Your neutered Ridgeback bitch suddenly starts ripping at skirting boards and carpets, especially at night. She does this to the point of exhaustion and you have to physically stop her. She shows all the signs of nesting. Occasionally, she is aggressive towards you if you remove her from the furniture -something that she never did before.

Sounds familiar?

The nesting behaviour described, which can typically involve manic bouts of digging, scratching and chewing, particularly at night, as well as the sudden onset of uncharacteristic aggression, is a classic case of a bitch in the throes of some considerable hormonal disruption.

Such behaviour can be common during the pseudo-pregnancy stage, which typically follows a couple of months after the heats of entire bitches. This is because, even if entire bitches have not mated and become pregnant, the same hormonal cycle will follow its course. This leads them to believe that they are imminently about to whelp (hence the nest building) or that they have actually had the pups, which can make them more defensive in their behaviour, as well as prone to obsessively nurturing toys as if they were real pups.

This is a perfectly normal behaviour of an entire bitch. But the bitch described above has been neutered and probably at the wrong time of her cycle. The bitch which was spayed while her reproductive hormones are still surging round her body at a very high level, regardless of whether her ovaries and uterus have just been removed, can cause her some considerable confusion, if not distress. This is because her behaviour will be governed by existing hormone levels in her body, rather than the organs that originally produced them.

If this bitch was spayed at least three months after her last heat, then an element of hormonal activity still seems to be driving the sort of behaviour described. Sometimes just the passing of time will see improvements in this kind of behaviour. But it should be remembered that although spaying is often seen as a routine procedure, its outcome cannot always be predicted or free of side-effects, and the older a bitch is when she has the operation, the longer it can take for her to fully recover from it, both physically and psychologically. Similarly, just a small degree of hormonal imbalance or disruption can bring about significant effects on any dog’s behaviour.

So the points to remember are…

  • Spaying a bitch too soon before, or after, a heat can cause her considerable distress and confusion, due to the hormonal disruption involved, the best time to spay any bitch is when her reproductive hormones are at their lowest ebb -around three months after a heat.
  • This ‘lowest point’ in a bitch’s cycle is known as the ‘anoestrus’ phase. However, exactly when this point is reached can vary a lot from bitch to bitch, with some bitches still showing symptoms of pseudo-pregnancy/whelping behaviour up to four months after a heat.
  • As a general rule of thumb, the best time to spay is after all signs of the pseudo-pregnancy phase -which can involve anything from milk production to obsessive nesting and nurturing behavior – have ceased in bitch. At such a point, her behaviour should also have become much brighter and she should generally appear to be back to her old self.
  • There can sometimes be side-effects to spaying, which range from incontinence to the development of more irritable or even aggressive behaviour in your bitch, so it is worth thoroughly discussing all the possible cons, as well as obvious pros, of the operation with your vet or dog behaviour expert before deciding to go ahead with it.