Here's a situation: you have a female dog that isn't spayed.
She hasn't had any unsupervised contact with uncastrated male dogs.
She hasn't left your sight in the last months and is certainly not pregnant.
Yet, she acts like she's pregnant.
It's a normal condition called false pregnancy in dogs, and you should know what to do about the symptoms you're seeing.
Typically, female dogs display all the key signs of maternal (mothering) behavior, lethargy, and nausea.
They will also display some physical signs of pregnancy.
And all this happens following their heat cycle (estrus).
Do not worry – what your dog is experiencing is Pseudocyesis, commonly known as a phantom pregnancy, false pregnancy, or just pseudo-pregnancy in dogs.
As unusual as it may seem, it often happens in unsprayed and intact (virgin) female dogs.
If your female dog starts experiencing Pseudocyesis, keep calm and take her to your veterinarian.
A proper understanding of pseudo-pregnancy and a timely visit to the vet are the best things you can do for an ideal, clean resolution to the whole situation.
RELATED: How to Tell If Your Dog Is Pregnant
How to Identify False Pregnancy in Dogs
(Pseudocyesis or phantom pregnancy)
Symptoms of False Pregnancy in Dogs
What should you expect when your dog is experiencing Pseudocyesis?
As the name suggests, phantom pregnancy symptoms in unspayed female dogs are almost identical to those of a true pregnancy.
Depression – your dog has suddenly become much more lethargic and withdrawn. It has much less enthusiasm for play and walks and displays general apathy.
Anxiety – she is more easily startled and feels much more uneasy.
Restlessness – your dog can't seem to find a place to sit, she constantly changes positions and even whines quite a lot.
Nesting behavior – if your dog just destroyed a blanket or a roll of paper and formed a nest in some corner of the house, then she is nesting for the puppies she feels are coming.
Digging – a more specific side-effect of her nesting behavior, your dog might start digging, or at least try to, in order to prepare a nest for her non-existing puppies.
Mothering – as in actually pregnant dogs, dogs with phantom pregnancy can sometimes display maternal behavior towards a stuffed toy, a pillow or a shoe. They would take such an object to the prepared “nest”, and try to cuddle and nurture it. This happens sometimes even to pregnant dogs when the mothering instincts kick in before the actual birth.
Excessive grooming – a part of the mothering instincts of dogs can sometimes be the overly active self-nursing. Your dog may start taking some extra care of her coat and her belly.
Aggression – not uncommon sign of pregnancy and phantom pregnancy in dogs, can be aggression towards other dogs and people, and even towards you.
Mammary glands enlargement – as in an actual pregnancy, the mammary glands of a dog with a false pregnancy can often fill with milk in preparation for puppies.
Mammary glands secretion – sometimes, the mammary glands of your dog can even start secreting milk.
Abdominal distention – an enlargement of a swelling in the abdomen is not uncommon in either an actual pregnancy, or a false one.
Weight loss – usually out of depression and anxiety, your dog may start eating less and as a result – lose weight.
Weight gain – other times, in preparation for the birth (and in absence of a depression or anxiety) your dog may start to eat more and gain weight.
Nausea and vomiting – typical pregnancy signs in not even just dogs.
Lethargy and an overall lack of energy.
A vaginal discharge of mucoid fluids is often sometimes seen.
Going into labor – yes, a false pregnancy in dogs can even trigger contractions, even though there are no puppies to be given birth to.
A dog's pseudo-pregnancy can be virtually identical to an actual pregnancy. The best way to be sure is to pay close attention to your dog while they're in heat.
Be observant of her contact with other dogs during this period (or prevent them altogether if you don't want her to get pregnant right now).
If you're certain that she hasn't had contact with male dogs during her heat, then her pregnancy signs are actually symptoms of a false pregnancy.
Regardless, when you notice pregnancy signs in unspayed dogs, a vet visit is always strongly advised.
Either she is pregnant and your vet will conclusively determine that and give you tips for how to deal with the dog's pregnancy and upcoming birth, or the dog is experiencing a false pregnancy.
In the case of the latter, your vet will also be the best equipped person to deal with the situation.
Primary Causes of False Pregnancy in Dogs
A hormonal imbalance or hormonal fluctuations usually cause a dogs' false pregnancy.
It is far from uncommon in unspayed female dogs, especially in intact ones.
What happens is that during their heat cycle their progesterone levels increase drastically.
This continues while heat lasts, but the progesterone levels drop once it's over.
Once this is over, however, another hormone – prolactin – jumps up due to the progesterone fluctuation and rapidly produces in the dog's body.
This rapid production of prolactin triggers most of the physical changes in the animal's body.
And once these changes start occurring, your dog decides she is pregnant and exhibits many behavioral symptoms.
You can hardly blame her, as the symptoms mentioned above are often convincing enough to fool even expert dog breeders, let alone the dog herself.
False pregnancies typically occur between 4 and 6 weeks after heat, which is required for the hormonal imbalance to kick in.
Most of the time, this condition is harmless, and the symptoms disappear, never to happen again.
This is especially true if you are certain your pup hasn't had any contact with males, and you can simply wait it out.
Sometimes the symptoms can be more intense and persistent, even to contractions. If this happens – or even before that – pay a visit to your veterinarian, and they will sort things out.
Health Related Causes of Phantom Pregnancy in Dogs
False pregnancies are usually harmless and rarely are due to a more concerning, underlying cause.
However, this can be the case too.
Hypothyroidism is a dysfunction in the animal's thyroid gland that can cause false pregnancy in dogs.
As in humans, this gland is responsible for the production of the hormone thyroxin – the hormone that controls the body's metabolism and the rate at which the body burns calories.
Hypothyroidism is a nasty condition in both dogs and humans. One of its rarer yet possible side effects is an increased production of the hormone prolactin, the same hormone that causes phantom pregnancy in dogs.
Certain dog breeds are more predisposed to hypothyroidism than others:
- Siberian Huskies
- Chinese Shar-Peis
- American Staffordshire Terriers
- Border Collies
- Bernese Mountain Dogs
Next potential cause is mastitis which is an infection of the mammary glands, particularly the milk ducts, leading to swelling.
Typically, this condition occurs in dogs that are actually pregnant while they are going through the physical changes of pregnancy.
In rare cases, mastitis can happen without a pregnancy, and it can lead to a swelling of the mammary glands.
This swelling can fool your pup that she's pregnant, triggering many other symptoms of a phantom pregnancy.
Mastitis is an annoying condition which can have problematic results if left untreated. This is why you should always pay close attention to your dog's general health, with or without signs of a pregnancy.
As with the mastitis, cancer of the mammary glands can lead to a swelling and cause false pregnancy in dogs.
Of course, dog breast cancer is a much more worrisome condition than mastitis or a simple false pregnancy in dogs, which is all the more reason to take your pooch to a veterinarian immediately if you notice any inflammation or lumps near the mammary glands.
A uterus infection, organ swelling, or fluid accumulation can all lead to abdominal enlargement.
This is one of the main physical symptoms of a pregnancy or of a false pregnancy in dogs.
As above, this can trick your female dog into thinking that she is pregnant and lead to other symptoms if you don't seek veterinary help immediately.
RELATED: How Long Are Dogs Pregnant?
How Vets Diagnose False Pregnancy in Dogs
How do vets diagnose phantom pregnancies if the symptoms are so convincing?
At first, they will likely ask for a detailed report of all the behavioral symptoms your dog has been displaying and what has happened during her heat.
To help your vet, be prepared to answer these questions.
Once this is done your vet will also likely perform a series of physical tests, including:
- a physical exam
- a biochemistry profile
- a urinalysis
- an abdominal x-ray
- an ultrasound
After all necessary tests are conducted, the vet will either diagnose your dog with one of the more unfortunate and rare causes of false pregnancy and start a treatment for those, or diagnose your dog with a standard false pregnancy due to hormonal fluctuations and start a treatment for that.
Treatments for Dog's False Pregnancy
When discussing a standard pseudo-pregnancy in dogs due to hormonal fluctuations, the treatment vets will often suggest is “do nothing.”
If the symptoms are mild and there are no dangerous underlying causes, dog phantom pregnancy will pass by itself and likely never happen again.
In the meantime, do not make the situation worse.
Many dog owners try to help their pets somehow (and some websites falsely advise such attempts).
They will do warm compresses to mitigate milk production; they will try and wrap their dog tightly to minimize the messy effects of lactation, and so on.
Measures such as these are very ill-advised, not only due to the discomfort they can bring to your female dog but also because they can further accelerate pregnancy symptoms.
Such methods may stimulate the mammary glands to produce more milk, which in turn can lead to an inflammation or mastitis.
When the symptoms are more severe, some things can be done.
For example, an Elizabethan collar is a good option if your dog licks its teats intensely.
It isn't very enjoyable to the dog, but it will stop the licking without touching, pressing or warming the mammary glands and thus won't stimulate further production.
For anxious dogs, vets may prescribe diuretics and/or mild sedatives. These can calm your dog down and speed up her recovery process.
If the lactation is too severe, a diet change can also be an option, such as not feeding her for 6-10 hours a night for several nights, which may quickly stop the milk production.
Giving your dog a little less water can also help with that.
It's nothing drastic since you don't want to harm, malnourish, or dehydrate your pet.
If you are unsure of your ability to manage such a diet properly, it's always a good idea to consult a veterinarian.
When your dog is nesting and mothering, it's a good idea to limit her access to toys, pillows, shoes, and other items to which she displays her mothering instincts.
This will irritate your dog, but it won't cause her any physical discomfort and hasten her psychological and physiological recovery.
Your vet may also suggest drug therapy. Prescription medications can be used to decrease milk production.
Other drugs may also be prescribed but do not start shopping for them yourself.
Simple natural supplements can also sometimes be used to ease your dog's recovery process, but even with them, it's advised to consult a vet first.
Lastly, your vet will likely advise you to spay your dog about a month after her phantom pregnancy (not during).
Suppose you have no plans for an actual pregnancy.
In that case, this is usually the best course of action, as it eliminates the possibilities of false pregnancy and other more dangerous conditions down the line.
How to Prevent Dog Phantom Pregnancy
Since phantom pregnancies are typical because of simple hormonal fluctuations, you can't ever guarantee that it will never happen.
Since it can happen to any unspayed female dog, you can spay your dog (if you have no plans for an actual pregnancy) to prevent future episodes.
Fortunately, it is usually a mild and inconsequential problem, but an unspayed adult dog that isn't getting pregnant regularly can develop dangerous conditions.
Other than that, pay close attention to your dog's overall health and behavior.
Do not subject her to unhealthy diets. Ensure that she isn't malnourished and that her living conditions are good.
Unacceptable living conditions can easily lead to an infection of the uterus or the mammary glands.