Home Dog Care How to Identify False Pregnancy in Dogs (Pseudocyesis or Phantom Pregnancy)

How to Identify False Pregnancy in Dogs (Pseudocyesis or Phantom Pregnancy)


You have a female dog and she isn’t spayed. However, she also hasn’t had any unsupervised contact with other dogs, including male uncastrated dogs. She hasn’t left your sight in the last months and she is certainly not pregnant. Yet, she seems pregnant. You need to know how to identify a false pregnancy in dogs and what to do aboutHow to Identify False Pregnancy in Dogs the symptoms you're seeing.

She displays all the key signs of maternal (mothering) behavior, she is feeling lethargic and has nausea. She is also displaying some physical signs that are typical for a pregnancy. And, all this is happening following her estrus (heat)!

Do not worry. What your dog is experiencing is Pseudocyesis, commonly known as a phantom pregnancy, false pregnancy or just pseudo-pregnancy. And as weird and unusual as it may seem to us, humans, in unsprayed and intact (virgin) female dogs it actually happens fairly often.

If your female furry friend starts experiencing Pseudocyesis, keep calm and simply take her to your local veterinarian. A proper understanding of pseudo-pregnancy, as well as a timely visit to the vet are the best things you can do for an ideal and clean resolution to the whole situation.

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How to Identify False Pregnancy in Dogs
a.k.a. pseudocyesis or phantom pregnancy

How to Identify False Pregnancy in Dogs

Symptoms of False Pregnancy in Dogs

So, what should you expect when your dog is experiencing a Pseudocyesis? As the name suggests, the symptoms of phantom pregnancy are almost identical with those of an actual pregnancy. You can expect to see:

Behavioral symptoms

  • Depression – your dog has suddenly become much more lethargic and withdrawn.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 can be aggression towards other dogs and people, including towards you.

Physical symptoms

  • 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 can even trigger contractions, even though there are no puppies to be given birth to.

As you can see from these lists, a pseudo-pregnancy can be virtually identical to an actual pregnancy. This is why the best way to be sure is to pay close attention to your dog while it is in heat. Be observant of the contacts she has with other dogs during this period (or prevent them altogether if you don’t want her to get pregnant right now) and make sure that you know if something has happened.

If you’re certain that she hasn’t had contact with male dogs during her heat, then you can be certain that her pregnancy signs are actually symptoms of a false pregnancy. Regardless, when you notice pregnancy signs in your unspayed female dog, a visit to the vet is always strongly advised.

Either she is pregnant and your vet will conclusively determine that and give you the best possible tips and suggestions for how to deal with the pregnancy and the birth; or your 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.

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Causes of False Pregnancy in Dogs

How to Identify False Pregnancy in DogsSimply put, a false pregnancy in dogs is usually caused by a hormonal imbalance or hormonal fluctuations in your dog. It is far from uncommon in unspayed dogs, especially in intact ones. What happens is that during heat your dog’s progesterone levels increase drastically.

This goes on while heat lasts, but once it’s over, the progesterone levels drop back down. Once this is over, however, another hormone – prolactin – jumps up as a result of the progesterone fluctuation and becomes rapidly produced in your dog’s body.

What this rapid production of prolactin does is that it triggers most of the physical changes in your dog’s body. And, once these changes start occurring, your dog decides that she is pregnant and starts exhibiting a lot of the behavioral symptoms as well. You can hardly blame her, as the symptoms we mentioned above are often convincing enough to fool even expert dog breeders, let alone the dog herself.

False pregnancies typically occur anywhere between 4 and 6 weeks after heat, as this is the time that’s required for the hormonal misbalance to kick in.

Most of the time this condition is harmless and the symptoms disappear on their own, never to happen again. This is especially true if you are 100% certain that your dog hasn’t had any contact with males, and you can simply wait it out.

Sometimes, however, the symptoms can be more intense and persistence, going even to contractions. If this happens – or even before that, if you want to be sure that everything is all right – pay a visit to your veterinarian and he or she will sort things out.

Other causes

False pregnancy in dogs may usually be harmless, but as with almost anything else, sometimes it can be due to a more concerning, underlying cause.

Hypothyroidism is a dysfunction in a dog’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, but still possible, side effects is an increased production of the hormone prolactin the same hormone that causes phantom pregnancy.

Certain dog breeds are more predisposed to Hypothyroidism than others. The breeds to keep an eye on include:

  • Rottweilers
  • Weimaraners
  • Siberian Huskies
  • Chinese Shar-Peis
  • Mastiffs
  • American Staffordshire Terriers
  • Dalmatians
  • Malteses
  • Border Collies
  • Bernese Mountain Dogs

Mastitis is an infection of the mammary glands – particularly the milk ducts – of your dog that can lead to swelling. Typically, this condition occurs in dogs that are actually pregnant, while they are going through the physical changes of the pregnancy.

How to Identify False Pregnancy in DogsHowever, in rare cases Mastitis can happen without a pregnancy, it can lead to a swelling of the mammary glands. This swelling can fool your dog that she’s pregnant, in turn triggering a lot of 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, a cancer of the mammary glands can lead to a swelling and cause false pregnancy in dogs. Of course, 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 dog to a veterinarian immediately if you notice any inflammation or lumps near the mammary glands.

A uterus infection, an 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 dog into thinking that she is pregnant and lead to a lot of other symptoms if you don't seek veterinary help immediately.

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How Vets Diagnose a False Pregnancy in Dogs?

How to Identify False Pregnancy in DogsWhat will your vet do to diagnose a false pregnancy in dogs if the symptoms are so convincing?

At first, they will likely ask for a detailed report of all the behavioral symptoms that your dog has been displaying, as well as of what has happen during her heat. To help your vet as best as you can, make sure to be prepared to answer these questions.

Once this is done, however, 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
  • radiographs

Once all necessary tests are conducted, your 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 False Pregnancy in Dogs

When we are talking about a standard pseudo-pregnancy that’s due to hormonal fluctuations, oftentimes the treatment your vet will suggest is simply – “Do nothing”. If the symptoms are mild and there are no dangerous underlying causes, the phantom pregnancy will pass by itself and likely never happen again.

Simply put, if the symptoms are mild, just wait them out.

Many dog owners try to help their dog in some way (and many sites falsely advise such attempts). They will do warm compresses to mitigate the 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 pet, but also because they can further accelerate the pregnancy symptoms in your dog. Such methods may stimulate the mammary glands to produce more milk, which in turn can lead to an inflammation or mastitis.

If, however, the symptoms are more severe, there are some things that can be done. If your dog is licking its teats intensely, an Elizabethan collar is a good option. It is, of course, bothersome to the dog, but it will stop the licking without touching, pressing or warming the mammary glands and therefore, stimulate further production.

If your dog is too anxious, your vet may prescribe some diuretics, as well as some mild sedatives. These can calm your dog down and speed her recovery process. If the lactation is a bit too severe, a diet change can also be an option – nothing too serious, since you don’t want to limit your dog’s nutrition too much, but something along the lines of not feeding her for 6-10 hours a night, for several nights, can quickly stop the milk production.

Giving your dog a little less water can also help with that. Again, nothing too drastic, since you don’t want to harm, malnourish, or dehydrate your pet, just a little diet. If you are unsure of your abilities to properly manage such a diet, it’s always a good idea to consult with a veterinarian.

How to Identify False Pregnancy in DogsIf your dog is nesting and mothering, it’s a good idea to limit her access to toys, pillows, shoes and other items towards which she is displaying her mothering instincts. This will irritate your dog, but it won’t cause her any physical discomfort and it will hasten her recovery.

Drug therapy may also be suggested by your vet. Prescription medications can be used to decrease the milk production. Other drugs may also be prescribed by your vet, but do not take it upon yourself to give your dog anything without your vet’s approval. Simple natural supplements can also sometimes be used to ease your dog’s recovery process, but even with them it’s advised to consult with a vet first.

Lastly, your vet will likely advise you to spay your dog about a month after her phantom pregnancy (not during). If you have no plans for an actual pregnancy, this is usually the best course of action, as it eliminates the possibilities of both other false pregnancy, as well as other – much more dangerous – conditions down the line.

How to Prevent False Pregnancy in Dogs

Since phantom pregnancy is typically the result of simple hormonal fluctuations, there isn’t much that can guarantee that it will never happen. The one thing that can do that is spaying your dog – something that, as we said, is always advised if you have no plans for an actual pregnancy.

False pregnancy in dogs is usually a mild and inconsequential problem, but an adult and unspayed dog that isn’t getting pregnant regularly, can develop a lot of dangerous condition. Basically, what I'm saying is that spaying is always a good idea.

Other than that, simply pay a close attention to your dog’s overall health. Do not subject her to unhealthy diets, make sure that she isn’t malnourished, as well as that her living conditions are as good as possible. Improper living conditions can easily lead to an infection of the uterus or the mammary glands.

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