from any male dog that has not been neutered.
How to exercise when on heat
When your Lab is in season, it is very important that you do not walk her anywhere that you might come across another dog.
That means no public parks or beaches for the next few weeks.
Even the best trained entire male dog, with all the will in the world, will be tempted to pay a special visit to your pet.
Dogs can smell female hormones and will range vast distances to find them, becoming very ‘enthusiastic’ if they manage to gain access.
Not only will you find it hard to deter any passing male dog’s efforts to impregnate your bitch, but you will find that his owner will probably have a few choice words to say to you about bringing her out at all.
It’s therefore best to keep your pet in totally secure areas for this time.
Securing your property
Before she comes into season make sure that your garden is secure . Entire male dogs will try very hard to get into contact with a bitch on season.
They will jump gates and wiggle under fences that would have had no appeal normally.
Make sure there is no way an unwanted intruder can come in, or that your girl can get out.
Using bitch sprays for dogs in heat
You can by deoderant sprays which may reduce the appeal of your female dog to male dogs and help avoid queues of male dogs lining up outside your yard or at your garden gate.
Or if your bitch is still attracting male attention after her season is over.
They are not, however, a substitute for keeping your female dog safely away from male dogs and should not be relied on to keep your girls safe when walking in public. Something I strongly advise you not to do.
So if you can’t take her to the park, how are you supposed to exercise your girl?
Alternatives to Walks for Female Labradors in Season
A lot of people wrongly believe that it is harmful for their dog not to be walked. This simply is not true provided the lack of exercise is temporary.
As long as she can stretch her legs in the back yard, and is well stimulated mentally and physically with ball games or interactive toys, your female dog will be fine going without a romp in the woods for a few weeks.
Plenty of dogs have to go on crate rest for weeks after surgery and survive without any ill effects. And there are other ways to keep your dog occupied.
It’s a good opportunity to work on your training in a confined area, practicing heelwork and sit/stays, retrieving etc. If your dog doesn’t retrieve, you could even use this opportunity to teach her to fetch while she is confined to home and yard.
How to care for your dog in season at home
If you do not have any intact male dogs in the house, you should not have to change your girl’s living arrangements too much.
She should be expected to behave as normal, but might need extra toilet breaks as she will want to urinate more often. Occasionally a normally clean bitch will wee in the house when she is on heat, even though she is fine the rest of the time.
Despite our best hopes, some of our Labrador ladies simply are not interested in keeping themselves clean. And some can be quite messy
Dealing with messy dogs during their season
I have known a number of different ways people have had of getting around the cleanliness problem. One friend with a messy Labrador bitch used to keep her in a heated outbuilding during this time of the month!
However, not all of us are fortunate enough to have additional housing on hand! And most of us don’t want to exclude our four legged friend from the family for several weeks.
Cleaning up after your dog on Heat
Cleaning up after your girl on heat is important. Both for general cleanliness and hygiene reasons.
Most of our Labs live indoors, and if you have easily wiped flooring in all the rooms your dog has access to, then the simplest thing may be to just increase your cleaning routine.
Hygiene pants for Labs in season
Another alternative is to buy hygiene pants for your girl to wear indoors for the next few weeks.
They help to avoid stains on your carpets and furniture and enable you to let your bitch access all areas of your home as usual
Some dogs won’t tolerate hygiene pants and will tear them off. In which case you might want to consider a system of barriers.
Keeping your in season dog off the carpets and furniture
If your girl is bleeding heavily you may need to keep her off any carpeted floors for the next few weeks, and protect your furniture with washable throws if she regularly sleeps on chairs or the sofa.
That way you won’t have the trouble of adjusting her habits instantly the moment she is on heat.
If your Labrador lady is used to a crate this can be a big help for short periods of time if you need to have doors open to carpeted rooms, or if you want your Labrador to join you in the living room during the evening but don’t want her on the furniture.
Can I have my dog spayed during her first season
If your Labs first season has caught you unawares you may be very keen to get her spayed so you don’t have to go through this again.
But, it is a bad idea to spay your dog while she is in season or during dioestrus immediately afterwards. During this time her uterus (womb) is swollen and the surgical procedure is more risky.
It is far better for your female dog to be spayed during anoestrus so your vet will want you to wait until about three months after the first day of her season. The idea is to spay her mid-way between seasons. This is the safest time.
Caring for your bitch after her season
Every bitch is at risk from pyometra (infection of the uterus or womb) in the weeks that follow the end of a season. This is potentially fatal
If you don’t intend to spay your bitch, please read up on this risk so that you are aware of the symptoms. Early treatment is essential and life saving.
Do senior female dogs have a menopause?
People sometimes ask if their dog’s heat cycles will come to a halt when they reach middle age, or get old.
The answer is no. Dogs continue to cycle through the four hormonal phases throughout their entire life. So, if you don’t have your bitch spayed, she will continue to come into season every six months or so.
When should I have my dog spayed?
The right time to spay your girl is mid-way between cycles, once she is mature, and once you are fully aware of (and have considered) the risks and benefits of neutering.
We know a lot more about the effects of neutering on dogs than we once did, and we now know that neutering is not always in the best interests of every dog. So you need to weigh up the pros and cons, which will depend on your individual situation.
You can find out more in this article: Should I neuter my dog – the latest evidence.
Summary and more information
Managing a bitch in season is not too complicated.
You need to make sure that your home and garden is secure, and avoid taking your bitch to places where there may be entire male dogs.
Many bitches keep themselves very clean and you will hardly notice any mess at all.
If you are worried there are hygiene products you can buy or you can simply keep your girl away from carpeted rooms for a few weeks.
Most bitches remain in great health and good spirits throughout their season, which will be over before you know it.
For some interested information on the biology of seasons, you might like to have a look at this website.
If you need more information about caring for your bitch, The Book of The Bitch (above) outlines every aspect of caring for a female dog, from birth, through pregnancy and whelping.
Remember, female dogs are vulnerable to health issues during dioestrus so you need to keep a close eye on your bitch for four or five weeks after the end of each season.
If your bitch is coming into season any more frequently than every four months it is worth speaking to your vet, as this can be indicative of health problems.
Do you make any changes to your home routine to cope with your bitch when she is in season? Share your tips with other readers in the comments box below.
Originally published in 2013 this article has been extensively revised and updated for 2016