Has your dog started acting like they are pregnant, mothering their toys and creating a nesting space? Have you noticed mammary development and even milk from their nipples? Some female dogs may display signs equivalent to morning sickness; with lethargy and vomiting. If your dog has not been mated, this may leave you scratching your head as to why they appear pregnant. If they have been mated, before you get too excited about visions of cute puppies, you need to make sure it’s not a false or phantom pregnancy.
WHAT IS MEANT BY FALSE PREGNANCY?
False pregnancy, phantom pregnancy, pseudo-pregnancy or pseudocyesis are all terms that refer to a display of maternal (mothering) behavior combined with the physical signs of pregnancy following estrus ("heat") in an unspayed female dog that is not actually pregnant. A false pregnancy may occur in a dog, regardless of whether or not she was mated. The majority of intact female dogs will show some signs of false pregnancy after an estrus cycle.
SYMPTOMS OF FALSE PREGNANCY IN DOGS
Some female dogs are very sensitive to the hormonal fluctuations of their cycle. Diagnosis is made by history and physical examination rather than by blood test (though a blood test can be used to determine if she is actually pregnant or not). The key is to find symptoms of pregnancy in a female dog who is not pregnant. Symptoms generally become noticeable 6 to 12 weeks after estrus.
You can expect to see many of the same symptoms of an actual pregnancy to manifest in the case of a false pregnancy. Although the signs vary between individuals, these are the main physiological and behavioural changes to look out for:
HOW LONG DOES A FALSE PREGNANCY LAST?
The symptoms of a phantom pregnancy most commonly occur 6-8 weeks after your dog finishes her season, and should resolve within 2-3 weeks. Once your dog has had a false pregnancy after a season, it is very likely to recur at each subsequent season.
WHAT CAUSES FALSE PREGNANCY IN DOGS?
The origins of phantom pregnancy are thought to be due to the pack behaviour of our domestic dog’s ancestors. All the females in the pack help to rear the family pups and feel motherly towards them, even when they are not their own offspring. This cooperative behaviour is driven by hormones. After a female dog has a season, she experiences a prolonged peak of the ‘pregnancy hormone’ progesterone lasting 8-9 weeks, whether she is pregnant or not (this does not occur in humans). As levels of progesterone decline levels of a second hormone, prolactin, increase. This is what triggers the physical and psychological symptoms of pregnancy. In some dogs this may be mild – not enough to notice – but in others the symptoms can be very convincing to both the dog and her owner.
HOW IS FALSE PREGNANCY IN DOGS DIAGNOSED?
To diagnose false pregnancy your vet will take a history about your dog’s recent seasons and any matings. They will examine your dog for abdominal swelling, mammary growth and lactation.They may advise ultrasound or x-rays to check whether puppies are present.
WHAT TO DO WHEN THE FALSE PREGNANCY SYMPTOMS APPEAR?
False pregnancy in dogs is very common and, if symptoms are behavioural and mild, you can try distracting your dog with increased play and walks. While they’re distracted you can remove any toys they have adopted as surrogate babies, being careful not to cause distress. Remember that non-specific signs such as vomiting and lethargy may also be due to other diseases and illnesses. It’s also important to rule out a true pregnancy as your dog may have had an illicit mating!
Mild cases of false pregnancy do not require treatment since the symptoms will subside in approximately 14-21 days. If the dog appears physically ill or the behavioral changes are severe enough to cause concern, treatment is indicated.
Treatment is symptomatic and may include tranquilization to relieve anxiety and treatment with diuretics in order to reduce the milk production or relieve fluid retention. Do not massage or milk the teats during false pregnancy as this will only encourage more milk production. In rare cases, hormonal treatment may be required.
If your dog will not be used for breeding, ovariohysterectomy is recommended to prevent future episodes. Ideally, this surgical sterilization should be performed after all signs have resolved. If she is surgically sterilized while she is experiencing signs of pseudo-pregnancy, signs may continue for several weeks despite the fact she has been spayed.