False pregnancy, also known as phantom pregnancy in female dogs, or the more technical term pseudopregnancy, consists of a condition occurring in female dogs that show the symptoms of pregnancy but that are not at all pregnant.
When your dog experiences this condition, you will therefore recognize some of the signs that usually occur in a pregnant dog.
For example, during phantom pregnancy your dog may exhibit behavioral changes such as searching or digging for a whelping spot or adopting a stuffed animal and treating it as a pup. Understanding phantom pregnancy in dogs can help you find the best solution for dealing with this situation.
A Matter of Hormones
At some point, around a month or two after going into heat, several hormonal changes take place in the intact female dog's body.
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.
If the female dog managed to breed and mate successfully with a male dog, her changes are likely due to pregnancy, but if the female dog was away from male dogs and is not expecting puppies, then her changes are due to a phantom pregnancy.
This feature of female dogs is often frustrating for dog owners hoping for their female dog to be pregnant as the symptoms of false pregnancy and pregnancy are quite the same.
Even many experienced breeders fall for it, so please don' feel bad if you were convinced your female dog was pregnant when she was not!
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.
Phantom Pregnancy Signs
As mentioned, the hormonal changes female dogs undergo after a heat cycle will cause a variety of physical and behavioral changes. These changes tend to show up 6 to 12 weeks after a heat cycle and generally cease after roughly 2 to 4 weeks.
Among the physical changes, female dogs may undergo nipple enlargement and sagging and some female dogs may even go on to secreting fluids or producing milk.
Affected female dogs may also lose their appetite which can lead to weight loss and some may develop a mucus-like discharge from their private areas. It's not unusual for some female dogs to also develop an enlarged abdomen and weight gain.
In addition to that, as mentioned dog phantom pregnancy may include various changes in behavior.
It is not uncommon for a dog who experiences a false pregnancy to act as if she is having a puppy. She may show nesting behavior, tearing papers and digging blankets and may show some affection towards a toy or other random object treating it as if it was one of her puppies.
Some dogs may even show protective behavior towards the toy. Acting extra clingy, anxious or grumpy is not unusual and many dog owners feel upset by these emotions and may be wondering what they can do to help their miserable dogs feel better.
Warning: if your dog becomes lethargic, starts vomiting or develops a foul smelling discharge and other signs of illness, please see your vet immediately. These signs may be indicative of pyometra, which left untreated, can turn deadly.
Did you know? Some behaviorists believe that the milk production in non-pregnant dogs evolved so that all female pack members could supplement the nutrition of pups born to higher-ranking females.
False Pregnancy Versus Real Pregnancy in Dogs
If your female dog is showing signs of pregnancy, but you are completely certain that she cannot actually be pregnant then there is nothing to worry about – chances are she is experiencing a false pregnancy and this will resolve on its own.
However, if you are not absolutely certain, the responsible thing to do would be to seek confirmation from your vet.
Sadly, there are no urine pregnancy tests for canines. If you ever wondered whether pregnancy test for humans work for dogs, the answer is no.
If you want to find out whether your dog is pregnant or not, you need to make an appointment at the vet’s office. The vet will make his decision based on:
- Physical examination findings
- Abdominal palpation
- Blood tests (to determine the level of the hormone progesterone)
- Abdominal radiographs (suitable for dogs that are pregnant for at least 45 days) Abdominal ultrasound (suitable for dogs that are pregnant at least 21 days).
Treating Phantom Pregnancy in Dogs
In most cases of dog phantom pregnancy, especially those that are mild, there is no need for the dog showing the symptoms to be specially treated.
The false pregnancy will just run its course. In most cases, the symptoms subside in 2 to 4 weeks once the dog's body finally recognizes that it's in a non-pregnant state.
Phantom pregnancy in female dogs though may last longer if dog owners "milk" their dogs or allow them to self-nurse.
If the female dog is self-nursing, it helps to place a t-shirt on the dog so that she's prevented from bothering her nipples often.
If a female dog licks her nipples too much, the false pregnancy may last even up to 90 days, explains veterinarian Dr. Kara.
If you notice your dog's nipples turning hard and very red or purplish, see your vet as this may be a case of mastitis, or perhaps the onset of mammary tumors.
For severe cases, your veterinarian may prescribe certain medications such as Galastop so to block the hormones responsible for causing her to produce milk which helps sustain the phantom pregnancy.
If you want your dog to stop showing signs of false pregnancy once and for all, you can always have your female dog spayed. If you decide to go this route though, it's important that you wait until your dog's phantom pregnancy is over.