The vast majority of dogs in the UK today are spayed and neutered as standard unless they are intended to be used for breeding, and when it comes to the spay operations performed on bitches, this takes the form of a total hysterectomy. This means that the dog’s ovaries are removed and reproduction is made physically impossible – and so too are their heat cycles stopped immediately as well, as there are no eggs to be released for potential fertilisation and conception of young.
However, we all know that unneutered female dogs undergo seasons or heat cycles a couple of times a year, when they are fertile and receptive to breeding – so do dogs have a menopause when they reach a certain age, which results in their heat cycles stopping and other physical and emotional changes taking place too?
Read on to find out.
The menopause is defined as the permanent end of an animal’s fertility cycle, in animals that undergo specific fertile periods based on the release of an egg from the ovary.
For most human women with normal reproductive systems, this fertility cycle is monthly, and results in a monthly menstrual cycle or period.
For bitches, however, the cycle is longer, and only occurs twice or even just once a year for some dogs. This is known as going into oestrus and unlike a woman’s period (which is the result of shedding the lining of the womb and an unfertilised egg after conception fails to occur) indicates their fertile window.
Because the reproductive cycle of humans and dogs are different in this regard, what happens later in life is different too.
Women undergo the menopause when their fertility cycles reaches its conclusion, usually when the woman in question reaches an age at which bearing young would not longer be viable for her.
This signals the end of menstrual periods, and a number of other physical and sometimes emotional changes too. The menopause can take months or even years to run its course; but it signals a definitive end to a woman’s fertility when it does. So, does this happen to female dogs too?
No, dogs do not undergo a menopause like humans do. Whilst human women have a distinct end to their fertility as they get older and this is signalled by the menopause, the same is not true for unspayed female dogs.
A bitch’s fertility drops off as she gets older – there is a distinct peak fertile window for bitches that occurs when they are fully adult but prior to the start of seniority, usually between the age of two (or even older for some large, slow-growing breeds) and five or so, and beyond this top-end peak fertile age, the bitch’s fertility begins to decline.
This means that her chances of conceiving young if mated drop off and continue to decline exponentially as she gets older, and also, the chances of the bitch carrying a litter to term, producing a normal-sized litter and having healthy pups (and being able to care for them properly) all drop too.
However, to give a crystal clear answer to the question of “do dogs have a menopause,” the answer is “no.” There is not a finite end point to a bitch’s fertility, and they don’t undergo the end of heat cycles and other physical and emotional change that a menopause results in.
Unspayed female dogs will continue to have heat cycles for their entire lives, although as they age, these may become more and more erratic, uncommon and variable in nature, reflecting the bitch’s declining fertility.
However, an elderly bitch can still theoretically conceive at any age, even in old age, when she does have a heat cycle.
For this reason, bitches that were left unspayed to breed from should ideally be spayed once they have reached the end of their breeding career, to prevent later mis-mating incidents.
Pregnancies in older bitches are also risky for both dam and potential pups, and spaying removes these risks. It also helps to protect the bitch against some forms of reproductive health issues too, such as ovarian cancer, which cannot develop in spayed bitches.
Undertaking a surgical procedure like spaying is somewhat riskier in elderly dogs than their younger counterparts, so spaying should be undertaken as soon as possible after the bitch’s breeding career has ended.
In mature adult dogs aged around 5-7, there is unlikely to be any increased risk with a spay procedure, but when dogs reach old age and much older than around seven, the risks increase.
If you don’t intend to breed from your bitch of any age, spaying her as soon as possible is the responsible decision, and will help to protect her health, prevent unwanted litters, and make caring and managing her much easier too as you won’t have heat cycles to contend with!