Humming with hormones


The ancient Mim revived

The ancient Mim would revive whenever she went into heat.

Dog culture, like kid culture, changes over time. When I was growing up, "looking after the dog" meant that everyone neutered their dogs, and noone walked them. Or not every day, anyway. That's what yards were for.

Now we walk our dogs at least twice a day, and the neuter/spay debate is on: what's best for your dog's health? I'm going to leave the medical stats to the veterinarians, and the behavioural discussion to the trainers (see the links below). Instead, I'm going to describe the peaks, and the slings and arrows, of living in a fully hormonal household. 

I've had the unusual (in Toronto, anyway) experience of living with unfixed dogs, first with three females, then with a female and male. I'm going to focus here on the gals and leave the male/female drama for a future post. (After the most recent heat cycle, my friends threatened an intervention of the 'We'll fix McCracken for you' variety.) The three females always came into season at the same time; the household would heat up and cool off in a pattern that had its semi-predictable pros and cons.

NB: The dogs discussed below are now deceased, but I'm using the present tense. It's my form of denial.

The Pros

I'll begin on a shallow note. Your dogs are gorgeous, right? Well, when in heat, they are spectacular. Their coats are glossier, their eyes dewier, their bodies fuller. You're probably not planning to enter them in a beauty pageant, but if the aesthetic pleasure of your pets is a big deal, and you want to see them at their most beautiful, you'd have to see them in heat at, say, 2 to 8 years of age.

Not only do the dogs look great, they feel even better, with energy to burn. Sometimes my dogs can show an "oh, no,not again" reluctance to go for a walk; perhaps they're a little jaded by my profession. In heat, though, they're super-charged, on-the-stroll machines. And their mojo is contagious. You know that flood of energy that comes every spring from increased sunshine? I've had that in November, thanks to the dogs.

Not surprisingly, in heat my dogs become their most gregarious selves. Ordinarily they behave like canine Heathers, a snobbish, aloof clique of three. Under the influence of hormones, their inner social butterflies emerge.  Mim and Foo Fighter lust indiscriminately; no dog is too old or too small, and gender is irrelevant. Hillary is the monogamous exception, interested only in Alpha Mim.


A dog in a butterly costume

The social butterfly look can be yours, even without hormones:

They expend most of their libidinal urges humping each other. Inside the apartment, outside on the streets, even when going down stairs — on they hop. Sometimes they form a hump chain of three, a performance which stops traffic. Most Torontonians don't get to see prolonged dog humping anymore, and never a threesome. When questions are asked, I convey that the dogs are female and mention Queer Canine Nation.  People are always surprised, despite the notoriety of gay penguins at the Toronto zoo. 

Lust in the dog world is not a quiet affair. I have to warn fellow tenants about increased noise, and leave an apologetic explanatory note on my door, should the police be summoned. They make noises that I've never heard them make before. When she's in heat, Mim will yodel, but only when I'm taking a bath. Baffling. Their other vocalizations are more comprehensible: there's the desperate "Please, please it's my turn on top" whine, and the fed-up "I'm completely done, so get off my dress!" snarl. Loud and novel noises would not go in everyone's pro column, but I like it. They express a more varied emotional range —something I myself have been working on in therapy for years.

Also, I hate to get all Suzanne Somers-ish on you, but hormones seem to be the elixir of youth. Mim, my ancient and arthritic dog whom I cart up and down stairs, is back in DIY mode, chugging up and down under her own steam. Everyone notices her mobility improvements.  Observing her amble around the park, they compare Mim to Cher: it's her final farewell tour — again.

The Cons

During the heat, my now super-social dogs are distressed when I refuse to take them to the dog park.  Obviously, their mission would most easily be accomplished in a group dog romp. And just when they've got a sudden urge for all day exercise, I won't let them off leash at all.

And there's blood. Vets often emphasize the mess made by dogs' bloody discharges, but it's never bothered me. The dogs do a speedy job of licking it up. I wouldn't want my apartment sprayed with luminol, mind you, but the blood is no big deal. However, if your home looks like an art gallery (a lot of white), chances are the blood spatter will distress you.

And when the heat ends, the hormones wash out. It's like watching my oldest dog, Mim, leave Shangri La; I'm confronting the portrait of the doggy Dorian Gray. She becomes her emaciated, wobbly, fragile self again. Sometimes her chronic problems get worse: ears get swampier, semi-bald patches more bare.

Acute health problems can result, too. Mim got pyometra, ie. a uterine infection, when she was 13. She survived without surgical intervention (and lived to 17), but it was definitely the most torturous episode in all our years together. The risk of uterine infections haunts me after each heat, the anxious low that inevitably follows the hormone high.

Because of the hugely increased risk of breast cancer, regular breast checks are a must. Two of the three dogs got breast lumps in old age; not fatal, but we would have been happier without them. 


The decision to leave dogs intact does tend to generate  disapproval from veterinarians,  rescue organizations, and fellow dog people. I'm not sure that unfixed dogs lead more natural, healthier or longer lives.  Their lives definitely have a different rhythm; it's more work, and more fun.  Some part of me believes that my dogs are better off with their reproductive organs and hormones than without. Probably it's the part of me that still releases its own monthly, over-aged ovum. And I just like living amongst The Unfixed.

Further reading

This selection is biased in favour of holistic health perspectives. Skeptvet's overview is an exception; it's very lengthy, but the tables at the article's conclusion provide a good summary.

The Plot Thickens: Spay Neuter Effects & the Health of Our Dogs

Early Spay-Neuter Considerations for the Canine Athlete: One Veterinarian's Opinion

Evidence Update: Evaluating the Benefits & Risks of Neutering in Dogs and Cats (SkeptVet)

Don’t Neuter Your Dog YET – Read This Life-Saving Information First!

Neutering Male Dogs - the Behavioural Effects of Castration


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