If your female dog hasn't been spayed yet, you may find yourself scratching your head and wondering why she's looking and acting as if she's pregnant when you are absolutely certain that there isn't any chance of it. Why is she acting pregnant? How could she be pregnant when she's never out of your sight? Relax, she may just be experiencing false pregnancy—a very common condition for intact or unspayed, female dogs that occurs after they go through an estrus or heat cycle. Even so, a call to your veterinarian for any abnormal behavior in your dog is always a good idea.
[Editors Note: There are many medical benefits to spaying or neutering your dog: here are 10 great reasons to do it sooner rather than later.]
What is "False Pregnancy" in dogs?
Hormonally, every time a female dog, or bitch, ovulates her progesterone levels rise and stay elevated to nearly the same degree—and for just as long—whether or not she conceives and becomes pregnant. (This is why testing progesterone levels in dogs is a great method for verifying ovulation, but has no value whatsoever when determining pregnancy.) Once the progesterone levels begin to fall, another hormone, prolactin, naturally rises. These perfectly normal hormonal fluctuations can physiologically make your dog's body (and sometimes her mind) think that she is pregnant.
As a result, after any heat cycle, your dog can experience most of the same signs of pregnancy as when she's not actually pregnant:
In addition to these physical changes, some dogs go on to exhibit psychological changes. Your dog may prepare a nest in anticipation of impending, imaginary, new arrivals and may even adopt a surrogate "puppy" (a toy or some other object) to nurture when no real puppy miraculously materializes.
How do you know if this pregnancy is real or false?
If you’re absolutely certain that your dog cannot be pregnant, then you probably do not need to worry, but you should call your veterinarian just to be sure. If you are not so absolutely certain, however, and you want to be a conscientious, responsible pet parent, you should seek confirmation and advice from your veterinarian. Easy, at-home, urine pregnancy tests are not available for our canine friends so a combination of physical examination findings, abdominal palpation, blood tests, radiographs and/or ultrasound will be the only way to know for sure.
What do you do if your dog is experiencing a false pregnancy?
First of all, remember that false pregnancy is not a disease and is normal. Unfortunately, your dog may still be uncomfortable and possibly distressed by the process. If you feel you need to assist with the resolution of symptoms, try to discourage maternal behaviors by taking away surrogate puppies and nesting sites; disrupt the stimulation of mammary glands or milk production by using Elizabethan collars or t-shirts—they’ll keep your dog from licking the engorged glands. Medical intervention is possible, but it is reserved for severe cases since the drugs that can be used are not without side effects.
How can I prevent false pregnancy?
Female dogs that are shown to be predisposed to experiencing false pregnancies will most likely do so repeatedly after subsequent heat cycles. That means that the only prevention is spaying. So if you are not intent on breeding your dog, have her spayed before her next heat cycle to save you all the stress and discomfort of another false pregnancy.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.
Each female dog will experience different symptoms but here is a list of what to look out for if you feel your dog is experiencing a false pregnancy.
If you think your dog is pregnant/phantom pregnancy book an appointment to see a veterinarian, you will need to give as much history as possible about your dog, this is so the vet can give a full examination and evaluate your dog’s overall health. A complete blood count is required, urinalysis (to look for hormones that indicate a genuine pregnancy) abdominal Xray and ultra sound (this loos for puppies or any unusual growth or infections that can keep causing phantom pregnancies to happen).
False pregnancy is most commonly seen in the female dog (although cats may rarely be affected). Hormone changes after a ‘season’ or heat convince her and her body that she is pregnant. It is sometimes called phantom pregnancy or pseudopregnancy. The hormone changes that cause false pregnancy are normal in the dog but sometimes the symptoms get out of hand and are distressing for the dog and her owners.
50-75% of unspayed female dogs will experience a noticeable false pregnancy during their lifetime. It is thought by some biologists that it evolved as a useful condition for wolf packs and continues in the domestic dog. If a number of aunties in the pack experience false pregnancy and produce milk, any wolf cubs in the pack would be more likely to survive.
False pregnancies do occur in other mammals, in the rabbit they can occur in stressful situations. The doe may be seen to nest obsessively and lose weight. They are thankfully less common in cats and humans.
The signs of false pregnancy are usually seen 4-8 weeks after a season. Researchers from Glasgow vet school (Root and others) published a helpful review from the experiences of almost 400 vets in 2018. They found that the most common finding was enlargement of the mammary glands (breasts). Clear fluid brownish fluid or milk may be produced by the swollen glands.
Most female dogs who show symptoms will be restless and anxious, unsettled by the change in hormones. They often eat less and are less keen to interact with people and go for walks. Rarely, they vomit and their abdomens appear swollen.
Along with these physical changes, behavioural changes are common. Usually the dog will act as if she has had pups. She may collect soft toys, cushions, shoes, socks or other objects from around the house and take them to her bed or a chosen corner. She will then mother them: hide them, guard them and lick them.
At this time, she may become aggressive and protective of her nest and imaginary babies. It is important not to misunderstand her at this point. She honestly believes these are pups so it is best to distract her with walks and cuddles when possible rather than try to encourage her to give them up. She is likely to become uncharacteristically aggressive if she feels the safety of her pups is in question. Even the most sweet family pet can growl and even bite in this situation.
It is believed by some behaviourists that if a dog is spayed when she is experiencing false pregnancy she may behave more aggressively. This is why vets tend to advise spaying a reasonable time after a season.
First, consider carefully whether this is a false pregnancy. Is there any chance that she was mated while in season? If there is any chance visit your vet for an ultrasound examination to confirm whether this is a false pregnancy or just a surprise pregnancy.
Swollen mammary glands and milk production can make the bitch lick herself until she is sore. This can lead to more milk production and sometimes infection. So, it is important to stop her if she is licking excessively. An Elizabethan collar, inflatable collar, romper suit or T-shirt can be used to stop her licking.
Some sources will suggest restricting food and water to make her milk dry up. There could cause far more problems and is not advisable. Warm compresses on her abdomen will encourage milk production rather than give her relief.
This is a normal condition and will usually pass in 1-2 weeks.
If your dog seems unwell, becomes lethargic or she isn’t eating then visit your vet. Unfortunately, a womb infection or pyometra can also occur after a season and this is a dangerous condition. She may have a vaginal discharge and vomit with a pyometra or just seem very unwell. Mastitis, infection of the mammary glands can also make her ill. If signs of false pregnancy go on for more than 2-3 weeks or she is uncomfortable with her mammary swelling then a medication can be used which reverses the hormone changes and resolves the false pregnancy.
Some dogs have marked false pregnancies after every season, others are very distressed by marked symptoms. Spaying (ovariohysterectomy or ovariectomy) offers a permanent solution to the condition, as there are no further seasons. The decision to spay also protects her against unwanted pregnancies, womb infections and can be protective against mammary cancer.
As we have seen, false pregnancy is usually a mild, physiologically normal state but in some dogs it causes distress and discomfort. Fortunately, the signs are easily treated when recognised.
Share your experiences with false pregnancies and ask any questions on the topic below.
Isn't it wonderful when you see the signs and symptoms of your dog being pregnant? But isn't it also devastating when you find out it's a false pregnancy and there aren't really any pups?
Yes, even with pregnancy signs and symptoms, everything can be just a bluff - very timely this month. Talk about April Fools, huh?
"False Pregnancy in dogs, also known as phantom pregnancy, canine pseudocyesis or pseudopregnancy, is a condition where your female dog shows all the signs and symptoms of canine pregnancy but isn't really pregnant at all."
False Pregnancy in dogs, also known as phantom pregnancy, canine pseudocyesis or pseudopregnancy, is a condition where your female dog shows all the signs and symptoms of canine pregnancy but isn't really pregnant at all.
False pregnancy is most often caused by hormonal imbalance.
On a more profound note, during your female dog's heat cycle her progesterone levels are extremely high.
But these high levels will immediately taper off as her heat cycle reaches its end.
The unexpected decrease of progesterone levels gives rise to the hormone prolactin to prevail over the body, causing hormonal imbalance. This will confuse your dog's body and will steer the body's functions to resemble features of a pregnant dog.
To know whether or not it's a real or a false alarm, check for the following symptoms of false pregnancy in dogs:
Enlargement of the mammary glands.Your dog's teats will appear pinkish in color, will look swollen and will look a little bit larger than usual.
Mammary secretions.Together with mammary enlargement, your dog will also have mammary secretions that will range from clear (like water) to a brownish color. Your dog may also begin to lactate and produce milk.
Loss of appetite.Just like in human pregnancies, your dog may also lose her appetite, vomit and lose weight.
Vaginal discharge.It is common to see a vaginal discharge that looks like a mucous in real and false pregnancies.
Abdominal distention. Just when you think your female dog's body is 'big with babies', she's just experiencing a bloated abdomen.
Behavioral changes.Behavioral changes vary from one dog to another. Some dogs will display aggression, others will feel anxious almost every time and may even do things that break your house rules - like marking and peeing or pooping in inappropriate places. Remember that your dog feels pregnant and thinks she really is and will act accordingly.
Nesting. Even though the pregnancy is false, your dog will still prepare for the coming of her young and will begin digging up spaces and looking for comfy areas where she can whelp.
But since the signs of a false one and a true one are almost exactly the same, the only way to be sure is to have your dog go through an ultrasound to check if there are really puppies.
Though all the reasons for false pregnancy are unknown and there are no known cures at the moment, there are still ways on how you can prevent it from happening and manage your dog who's going through it.
Keep your dog's health in tip-top shape.Hormonal imbalance may greatly affect why false pregnancies happen that's why your dog's wellness is important. Offer her a healthy and balanced diet, provide hormonal supplementation to balance it all out, and go get some exercise, to steer away from further episodes of false pregnancy.
Reduce mammary gland secretions.To pare down the stimulation that develops lactation in your dog, it's greatly recommended you use warm or cold packs on her teats.
Let her wear dog diapers.Since your dog will undergo behavioral changes like marking, peeing or pooping in wrong places and will have vaginal discharge, dog diapers can come in handy. These diapers will help keep your dog and your house clean and happy.
Remember that false pregnancy is normal and is not considered to be a disease. Your dog may still feel uneasy and may be stressed out since she thinks she's expecting a litter. But know that your dog will make it through, with you.
"Keep your dog's health in tip-top shape. Hormonal imbalance may greatly affect why false pregnancies happen that's why your dog's wellness is important."
This depends on the severity of the symptoms. A phantom pregnancy in a dog can last anywhere from a week to a month.
Signs that your dog may be experiencing a phantom pregnancy include: