Breeding frequency and bitch age

I SO wish I had show weekends to blog about. It’s almost April, which means the start of the series of New England shows that trips down through the spring, gains momentum in the summer, comes to the fabulous Essex Junction VT supported-entry shows in July, Springfield into the fall, and everyone takes a quick breather and jumps into the huge Thanksgiving cluster in Springfield and then snuggles in for the winter until the shows begin again.

Since we got the Cardis, every one of those weekends has a happy story. April was one of the first shows for Clue as a baby puppy and Bronte two years later as a 12-18. Both of them won their first shows; Clue took a single point and Bronte took a major. The spring shows in Fitchburg and all the little fields and fairgrounds, all happy. The New England cluster was a dream last year–Bronte took a supported-entry WB in Hopkinton NH, Clue took reserve, then up to VT (my very favorite show site), where each bitch took a 4-point major. Clue finished at the huge supported-entry November shows, a big 5-point, and Bronte was catching up and had just taken two points two weeks before the house fire.

This year was supposed to be second verse, same as the first–play around with Clue in Breed, finish Bronte, and ride the roller coaster up to Thanksgiving when I would hopefully have some Clue puppies to debut at the same weekend as she finished. I KNOW how incredibly fortunate I am to have had such great bitches as my very first Cardis, and I never, ever take it for granted, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t grinning the whole way and hoping for more.

That’s all changed; I will look back on this and (I know) will say it was for the best, and so many blessings have come from it, and there will be compensations and many great things will come as a result of all these changes.

But it’s getting into April, so I am feeling melancholy. And I would much rather be blogging about shows and puppies and pictures than on philosophical or medical or ethical things.

But que sera sera, as they say. So once more I’m going to jump into the health end of things, because Kate asked me about how she should be picturing the reproductive years of Bronte’s life. It’s easy to get really bad reproductive information, especially from some of the Internet sources, and some of the worst offenders are the “how to tell whether you’re buying from a good breeder” lists. Most of the standard information on those questionnaires is absolutely fine, but the repro stuff can be based on thinking about dogs as humans, not as dogs.

None of what I’m going to say is new or should be controversial (it’s well accepted by repro vets and every single repro vet I’ve talked to about this has said the same thing), but some of it is not necessarily part of the conventional wisdom that breeders tell each other.

Both aspects of reproductive health–the “right” age to breed a bitch and how often you can or should breed her–have to do with how the uterus and ovaries function. That does not change from bitch to bitch (hopefully, anyway!) or from breed to breed. Some breeds have moved into a practice of breeding maiden bitches at an older age because of specific health issues within those breeds that do not show up until the dog has entered middle age; waiting allows them to screen for these issues a little more effectively. However, that doesn’t mean that “good” breeders of all breeds wait, or that waiting longer makes you a better breeder if you are not involved in one of those at-risk breeds. Most of us should be looking most closely at what is best for our bitch, what practices lead to longest overall health for her.

The key to understanding reproductive health in dogs is knowing that, as far as a bitch’s body knows, there is no difference between being pregnant and not being pregnant, after a heat cycle.

Those of us (humans, cows, horses, etc.) that cycle on a regular basis prepare our uterus to accept a fertilized egg or eggs every month or so. For a couple of weeks after ovulation we have a higher-than-normal progesterone level, which makes the uterus, which has grown a bunch of soft blood vessels and tissue, keep those vessels and tissue thick and strong so a fertilized egg can land on a lovely spot where there’s lots of blood to suck up and start growing its own little blood vessels and eventually you end up getting no sleep at night because your four kids are DRIVING YOU INSA.. Oh, sorry, side tracked.

Anyway, for humans and other repeated cyclers, when there is no fertilized egg, the body gets the signal very quickly and the ovaries stop producing progesterone and the lining of the uterus breaks down and goes back to normal, at least for another few weeks until ovulation occurs again.

Dogs have a completely different system.

It starts out roughly the same, with the uterus preparing for the eggs by growing a good plush lining, and the eggs ripen on the ovaries and hooray, there’s some lutenizing hormone, and the eggs are released. It gets a little weirder from there, because unlike humans that have fertilizable eggs within a few hours of ovulation dogs’ eggs take two or three days. And unlike humans, whose eggs implant and begin to grow into the blood vessels about a week after ovulation, dogs take about three weeks. But the process is basically analogous.

Where dogs are VERY unlike us is that there is never any signal given to the body that there are in fact no fertilized eggs to nourish, that this has been an unsuccessful heat cycle.

Instead, a dog’s progesterone level stays high for the entire 63 days that she would have been pregnant; her uterus develops the incredibly effective and thick system of blood vessels that would be necessary to nourish an entire full-term litter.

You can honestly say that the only difference between a bitch who was bred and a bitch who was not bred is how many calories she’s burning–either she has to support a litter or she doesn’t–because her body honestly doesn’t know any difference. Aside from some relaxin to loosen her joints (which is present in pregnant dogs but not in non-pregnant ones after the heat cycle is over), the hormone levels are the same.

This would all be just a veterinary curiosity were it not for the fact that the body doesn’t like growing things and then not using them. When the uterus grows this tremendous blood supply and then nothing happens, with each cycle there’s a greater risk that the uterus will get cystic (lots of cysts in the lining, which means fewer good implantation sites and smaller and less fit litters when and if she finally is bred) and (far worse) that the uterus will become infected. Infection in an area that is super-plush with tons of blood vessels and lots of soft tissue? Bad news. Pyometritis kills a LOT of bitches; forces the dangerous emergency spays of many more; and in the BEST case, when you catch it and can give the bitch prostaglandins to force the infection out and hopefully save the uterus, the treatment is incredibly painful to the bitch and doesn’t always work.

The upshot of this whole situation is that bitches are not meant to have empty heat cycles. All else being equal, it is better and safer for them to be pregnant at each heat cycle (or spayed) than it is for them to remain unbred.

Now of course not all things are equal. We all keep bitches unbred so we can finish them, or special them, or because it’s not a good time for a litter according to our schedule, or because we don’t have the time to screen puppy people, etc. We typically skip at least the first cycle if it came before the bitch was fully grown, so she can put all her calories into growing. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable tradeoff to make, from a veterinary health perspective, though I am not sure it *must* happen; in production-based species like sheep and goats we know that breeding the young females before they are done growing is actually beneficial to them (when you look at lifelong production and health) and they catch up just fine. But I’m not comfortable looking at a bitch who’s still a puppy with puppies, and I would not want to risk a glitch in growth, so waiting until the bitch is fully adult is something I’d always advise.

I don’t think it’s necessary to wait a full two years, though–that became conventional wisdom because OFA gives you a final number at that age. But if you PennHIP or if you choose to rely on orthopedic opinion, or if you have a breed with virtually no dysplasia, there’s no reason to wait until the full two. For example, Bronte had her first heat at 15 months (normal for Betty Ann’s dogs and normal for my raw-fed dogs–I’d fall over in shock if I had a bitch cycle at six months old). If she had waited for the first cycle until she was 18 months (which is not out of the realm of normal) and she had had her hips and eyes done by that age, I would have been totally comfortable breeding her on that first heat.

Skipping that first season, or the first couple, is certainly totally normal. Sometimes we have to skip more because of our needs or timing. But after full growth has been attained, she’s finished or shown as much as you plan to show her, health testing is done, and the bitch’s reproductive life is ready to begin, what is not supportable, from a health perspective, is INSISTING that bitches skip seasons; I’ve even heard people say that the “best” breeders skip two seasons between each litter.

This is purely us thinking of dogs like humans–we get tired and worn and unhealthy if we produce babies every nine to twelve months, so shouldn’t we give dogs at least a year? But it’s not the same thing. Humans are pregnant for nine months, and we are designed to lactate for another two years (minimum) after birth. If you put a pregnancy in the middle of that lactation you deplete yourself; you want to complete the full lactation (or the time the lactation would have lasted if you choose not to breast-feed) and then get pregnant again. This leads to babies two or three years apart, which is (if you look around at your family and friends) what usually happens anyway and is certainly not viewed as unusual or dangerous.

Bitches are pregnant for nine-ish weeks (though they are actually nourishing puppies for only six of those weeks), they lactate heavily for about four or five weeks after that, and then typically have at least two months before their next heat cycle. Unless her calories were so inadequate that she did not recover her normal body weight during those two months (and if she didn’t, I’d be looking seriously at how she’s being fed and cared for) there’s no reason she cannot have a normal and safe and uneventful pregnancy on the next heat. There is CERTAINLY no reason to rest her for two seasons; in fact, you’re making it a lot more likely that she will have reduced fertility or fecundity (number of healthy puppies) if you do.

I never bred my Danes back to back because I never had the chance–there was always some reason that the timeframe was bad for me or the family. But I would not have hesitated to do it for any reason beyond bad timing. I absolutely WOULD NOT accept weight loss on my nursing bitches–I refused to say that it was just part of having puppies. Danes have a reputation for getting absolutely skeletal while nursing, so I put thousands of calories in front of them every day, cooked for them, fed them sandwiches, made them puddings and stews and fed six raw chicken backs and three pork bones a day, and it totally worked. Even with my enormous litters the mom never went more than a couple of pounds below her normal weight. I have a picture (well, HAD a picture) of Ruby nursing a dozen two-week-old puppies who are as fat as sausages and she looks like she never lost a step. My bitches never had any catching up to do, period, so there was no question that they would be able to handle it calorically.

So, Kate, especially given the fact that Bronte appears to have a long space between seasons (eight or nine months), if you want to breed her on any particular season and she has come fully back to normal weight and condition, you should feel perfectly comfortable doing so. In fact, if you keep her “barefoot and pregnant,” not skipping years of her life, she is much more likely to be able to sustain healthy heat cycles and pregnancies well into her middle years. She has some beautiful VERY healthy breeding behind her, bitches who carry litters at age 7 or 8 and never even blink, freewhelpers and happy moms, so the more you can do to support the fitness that she brings to the table, the more she will give you as a foundation bitch. Remember that as far as her body is concerned, as far as ANY bitch’s body is concerned, she IS having two litters a year. You don’t do her a favor by having one or both of them be invisible.

My final piece of advice is that when she is done, when you’re confident that you have no need or desire to breed her again, whether she’s four or whether she’s eight, SPAY HER. I would never leave an intact bitch cycling endlessly–it’s just way too dangerous in terms of metritis. Either you use the uterus or you remove it. It’s all about what is safest and healthiest for her.

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6 thoughts on “Breeding frequency and bitch age

  1. Thanks, there was lots of information in that post that I did not know. I’m not breeding, just interested in all dog stuff. How old is Bronte now?

  2. wow, I didn’t know any of this! Thank you for writing something so easy to understand for us laypeople.

    I doubt I’ll ever become a dog breeder (I don’t have your stamina) but I am interested in doing rescue fostering someday, and I’m sure I’ll wind up with unaltered bitches every once in a while. If you could elaborate on the part about the first heat cycle, am I right to infer from what you wrote that this varies widely by breed and also due to diet? In another post some time ago you’d written (IIRC) that there was new evidence that supported re-evaluating when to spay/neuter dogs, waiting until they’re past the puppy stage because the same hormones that feed their reproductive cycles also feed their healthy growth/development. Did I get that right?

    And many hugs to you for how hard it must be to go through this season without being able to show the “girls” and without being able to enjoy Bronte’s puppies in person. 😦

  3. Bronte turned two a couple of weeks after she got pregnant.

    As a very new breeder, and newish in the breed (4+ years) it is very difficult to form opinions about what I should and shouldn’t be doing, as I seem to always have 10 different people shouting 50 different things at me. I felt this way during the very public whelping of this litter, though thank doG most everyone spoke in harmony or I probably would have torn all my hair out. πŸ˜‰ Back seat whelping!

    This onslaught of opinions applies to all aspects, from health to breeding to day to day care – the topic of raw feeding being a great example. I have friends who have said openly that they think a bitch shouldn’t be bred until she is 4 or 5, and then only once, and to do anything else would be QUESTIONABLE. On the other end is the “barefoot and pregnant” model.

    At this point (and maybe always, as it seems to be my nature) I feel myself only capable of parroting back the opinions I have overheard. I do pick and choose from those, keeping the ones I agree with and discarding the others. I hope that I am learning to be more discriminating in the ones that I choose to adopt, as I have made some pronouncements in the past which I regret, looking back and recognizing them as bad reasoning.

    The phrase, “I can’t believe they bred that bitch back so quickly,” has fallen out of my mouth before, along with, “The plan to breed her HOW MANY times?”

    I think the biggest fault that I have is letting some of my choices be influenced by the phrase, “What will people think?” Sometimes I choose to do something I feel is right even when others question me, but that worry continues to gnaw at me, at least until I feel my choice has been validated.

    Along those lines, I always worry that people think, “That Kate, she’s always toadying to Joanna!” I don’t always agree with you, and then I do what *I* think I should do. The thing is I almost always agree with you! I don’t always have the facts, and I grew up science-minded, so empirical evidence is very swaying when I’ve chosen the incorrect line of thought.

    As novice breeders I think many of us are lucky to have our more experienced peers do our breedings for us, then graciously allow us to slap our kennel name on the product. This isn’t to say that the more experienced breeder will always do the best breeding, but it does give us a level of detachment from the litter, so that we can observe and learn. You could argue that we are then branded with the results of that bad breeding, our kennel name on a dog who has bad health or bad structure or bad temperament. But we also get to claim that Group winner, too. πŸ˜‰ It’s all in how you look at it. People will think what they want of you regardless of what you do, and some will ALWAYS choose to see the negative. I, too, am trying to learn to tune out the nay-sayers.

    I think we all go into this trying to do our best. I think everyone will agree that no one plans a litter saying, “Well, both parents are obviously dysplastic and every other dog in the sire’s litter has gone down in the back, and the bitch is nine years old and five pounds underweight, but I’m just going to roll with it anyway.” There may always be things about our particular dogs that we don’t like, but we do our best to compensate for those things. We pick a better angled rear or a sounder pedigree and always – ALWAYS – try to improve.

    I’m not sure what I’ll do about Bronte’s reproductive future. If this litter turns out nicely I will probably repeat it, but that would only be for my benefit, as I adore GoGo. When you were the one running the circus (and I intend to keep you halfway in, no matter whose name is on the papers) for Bronte and asked me what I’d do, including a GoGo repeat, I said I wouldn’t use him again. I probably wouldn’t use him again if he wasn’t mine, but since he is… πŸ˜‰

    I have my eye on a certain boy for one of her litters. I foresee doing three at this point, the repeat and one other. By the time those are done I’ll have other bitches to work with (unless my bitch luck keeps up) and unless I run across another boy that excites me for her I may as well spay her and retire her to the couch after that, to overseeing pony and cow-bossing in the pasture. I’ll continue to health test both Bronte and GoGo, and if something comes up on either of their behalves my plans will change. Maybe that’s bass ackwards in the eyes of some, but I feel the most relevant issues were looked into and taken into consideration before this litter was conceived.

  4. Kate, I think the only right way to breed is to keep on checking. Dogs are not static creatures and most of what we see when we do our health checks is a picture of a moment in time. I am not worried that either of them will suddenly become PRA carriers, but I would certainly repeat a CERF on Bronte when she turns four or five, for example. And I would do a thyroid check at eight or nine. It’s all about getting the best picture of what the dog is doing for its entire life, so you can best know how your pedigrees behave and can make the best breeding decisions. It’s not that you throw up your hands and never breed again if thyroid levels are low–but you may choose to breed her daughter to a dog who is twelve and still has a lot of T4 circulating rather than breeding her to an 18-month-old.

    In terms of the number of times you plan to breed her, I’d not decide yet. She is a rare bird, because she’s a black bitch who “turned out” and turned out beautifully. She can be bred to anything (not that I think that rule is any good, but if you stick with it) and she’s unrelated to a lot of beautiful lines. If you breed to only two males, you’re confining what you can do with her offspring to a narrow range, and you’re asking just two keeper bitches to turn out. You’re also not doing anything particularly novel–I adore GoGo but he’s one of a zamillion Carbon boys and the other boy you’re thinking of is also not exactly alone in the universe. I am rebellious and like to have at least one breeding that represents something new.

    One of the most valuable things that Betty Ann ever told me was that this is a VERY difficult breed to do well and MOST of the puppies either aren’t show potential or don’t live up to early promise. The castles we build in the sky need to be conservative :). So whether out of just two males you’d actually end up with a couple of bitches you REALLY want to keep going with (if they’re not an improvement on or at least on par with her, you shouldn’t) is a good question. Cardigans are a breeder’s dream, because they can have more litters safely and remain in great health compared to other breeds. So don’t close off her prospects too soon.

    You’d BETTER THE HECK come to the 2010 Nationals in PA with me; Nationals are basically one giant stud shopping trip! If you find someone who excites you, you should go for it. Brontosaurus is such a special, wonderful girl–she will be a great way to begin in every way.

  5. Joanna,
    Not strictly about when to breed a bitch, but: a what point can a breed be considered no longer ethically viable? I ask because we have in our house a beautiful, well-bred, certified hip/elbows/heart young Newf bitch who came to live with us three months ago on a “guardian” (breeder’s terms) arrangement. We were told she had a gimpy leg from roughhousing (she was a kennel dog.) Over a thousand dollars of diagnostics later, she has, in fact, long-standing bilateral cruciate tears. Her breeder is implying that the 6 grand plus we’ll be paying for TPLOs is simply the price to pay for loving the breed–and the number of Newf owners I meet who have had surgery of one sort or another on their dogs seems to back her up.
    I respect your insights: I followed you here from the Place of Great Evil, where I lurk, and I find your blog educational, amusing and articulate–qualities sadly lacking in most writing about the purebred dog world. So, as a former giant breed breeder, do I suck it up? Or am I opening a Pandora’s box of expense and heartbreak by keeping this lovely dog? I should add I am a SAHM of two young girls, so the money issue is very pressing. But for me, the ethical issue of owning and supporting such an apparently troubled breed is more so. And caught in the middle of all this is a very gentle and loving little Newf girl. Any comment you could spare would be appreciated!

    –Andrea in Nova Scotia

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