What Is False Pregnancy in Dogs?
We all know what a real pregnancy is, so what exactly is a false pregnancy?
Also known as a "phantom pregnancy" or an "hysterical pregnancy," a false pregnancy is simply a condition that mimics a real pregnancy, only in a dog that is not actually pregnant. You may wonder how a dog could start acting as if it were pregnant, and why it would do so.
False pregnancy causes dog owners many concerns as the signs mimic a real pregnancy so closely. It also creates false hopes in dog owners who purposely bred their dog and have their fingers crossed.
What Causes False Pregnancy?
The triggers seem to be hormonal. Changes in the endocrine system lead to hormonal changes in the levels of progesterone (a hormone that maintains pregnancy and causes mammary enlargement) and prolactin, a hormone responsible for producing milk) that cause physical changes similar to those seen during a real pregnancy. False pregnancy in dogs takes place about a month or two after a heat cycle when the dog was not bred or was bred by a male who turned out being infertile.
Why Do Dogs U ndergo False Pregnancy?
The exact dynamics are still misunderstood. However, it appears that after a heat cycle, the unaltered female dog's body produces the same hormones associated with pregnancy regardless if she's pregnant or not. Basically, after ovulation, the female dog will develop a functioning corpus luteum which produces high progesterone levels, regardless of the dog's pregnancy status. If the dog is pregnant, there will then be a sudden drop in her progesterone levels and an increase in her prolactin levels (so he starts producing milk) right when the pregnancy ends. If the dog is not pregnant, the hormones will have to wear out with time, usually within 4 to 6 weeks.
From an evolutionary standpoint, you may wonder what's the purpose of a false pregnancy. There's a possible theory that may explain it if we look back at the dog's ancestors. When canines used to live in the wild in packs, females would come into heat at approximately the same time (mostly in the late winter so that pups were born in early spring giving them time to grow strong before another winter). To avoid squabbles and major disruptions, only the alpha female would mate with the alpha male (the alpha pair). For more on this read: David Mech's studies on wolves. This resulted in a litter of pups that were well taken care of by the rest of the females in the packs, courtesy of their strong mothering instincts kicking in due to their 'false pregnancy".
So it appears that false pregnancies are pretty normal occurrences in intact female dogs and that "many dogs experience at least some degree of "false pregnancy" after an estrus period." as veterinarian Mike Richards explains.
Signs of False Pregnancy in Dogs
There are countless stories of female dogs adopting animals of different species causing many people to "melt" in front of this lovely display of unconditional affection and love. But most likely than not, this is often a form of anthropomorphism, that means, "attributing to dogs (and other animals in general) human traits and emotions". In reality, these dogs babying these animals may be simply going through a false pregnancy.
And it's not only other species of animals these dogs are babying, often they'll adopt stuffed animals or any other objects that resemble puppies. This is only one of the characteristic signs of a dog undergoing a false pregnancy, let's look at the rest of signs of false pregnancy in dogs. Generally, you'll notice a few or more of the following symptoms:
- Mammary gland enlargement
- Weight gain
- Production of milk
- Mucoid vaginal discharge
- Reduced appetite
- Nesting behavior. The dog may build a next to raise puppies by tearing up papers and other material.
- Guarding toys, shoes or other small objects
- Aggressive behavior when you get close to the dog maternal "den"
- Carrying toys around and whining
If your dog develops lethargy, vomiting, foul-smelling vaginal discharge and other signs of illness see your veterinarian. Your dog may be suffering from dog pyometra, a serious and potentially life-threatening uterine infection.
Treatment of False Pregnancy in Dogs
So now that you have proof your dog is suffering from a false pregnancy, what can you do?
- First of all, it's always best to have your vet rule out a real pregnancy in case you're not 100% sure.
- It's also good to see your vet if your dog is acting sick. False pregnancy should not make a dog lethargic, vomit, or show other signs of illness.
- As mentioned, pyometra is always a risk for a dog that is not spayed and it should always be on the top of your concerns when your dog is not acting right.
What will the vet do?
Most likely your vet will palpate the abdomen, do an ultrasound to check for puppies or any abnormal enlargement of organs or fluid accumulation. Other tests may be carried out based on your vet's suspicions.
What if the false pregnancy is confirmed?
- Once a false pregnancy is confirmed, the false pregnancy may be allowed to run its course. Generally, it will resolve on its own in two to three weeks, once the body recognizes its non-pregnant status.
- Some vets may recommend reducing food intake and limiting water access at night to reduce milk production in lactating dogs.
- Using warm compresses and stimulating the mammary glands is not recommended as this may increase milk production.
- Consult with your vet for the best protocol for your dog. While spaying may stop the occurrence of false pregnancy once and for all, it's recommended to postpone the surgery until this phase is over.
- Also, consider that spaying a dog near the end of its heat may trigger false pregnancy. Indeed, because her ovaries are removed, her progesterone levels will decrease and her prolactin will increase, tricking her body into thinking that she just has babies. Certain drugs can be used for severe cases, but their costs can be quite on the high end.
False Pregnancy in Dogs
© 2013 Adrienne Farricelli
ash06 on May 14, 2019:
My female German Shepherd was spayed 4 months ago as she had many phantom pregnancies & was very protective of her toys (Babies), most of her nesting behaviours have stopped but she still carries around her toy (baby) in her mouth & whines. She also gets attached to certain items, out of the blue, & has lunged & tried to attack at times. Not sure what is going on with her? She has got me very scared at times, one time she did draw blood on my arm.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 23, 2019:
Jennifer you are very welcome. As an owner of an intact female dog who is now senior, please keep in mind that pyometra is always a possibility, so keep an eye for loss of appetite, vomiting, fever, lethargy etc and report to your vet if you notice anything unusual or worrisome. Best, Adrienne
Jennifer on February 13, 2019:
Thank you for this article. My pup has had a reduction in food for the past week, which started my worries. Then 2 days ago she startdd whining all the time while carrying around her squeeky toy. But she is not squeeking it...god forbid if by accident I step on it and it squeeks. She goes mental. She sleeps, or at least tries to sleep on my bed, in my spot, leaning on my pillow. She follows me everywhere. Every so often she has laboured breathing, meaning fast, panting but goes away 2 or so minutes later. Shenis also sleeping lots. When we are outside playing, she starts digging holes, which she has never done since a puppy.
She had a litter 9 years ago and is still intact. As I write this, she has started panting....and now i know why....THANK YOU A MILLION TIMES OVER!!!
Mary on February 27, 2018:
Can a dog still get pregnet after she goes threw a false pregnancy?
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on February 03, 2017:
Lesa, sounds like your dog goes through false pregnancy! Good to hear that she takes comfort in her little bed with her stuffed toy. I have chickens and sometimes they also go through periods like false pregnancy in dogs. They lay on their eggs and won't come out! They can get grumpy too~!
lesa on December 03, 2016:
My dog goes through this every heat. She also whines all the time and will not let go of her stuffy toy, not even for a treat. We make her a little nest bed and in a few weeks she is fine.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 27, 2013:
Thanks Midget38, it's an interesting topic. I am taking a college course on dog reproduction soon and will discuss many of these topics.
Adrienne Farricelli (author) on April 27, 2013:
Thanks for stopping by, I am happy to hear you found my article on dog false pregnancy interesting!
Midget38 on April 26, 2013:
Hi Alexadry! Interesting info...will monitor my girls closely! Thanks for sharing!!
Marites Mabugat-Simbajon from Toronto, Ontario on April 26, 2013:
Interesting esp. that my sister has a female dog. Sharing and thank you.
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 26, 2013:
This is an interesting article and will undoubtedly be very helpful to many people who have dogs in that situation. We once had a spayed female dog who mothered certain stuffed animals as if they were her own pups. We eventually gave them away because she was very protective of them and we did not want any problems to crop up with our other dog or people who might get too close to her "baby." Perhaps she just had a psychiatric problem? Ha! It was definitely not a false pregnancy as she was spayed. Up and interesting votes and will share and pin.
Dog False Pregnancy: How Long Does It Last?
False pregnancy can be a very confusing time not just for your dog, but also for owners. The whole concept of a phantom pregnancy (also known as pseudocyesis or pseudo-pregnancy) is a very odd one to grasp. But once you know why it happens, and how long your dog’s false pregnancy will last, it’s a lot easier to get your head around.
If you’re new to this phenomenon, here’s a very quick primer on what to expect with your dog’s phantom pregnancy, and how it will last for.
False Pregnancy in Dogs
Also referred to as pseudo or phantom pregnancy, false pregnancy in dogs is a condition in which no-pregnant dogs exhibit the signs of pregnancy, lactation, and nursing without there being a litter of puppies produced. These signs are known to start showing a month to two months after being on heat. The cause of false pregnancies is thought to be a hormonal imbalance.
Signs of False Pregnancy in Dogs
The signs of false pregnancy in dogs mimic those of a real pregnancy. The symptoms differ in severity and could last for a few weeks or more than a month. They are:
- Abdominal distention
- Mammary glands enlargement
- Secretion of a watery or brownish fluid from the mammary glands.
- Changes in general behavior
- Dog not eating due to loss of appetite
In severe and prolonged cases, additional symptoms of phantom pregnancy will include the following:
Just like dogs in real pregnancy do, one experiencing a pseudopregnancy will get to a point where they create a nest. This is in preparation for upcoming pups. This can be seen with her arranging her bedding, moving the blankets to quiet areas as well as digging into and ruffling them.
This happens in most severe cases. The dog experiencing the condition will undergo labor and appear as if she is trying to give birth only that no litter results at the end of it.
Where the false pregnancy is prolonged, the canine adopts toys as their surrogate puppies. She collects objects and treats them as her brood keeping them with her in her bedding. She could also walk around carrying them and get anxious if they are taken away.
This is where the mammary glands of the dog get enlarged. What differentiates the swelling with that experienced due to slight hormonal changes within the cycle is the production of milk. A dog experiencing a false pregnancy will leak from one or more tits. Expressing the milk is not recommended as it will prolong the presence of the symptoms.
Although these symptoms are mostly experienced following estrus, they could occur at any age and time. The severity not only varies from one dog to another but also from one cycle to another in the same dog. In some cases, the dogs will go as far as experiencing false labor which is then followed by protective behavior which they take on by guarding small objects and toys the way they would guard their puppies.
How Long Does it Last?
The signs of false pregnancy in dogs start showing 6 to 12 weeks after the dog has been on heat. Where the symptoms are mild, they will last for only a short while and resolve within three weeks. Where the signs last for more than eight weeks, veterinarian intervention may be necessary.
Diagnostics in the clinic
Laboratory, and also instrumental diagnostic methods to determine in the early stages not only the presence of pregnancy, but to exclude a failed and false pregnancy. You have mated a bitch and want to know if conception has occurred. In this case, take your pet to the clinic after 3 weeks. Her blood will be taken and tested for relaxin. A sharp increase in the concentration of the hormone indicates pregnancy.
This study will help to exclude imaginary hypoxia, which you cannot distinguish from the real one by clinical symptoms. The next early procedure for confirming pregnancy is ultrasound.
The veterinarian, in the fourth week of gestation, monitors the beating of the hearts of future puppies on the monitor. However, it’s too early to calm down. In a dog, after a month of normal gestation, the fruits dissolve. The reason is not easy to establish, however, embryos are resorbed or excreted with vaginal mucus in the form of black or greenish clots.
The dog looks puppy, its abdomen is enlarged, mammary glands are hypertrophied. The time comes to give birth, and the cubs do not appear. If you did not make a test for relaxin in a timely manner or did not check on an ultrasound scan, then you might think that the bitch has a false pregnancy.
The exact number of puppies can be determined by x-ray at the seventh week of gestation. Usually there are more of them than they counted, because the operator might not have noticed someone.
False Pregnancy (Pseudocyesis) in Dogs
If your female dog hasn't been spayed yet, you may find yourself scratching your head and wondering why she's looking and acting as if she's pregnant when you are absolutely certain that there isn't any chance of it. Why is she acting pregnant? How could she be pregnant when she's never out of your sight? Relax, she may just be experiencing false pregnancy—a very common condition for intact or unspayed, female dogs that occurs after they go through an estrus or heat cycle. Even so, a call to your veterinarian for any abnormal behavior in your dog is always a good idea.
What is "False Pregnancy" in dogs?
Hormonally, every time a female dog, or bitch, ovulates her progesterone levels rise and stay elevated to nearly the same degree—and for just as long—whether or not she conceives and becomes pregnant. (This is why testing progesterone levels in dogs is a great method for verifying ovulation, but has no value whatsoever when determining pregnancy.) Once the progesterone levels begin to fall, another hormone, prolactin, naturally rises. These perfectly normal hormonal fluctuations can physiologically make your dog's body (and sometimes her mind) think that she is pregnant.
As a result, after any heat cycle, your dog can experience most of the same signs of pregnancy as when she's not actually pregnant:
- Early lethargy
- Weight gain
- Mammary enlargement
- Milk production
In addition to these physical changes, some dogs go on to exhibit psychological changes. Your dog may prepare a nest in anticipation of impending, imaginary, new arrivals and may even adopt a surrogate "puppy" (a toy or some other object) to nurture when no real puppy miraculously materializes.
How do you know if this pregnancy is real or false?
If you’re absolutely certain that your dog cannot be pregnant, then you probably do not need to worry, but you should call your veterinarian just to be sure. If you are not so absolutely certain, however, and you want to be a conscientious, responsible pet parent, you should seek confirmation and advice from your veterinarian. Easy, at-home, urine pregnancy tests are not available for our canine friends so a combination of physical examination findings, abdominal palpation, blood tests, radiographs and/or ultrasound will be the only way to know for sure.
What do you do if your dog is experiencing a false pregnancy?
First of all, remember that false pregnancy is not a disease and is normal. Unfortunately, your dog may still be uncomfortable and possibly distressed by the process. If you feel you need to assist with the resolution of symptoms, try to discourage maternal behaviors by taking away surrogate puppies and nesting sites disrupt the stimulation of mammary glands or milk production by using Elizabethan collars or t-shirts—they’ll keep your dog from licking the engorged glands. Medical intervention is possible, but it is reserved for severe cases since the drugs that can be used are not without side effects.
How can I prevent false pregnancy?
Female dogs that are shown to be predisposed to experiencing false pregnancies will most likely do so repeatedly after subsequent heat cycles. That means that the only prevention is spaying. So if you are not intent on breeding your dog, have her spayed before her next heat cycle to save you all the stress and discomfort of another false pregnancy.
If you have any questions or concerns, you should always visit or call your veterinarian -- they are your best resource to ensure the health and well-being of your pets.