The Older Female Dog

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Unfortunately we commonly see problems developing in bitches as they get older, particularly those which have not been neutered, or ‘spayed’. The ovaries, uterus, vagina and mammary glands can all develop diseases due to the effect that female hormones, such as oestrogen and progesterone, have on the body over the years. Take away these hormones and the problems do not occur.

The normal oestrus cycle can be quite variable between dogs, although it should be constant for a particular individual. Typically seasons occur about twice a year, with a range of 4 - 12 months. They normally last 3 weeks, with the bitch being most fertile around day 10 – 12. A thin red vulval discharge is present for the first half of the season, changing to a light creamy discharge around the time of ovulation. As bitches get older the time between seasons can get longer and each season may become shorter, with less discharge. However if the seasons become longer, if there is an abnormal vulval discharge or even if they stop altogether then an internal reproductive disease is probably present, which could prove life threatening if not treated.

Problems of the ovaries

Cystic ovaries – these are quite common in older bitches, particularly those dogs that have not had a litter. Sometimes the signs are just that the bitch stops having seasons. Alternatively there can be a persistent watery red discharge after a normal season with thickening of the vulva. Male dogs may be interested in her though she wont want to know. Occasionally the cysts become so large that they can cause distension of the abdomen. Ovariohysterectomy (spaying) will always be curative.

Ovarian tumours

Fortunately these are quite rare in the bitch. When they do occur they can be benign or malignant. Signs can be very variable but any older bitch having abnormal seasons, (often longer than normal), a swollen or discharging vulva, or mammary enlargement should raise suspicions. With benign and early malignant tumours surgery is generally curative, although malignant growths can quickly spread to the kidneys, liver and lungs.


Problems of the uterus


This is a very common problem in middle-aged or older unspayed bitches, particularly if they have never had a litter. It is occasionally seen in younger dogs, especially ones who have received hormone medication to suppress seasons or stop a mis-mating.

The disease starts as cystic endometrial hyperplasia – or swelling and thickening of the uterine wall, each time a bitch has a season. If the dog has a litter this extra tissue is stripped out to some extent. If they don’t, the abnormal tissue becomes very susceptible to infection. Hormonal changes during the season also weakens the immune system, so that bacteria find it easy to get into the uterus. Infection then starts to build, normally leading to an illness 4 – 8 weeks after the season has finished.

The signs of pyometra can be very variable – classically the bitch will have an increased thirst, go off her food, start vomiting, have a high temperature, and a bloody, smelly discharge will be produced from her vulva. However in a lot of cases, the dog will just show a general malaise and lethargy. These patients may require blood tests, x-rays, an ultrasound scan or even exploratory surgery to diagnose the condition.

Pyometra is a very serious infection. The uterus fills up with pus, releasing toxins into the blood which damage the kidneys and cause vomiting. The uterus greatly increases in size (see photo above, of uterus, approx 15 times larger than normal, and full of pus), and can even rupture internally making the bitch suddenly much worse. If left untreated pyometra can become rapidly fatal as the kidneys and other internal organs are irreparably damaged.

The treatment required will depend on how severe the conditions is. In most cases intravenous fluids are given to correct dehydration and injections of antibiotics are used to help fight the infection. In all cases the bitch should then be spayed to remove the cause of the problem. A quick recovery usually follows. If the bitch is not spayed, she will initially improve to some extent with the antibiotics although the infection will quickly return once she is off medication, while all the toxins in her system will continue to damage her kidneys.

Uterine Tumours

These are fairly unusual tumours and can be benign or malignant. If caught early enough spaying the bitch will be curative. Unfortunately malignant tumours can spread to the liver and lungs, and prove fatal.


Vaginal problems

Vaginal prolapse

This is seen in some bitches during the season. The floor of the vagina becomes very red and swollen, to the extent that it flops out through the vulval lips to appear as a red distended balloon. It is not a particularly painful condition although the bitch may traumatise the swelling and introduce infection. The swelling will also stop successful mating. The prolapse can be removed, although frequently a lot of haemorrhage occurs. Alternatively, the bitch can be given hormones to stop the season, or the season left to finish naturally, when the swelling will go down. However, the dog should be spayed to prevent a recurrence.

Vaginal tumours

These tumours are normally benign, sometimes occuring multiply, and grow under hormonal control from the ovaries – similar to fibroids in humans. They may just cause a swelling at the back end of the dog, but if they appear higher up the vagina, they interfere with urination and cause constipation.

Spaying the bitch will stop the tumours growing, and in some dogs the tumors even partially regress. However if the tumours are very large, they may need to be resected. As most are benign and do not spread, removal will cure the problem.


Problems with the mammary glands

False pregnancy

Owners often wonder why their dog is having a false pregnancy. It is in fact a normal occurrence to help the survival of pups in a pack situation. In the wild it is only the top dogs of a pack that actually produce litters. Some of the other bitches produce milk, so that they can help with feeding the pups. Unfortunately these false pregnancies can be a bit upsetting in the home environment.

False pregnancies can affect bitches of any age. Signs generally start 4-9 weeks after a season is finished. In most cases there will be enlargement of the mammary glands, and milk is easily expressed, although some dogs don’t actually lactate at all. There are usually changes in the behaviour of the dog – they can become very ‘clingy’, possessive over toys, or unsettled. They may start making a nest for themselves and some dogs go off their food. Occasionally aggression can occur.

The condition usually resolves in 3 – 4 weeks. However if there are severe behavioural problems or a lot of milk production, treatment can be given. ‘Galastop’ is a medication that inhibits the hormone responsible for milk production. Spaying a bitch after the false pregnancy has finished will prevent recurrence.

Mammary masses

These vary from benign cystic changes to more malignant tumours. Unfortunately it is impossible to tell what a lump is just by looking at it. The only reliable way to diagnose the problem is by taking a biopsy of the mass under anaesthetic. As mastectomy is not the issue in dogs that it is in people, we will usually remove the affected mammary gland or glands with a margin of normal tissue. The whole mass can then be sent to a lab for histopathology. As most malignant mammary tumours tend to spread to the chest it is a good idea to radiograph the lungs before surgery. As a general rule about two thirds of mammary masses are benign and one third malignant, although early removal of many malignant tumours can be curative. Therefore if you discover a lump in your bitch’s mammary glands please get it checked by a vet as soon as possible – waiting to see if it will grow could prove fatal.

Other Problems

Urinary incontinence

This problem manifests itself as wet patches appearing where a bitch has been lying or sleeping, rather than the loss of house training occasionally seen in very old senile dogs. The problem is often worse if the dog is tired out from a long walk, and is also more pronounced if another condition like diabetes or kidney disease is increasing water consumption. The urine should be checked for any underlying problem and a follow up blood test may be necessary.

Urinary incontinence generally responds well to treatment with drops or tablets although medication will be required long term.

Perivulval Dermatitis

This is a skin condition seen around the vulva. Affected dogs frantically lick the affected area, particularly after urinating. It is caused by folds of skin or long hair trapping urine around the vulva, so is more common in overweight or shaggy animals. Bitches with small ‘tucked up’ vulvas may be more prone to it, so letting dogs like this have a season before spaying is a good idea, as a season normally increases the size of the vulva. Perivulval dermatitis improves with antibiotics, cleaning with antiseptic and using barrier creams to protect the area. Weight loss or clipping will also help. Surgery to resect the skin folds of very fat dogs is occasionally necessary.


Spaying your bitch

As you can see from reading this article unsprayed bitches can suffer from a lot of diseases. Neutering your bitch will stop her getting pregnant, prevent uterine, ovarian and vaginal tumours and stop her suffering from false pregnancies, pyometra or vaginal prolapses. It also greatly resolves the chances of her developing mammary tumours: if she is spayed before her first season there is only a 0.05% chance of her getting a tumour, 8% if she has one season and 26% if she has two seasons. So there are very good health reasons to spay your dog. In fact a study found that spayed bitches live, on average, 12 – 18 months longer than entire ones.

It also saves you having to keep your bitch inside and away from male dogs for 3 weeks twice a year - whilst she is desperate to escape!

Spaying a bitch will not change her behaviour although it does reduce her metabolic rate. This means that she wil need 10 – 20% less food to prevent weight gain. There are several ‘light’ pet foods on the market which fulfil the requirement for fewer caloriws. As long as you are aware of the risk of weight gain and check your dogs weight regularly, there should be no problem.

Another question we are often asked is “should my dog have a litter before she is spayed?” Our answer is “no”: having a litter has no positive effects on a bitch. However it can cause a lot of stress for you and your dog, she may end up needing a caesarean, whilst a litter of active pups in most people’s homes and gardens will cause a lot of mess and damage. While there are so many unwanted animals in dog homes around the country, surely it is better not to add to the problem.

Click here to read 'Breeding from your dog'.

The operation to spay a bitch involves making an incision underneath her abdomen and removing her ovaries and uterus. The wound is normally closed with dissolving stitches under the skin. She will be discharged on the same day, and although she may be sleepy that evening, she’ll be back to normal within 1- 2 days. It is important to keep her quiet, with restricted exercise for 7 – 10 days after the operation while the muscles are healing.

All in all, spaying is a straight forward operation, which will benefit your bitch, improving her quality of life, and allowing her to live longer.