Can a 12 year old dog get pregnant?

Penny is 12 years old, but can she still get pregnant?

You’d be surprised to know just how many people ask this question, not to mention those who wished they had asked the same thing before it was too late. People sort of assume that past a certain age, when they consider their faithful dog to be old they don’t have to worry about surprise pregnancies. Until they discover the old dog is nesting. Wow, how did that happen? Easy, female dogs are never too old to get pregnant, and here are a few things about canine fertility.

Does a dog go through menopause?

This is the root of the problem and many pet owners believe that all mammals are the same. If women past a certain age can no longer conceive naturally, the same must be true for dogs, they figure. The fact that older dogs rarely get pregnant only strengthens this belief. 

The truth is there is no such thing as menopause in the canine world. Given the right circumstances, an older bitch can still get pregnant.

What is the heat cycle in a dog?

There are several misconceptions regarding a dog’s fertility cycle. Surprisingly, some people don’t even know the fundamental difference between a woman’s period and a dog’s heat period. In both cases, some bleeding occurs, right? The difference is that when a woman is on her period she is not fertile, whereas a dog’s bleeding signifies that she is ready to conceive and the pheromones she releases are an invitation to all the males in town.

While a woman bleeds every month, a bitch goes in heat twice a year. The entire heat cycle lasts an average of 21 days and it is during the estrus stage that the bleeding occurs and the dog is ready to mate. This is what the phrase ‘like a dog in heat’ refers to, the estrus stage which lasts approximately nine days, and the dog actively encourages male attention. It’s the law of nature and she’s following her instinct and doing her bit for the survival of the species.

In fact, if you notice your bitch in heat is urinating more frequently than usual, know that this is her way of advertising her willingness to mate. The urine contains hormones and pheromones a male dog can smell from miles away.

Now let’s go over the main visible signs your dog is in heat:

  • Swelling of the vulva
  • A bloody discharge which can very light or quite heavy
  • Raising her leg in a different way, especially if a male dog is in the vicinity
  • Becoming lazier or, on the contrary, more aroused and anxious
  • Running away from home, to practice hiding from males

On average, female dogs reach sexual maturity by the age of six months, although this may vary with breed. Smaller dogs develop faster and can go into heat more frequently, in some cases even three or four times a year. On the other hand, large breeds like Great Danes and St. Bernards take longer to reach sexual maturity and may go into heat only once a year. 

Is pregnancy dangerous for an old dog?

Doctors say that after the age of seven or even earlier for certain larger breeds, the frequency of the heat periods will diminish and so will your dog’s chances of getting pregnant. But she will continue to have heat periods for the rest of her life and she will be sending signals to all able-bodied dogs in the neighborhood. To compound this problem, some bitches go through silent heat, when no bleeding occurs or the discharge is so light the owner doesn’t notice anything. Once again, all the intact males in town will get the memo and descend upon your backyard.

If you are blissfully unaware of all the drama in your backyard, you might be surprised to discover certain pregnancy signs in your dog, among which:

  • Weight gain
  • Discoloration or enlargement of the nipples
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Decreased activity
  • Changes in appetite
  • Nesting behaviors

If you suspect your old dog might indeed be pregnant, the first thing you need to do is take her to the vet. All pregnancies involve some risks and you need to see if your pet is healthy enough to go through another pregnancy. 

If her body is no longer able to carry the litter to term there’s a strong possibility she might lose the pups, as one study on laboratory beagles showed.In older dogs, litters tend to be smaller and the puppies are not as healthy and robust as those born to a younger bitch. In some cases, up to 80% of the puppies might die before weaning.

Also, the whelping (labor) can be more difficult for an older dog.

There are cases when a dog does stop going into heat and if you do notice that, you should see a vet, as this usually indicates a problem, like ovarian cysts or ovarian cancer.

What does spaying do?

If you want to avoid your dog getting pregnant at any age the only solution that is 100% guaranteed is spaying.

Some pet owners allow their dogs to go through at least one heat cycle before spaying the animal, but in many cases, young bitches are sterilized before reaching sexual maturity. This procedure is usually performed when the dog reaches the age of six months.

Spaying is a surgical procedure that involves the removal of the reproductive organs, that is the ovaries and the uterus. In some cases, only the ovaries are removed or only the uterus, but the results are basically the same – the dog will not experience vaginal bleeding during the heat cycle.

When a full ovariohysterectomy is performed, meaning both ovaries and uterus are removed, the dog will no longer have heat cycles, she will not bleed vaginally and there is no risk of her getting pregnant.

Generally, the whole procedure lasts about 1-2 hours and is performed under general anesthesia. Most dogs recover quickly after the surgery and the only problem the owner will have is preventing them from licking the scar. 

It is also possible to spay a dog after she gets pregnant, instead of performing an abortion. However, the procedure should be carried in the first weeks of the pregnancy, before the uterus becomes too enlarged and removing it might cause severe bleeding. 

Health concerns for unspayed dogs

An intact female dog is at risk of developing pyometra, which is a potentially fatal uterine infection. This can happen after each heat cycle due to fluctuating hormone levels and the risks increase as the dog gets older. As this infection of the uterus can produce a bloody vaginal discharge, many pet owners may think their dog is simply going back into heat but that is not the case. Keep in mind that pyometra is a life-threatening issue and it requires immediate veterinary attention.

At the same time, older unspayed dogs are more at risk to develop mammary (breast) cancer. Doctors say that spaying a dog before her first heat cycle offers complete protection against mammary cancer throughout her life.

Other health benefits of spaying a dog include eliminating the risk of several potentially fatal ovarian and uterine diseases, such as benign tumors, cancer, infections, or cysts. 

It must be mentioned that spaying is not without long term risks, such as the dog developing incontinence later in life, some orthopedic problems, or even cancer.

Do dogs go through menopause after spaying?

Many pet owners are concerned their dogs might experience menopause-like symptoms after spaying, but vets say this is not usually the case. The reason, they say, is that the surgery is performed before the dogs become sexually mature when the levels of hormones like estrogen and progesterone are quite low. The fact that their bodies will not produce these hormones after spaying will not make much of a difference so they won’t be affected by sterilization.

Other reasons a dog might bleed

It can sometimes happen that a pet owner notices their female dog is bleeding, even if the animal was spayed as a pup. You might see some blood when the dog urinates or after lying down. In this case, you should see a vet urgently as it could be a sign of a serious disease. Older female dogs can experience bleeding due to a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, bladder cancer, or tumors.

Quick recap: 

  • Female dogs do not go through menopause and can still get pregnant even when they are old. 
  • The frequency of heat cycles decreases and there are less chances they will become pregnant, but they can. 
  • The only method that is 100% guaranteed to prevent unwanted pregnancies in dogs is spaying. 
  • A full ovariohysterectomy performed before the dogs reaches sexual maturity guarantees the dog will not experience heat cycles, she will not bleed and will never become pregnant. 
  • Spaying has certain health benefits for the dog, preventing them from developing mammary cancer and other life-threatening diseases.