Yes, dogs can think their toy is their baby, but this is likely to happen only in a few selected dogs and at a precise time.
In other words, expect this type of behavior to happen in an intact female dog after her heat cycle.
To better understand this behavior it helps to gain a deeper understanding on the role of hormones and what happens in some intact female dogs after going into heat when they don't become pregnant.
During this time, female dogs may therefore perceive their toys as "surrogate babies" prompting them to carry them around while whining, with some dogs even showing protective behaviors towards the toy.
What is a False Pregnancy in Dogs?
False pregnancy, also known as phantom pregnancy in female dogs, or the more technical term pseudopregnancy or pseudocyesis, consists of a condition occurring in female dogs that show the symptoms of pregnancy, but that are not at all pregnant.
A false pregnancy generally takes place around a month or two after going into heat. Several hormonal changes take place in the intact female dog's body during this time.
Not knowing whether she is pregnant of not, the female dog's body will err of the side of caution and undergo necessary changes so to maintain a potential pregnancy, regardless of the outcome.
Changes in her progesterone and prolactin levels will cause both physical and behavioral changes that are commonly associated with dog pregnancy.
It's important to note that all intact dogs female dogs (non-spayed) go through these hormonal fluctuations after their heat cycle ends, in some females though their bodies get more confused and cause more significant symptoms.
As the days go by, once the female dog's body realizes that pregnancy didn't occur, her hormones will return to normal levels and every thing goes back to normal, something that can take anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks.
Signs of False Pregnancy in Dogs
When your dog experiences a false pregnancy, you will recognize some of the signs that usually occur in a pregnant dog. Following are some physical signs of false pregnancy in dogs:
- Nipple enlargement
- Licking of mammary glands
- Production of milk
- Loss of appetite
- Enlarged abdomen
- Weight gain
In addition to these, phantom pregnancy may include various changes in behavior. Following are some behavioral signs of false pregnancy in dogs:
- Tearing of papers
- Digging blankets
- Carrying a toy
- Babying a toy
- Guarding a toy
- Digging a whelping spot
- Excessive vocalizations
Can Dogs Think That Their Toy is Their Baby?
Yes, as seen, intact female dogs think their toy is their baby when they are going through a false pregnancy.
They will often walk around carrying the toy whining and sleeping with it. Some go as far as acting protective of it, while some others may even get frustrated when the toy doesn't "nurse."
In the most dramatic cases, the dog may believe that failure to nurse and move may be signs that the puppy is "dead" and they will start mourning it.
Mourning the loss of a "phantom" puppy can trigger feelings of frustration and even depression in some dogs.
Should I Take the Toy Away?
It may be tempting to remove the much cherished toy when the dog is out on a walk or sent outside to potty in hopes that the dog will come back and resume her life as if the toy didn't even exist.
However, female dogs undergoing a false pregnancy tend to become terribly anxious upon not finding their toy, and in those cases, it may be best to give the toy back, suggests veterinarian Dr. Kara.
Fortunately, false pregnancies are short-lived and within 3 to 4 weeks everything should go back to normal. There is not much you can do during this time except wait for her hormones to wear off.
In the meanwhile, you may find it helpful to provide your dog with some calming aids such as a product called DAP (dog appeasing pheromone) which can be used for anxiety or stressful situations such as a false pregnancy.
What Can Be Given to Stop the False Pregnancy?
While it does not hurt a dog, a phantom pregnancy can be distressing for you and your dog. If you can't bear to wait until the symptoms of false pregnancy subside, there are some options to shorten it or make it less stressful on your dog.
In the most severe cases, it is possible to give cabergoline, a dopamine agonist which can help shorten the course of the false pregnancy. Behavioral signs are alleviated first, followed by reduction in the dog's mammary gland enlargement.
However, it's important to ascertain the dog is not pregnant as this medication can trigger an abortion.
For less severe cases, it may help to give the dog some type of calming supplement such as Nutricalm, Zylkene, Adaptil chewable tablets and Adaptil plug-in diffusers and sprays.
Did you know? As tempting as it may be to manipulate the dog's mammary glands to relieve the discomfort associated with their engorgement, any manipulation will likely result in more milk production. If you are concerned about milk production, consult with your vet. He or she may prescribe Galastop (cabergoline), but only after ascertaining that the dog is not pregnant.
Preventing Future False Pregnancies
False pregnancies have a tendency to recur after subsequent heat cycles. The only way to stop false pregnancies once and for all is by spaying the dog.
However, if you decide to go with this option, it is best to wait until she is out of the false pregnancy.
Ideally, the dog should be spayed after a minimum of 2 to 3 weeks have passed after the end of the heat cycle. This because there is greater blood supply to the dog's uterus during a false pregnancy.
Can a Dog Have a False Pregnancy After Being Spayed?
Yes, this can happen and it's due to the hormonal changes following the spay. This is likely to occur when dogs are spayed right after her heat cycle, which is why it's worthy of waiting to spay a few weeks later.
What happens is that the remaining hormones in the dog's system push the dog into a false pregnancy.
In more details, when the ovaries and uterus are removed too soon following the heat, the sudden drop in progesterone can trick the dog into thinking she has just whelped, triggering her mothering instincts. This should resolve in 1-2 weeks at the most.
Watch for Signs of Pyometra!
All owners of intact female dogs (not spayed) should be aware of pyometra, a potentially life threatening condition.
This is a hormonally-driven infection of the uterus that typically takes place anywhere between 2 weeks to 4 months following a dog's estrus (the part of the heat cycle when the dog is ready to mate and fertile).
Affected dogs will experience loss of appetite, fever, lethargy, discharge from their private area (not if the cervix is closed), and increased thirst.
If your dog shows any of these signs, you should promptly take your dog to the vet to have a complete blood count performed. Pyometra almost always causes quite an elevated white blood cell count.
On top of increased white blood cell count. a pyometra will show visible signs on an x-ray or ultrasound, the enlarged uterus filled with pus being the most obvious sign.