This article was updated on August 15th, 2023
You may be prepared for the bleeding that will accompany your dog’s first heat cycle, but there are other bodily changes that might come as a surprise. When your dog experiences their first heat cycle, between six and eighteen months of age, you may also notice a dramatic swelling of the vulva.
The term “in heat” is used to describe the time in a female dog’s reproductive cycle when she is receptive to mating and able to conceive. The true term for this period of her cycle is called estrus. During this time, there are multiple surges and drops of her hormone levels, which have varying effects on her body.
It is natural to have questions about your dog’s first heat cycle. Read on to learn more about what to expect when your female dog is in heat. You will also find a few pictures of swollen female dogs in heat to help you understand what is normal, and when you might need to call your vet.
What does a female dog look like when in heat [with pictures]?
Whether or not you have ever owned an intact (unspayed) female dog, you likely are familiar with the idea that a dog in heat will have bloody vaginal discharge. What you may not know, however, is that your dog’s vulva will also swell significantly when they are in heat. This is a normal finding, and it’s caused by the effects of estrogen on your dog’s reproductive tract.
A swollen vulva is often one of the first signs that a dog is going into heat. The vulva will remain enlarged throughout the dog’s fertile period, and then it will gradually decrease in size. It’s important to note, however, that your dog’s vulva may never return to the size that it was before her first heat cycle. Dogs that have had one or more heat cycles will often have a vulva that remains permanently larger than that of dogs spayed before their first heat.
In these 2 pictures below, you can see the appearance of a slightly swollen canine vulva, accompanied by a small amount of bloody vaginal discharge:
This picture shows the swollen vulva of a dog in heat (on the right):
What are the visual characteristics of a swollen vulva of a dog in heat?
Some of the signs associated with heat are subtle or behavioral in nature. However, there are also clear visual cues that indicate a dog is in heat. A dog that is in heat will often have visible swelling and enlargement of the vulva. Additionally, you may see bloody or blood-tinged vulvar discharge.
Signs your dog may be in heat:
- Swelling or enlargement of the vulva
- Bloody or blood-tinged discharge from the vulva
- Urinating more often than usual
- Licking at the vulva more often than usual
- Increased mounting/humping behavior
- Increase in anxious behavior
- Roaming or increased interest in male dogs
Abnormal swelling in some dogs
Some dogs experience much more dramatic swelling of their vulva while in heat. Click here to see a picture showing a degree of swelling that may be normal in some dogs, but is likely abnormal or problematic swelling in most dogs.
Is my dog swollen because she is in heat, or is something else wrong?
While swelling of the vulva is a common sign of heat, there are also medical conditions that may cause an appearance that suggests vulvar swelling. It’s important to be able to distinguish between heat and these potentially-serious conditions.
While a dog’s heat cycle is accompanied by vulvar swelling and bloody discharge, you may also notice inflammation of the vulva and a purulent (pus-filled) discharge if your dog has vaginitis. This condition is common in young puppies, but can also occur in adult female dogs. Vaginitis may also be accompanied by redness around the vulva.
There are a variety of recommended treatments for vaginitis in dogs, depending on your dog’s overall condition and the severity of the vaginitis. See your veterinarian if you suspect that your dog may have vaginitis.
2. Vaginal hyperplasia
Vaginal hyperplasia is another condition that can cause swelling in the area of the vulva. In this condition, fluid-filled vaginal tissue prolapses from the vulva and is visible outside the body. This condition is most common in intact dogs and is associated with the effects of estrogen.
This picture may be shocking to some readers: click here to view.
If your dog has vaginal hyperplasia, they need veterinary care to prevent infection and injury to their prolapsed vaginal tissues. Your veterinarian will also likely recommend spaying your dog, to prevent future episodes of vaginal hyperplasia.
In some cases, vaginal hyperplasia can block a dog’s ability to pass urine. This is a life-threatening emergency and requires emergency veterinary care.
3. Rectal prolapse
In contrast to vaginal prolapse, rectal prolapse can affect both male and female dogs. In this condition, usually caused by gastrointestinal issues and/or excessive straining to defecate, a small amount of tissue prolapses from the rectum. Rectal prolapse is a medical emergency. Seek veterinary care immediately if you suspect rectal prolapse. Learn about about prolapse in dogs.
Disclaimer: This content is not a substitute for veterinary care. Always consult with your vet for health decisions. Learn more.
When should you call your veterinarian?
Vulvar swelling is normal when a dog is in heat.
If you know that your dog is in heat and their vulva is mildly to moderately swollen, monitoring your dog at home is a reasonable option.
However, if your dog is demonstrating extreme swelling of the vulva or swelling that is occurring while they are not in heat, you should seek veterinary care. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough physical examination and diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your dog’s vulvar swelling and recommended treatments.
Can you prevent vulvar swelling during future heat cycles?
As long as your dog is experiencing heat cycles, you will continue to see episodes of vulvar swelling. The only way to prevent heat-related vulvar swelling is to have your dog spayed.
Fortunately, spaying your dog offers a number of additional medical benefits. Spaying your dog while they are relatively young can markedly decrease your dog’s risk of mammary (breast) cancer, a common health threat in dogs. Additionally, spaying your dog will prevent uterine cancer.
Talk to your veterinarian to learn more about having your dog spayed.
5 steps you can take at home to help your swollen female dog
Your dog’s heat cycle can be stressful for both you and your dog.
Consider the following steps to reduce your dog’s stress:
WATCH: 3 Important Tips To Care For an Old Dog [VET VIDEO]
- Walk your dog during quiet times of the day. Male dogs will be attracted to your dog’s scent. Walk her when fewer dogs will be outside.
- Bathe your dog frequently to control odors. Most dogs will groom themselves to remove blood and vaginal discharge. Bathing your dog can help minimizing the amount of self-grooming that she needs to do.
- Distract your dog with play. If your dog appears restless or anxious, interactive play can help distract her from her heat cycle.
- Keep your dog on-leash and closely supervised. In order to prevent unwanted mating, it’s important not to allow your dog outside unattended.
- Have your dog spayed. If you do not plan to breed your dog, you should have her spayed to prevent further heat cycles.
Frequently asked questions
How often do dogs go into heat?
Most dogs go into heat every six months or twice yearly. However, some dogs may have as few as one heat cycle per year, while other dogs may have as many as three heat cycles in a year.
Is my dog in pain when in heat?
Being in heat isn’t painful, but it can cause some discomfort or restlessness. If your dog appears painful, consult your veterinarian.
What do I do if my female dog’s vulva is swollen but she is not in heat?
If your dog’s vulva is swollen and you know that she is not in heat, contact your veterinarian. Your veterinarian will perform a physical examination and laboratory tests to rule out infections, tumors, and other problematic causes of vulvar swelling.
Do female dogs go through a menopause stage?
Dogs do not experience menopause in the way that we see in humans. A dog’s heat cycles may become less frequent with age, but they do not typically stop completely. Most dogs can become pregnant throughout their lifespan.