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Phantom pregnancy in dogs: signs and causes

Pregnant dog outside advice

A phantom pregnancy is caused by the hormonal changes.

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Is your dog acting pregnant? And nesting and nursing a toy? But she actually can't be pregnant? Then she could be experiencing a false pregnancy.

By Dr Karen Ingleby BVetMed MRCVS

Updated on the 19/11/2020, 19:30

Although it varies hugely, most female dogs come into season on average twice a year. Every time they have a season, there is a chance it may result in a phantom pregnancy. A phantom pregnancy happens when the dog’s body mimics the symptoms it may show if it were pregnant despite not being in pup.

What is a phantom pregnancy in a dog?

Phantom pregnancy, also known as pseudopregnancy or false pregnancy, can commonly occur in female dogs that have not been spayed around two months after their last season. It is called a phantom pregnancy because the female dog can show symptoms of pregnancy or nursing puppies despite not being pregnant.

What causes dog pseudopregnancy?

Pseudopregnancy is caused by the hormonal changes that occur during a normal season in an unspayed female dog. In some female dogs the high levels of hormones that occur after a season trick the dog’s system into thinking she is pregnant and then as these hormones drop away, they also mimic the drop in hormones that occurs when a dog has puppies. This often results in milk production in the dog, as if she was preparing to feed puppies.

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How do I know if my dog is having a phantom pregnancy?

Symptoms of false pregnancy usually start 4-9 weeks after her previous heat. The most common signs of phantom pregnancy include some enlargement of the mammary tissue with or without production of milk, lethargy and dullness, loss of appetite, having a full abdomen (which is due to fluid retention) and some dogs may vomit.

Behavioural changes often accompany the physical symptoms. They can start nesting or digging beds, nursing an object or toy, which they can sometimes even get aggressive about, and they can also become particularly restless or irritable.

How do you identify false pregnancy in dogs?

If your female dog has not been mated or confirmed pregnant and she starts showing signs and/or behavioural traits that mimic pregnancy a month or two after her last season, it is highly likely she is experiencing a false pregnancy. Speak to a vet to confirm this, and if there is any chance she could have been mated then it is worth getting her examined.

Is false pregnancy in dogs dangerous?

In general, false pregnancy rarely causes actual harm to your dog, although it has been shown that those animals that suffer from false pregnancy frequently have it every season and often get worse each time. One thing false pregnancy does is increase the risk of mastitis, an infection and inflammation of the mammary tissue. If any of your dog’s teats are particularly warm, hard and painful to touch, please contact a vet for advice.

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How long does a phantom pregnancy last in a dog?

All dogs are very much different, but in general most phantom pregnancy symptoms tend to resolve after around a few weeks.

How do you treat false pregnancy in dogs?

In most cases of false pregnancy specific treatment is not required, as the symptoms often go away on their own in 2-3 weeks. Having said that, you can help this happen for your dog quicker by increasing their exercise and reducing their food. In animals showing severe signs, aggression or mastitis, there are treatments that can be prescribed by a vet to stop the false pregnancy quickly. Please discuss this with a vet.

Are there any natural treatments for a dog's false pregnancy?

In most cases of false pregnancy specific treatment is not required, as the symptoms often go away on their own in a few weeks. But you can help this happen quicker by increasing their exercise levels and reducing their food.

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How can I help my dog through a false pregnancy?

In most cases of false pregnancy specific treatment is not required, as the symptoms often go away on their own in a few weeks. Having said that, you can help this happen quicker by increasing their exercise levels, reducing their food and giving her much more affection than normal, as they can be particularly needy.

How do you dry up a dog's milk from a false pregnancy?

Increasing the amount of exercise she does and decreasing her food will help this situation. If she is licking her mammary glands a lot, this can stimulate more milk production, so sometimes it can help if she is prevented from doing this in some way.

If you feel it is a real problem, or she is showing evidence of mastitis, please speak to a vet as there are medications she can be prescribed to help the milk dry out.

How common is false pregnancy in dogs?

It is not known exactly how common pseudopregnancy is or if it is more prone among certain breeds, although it has been estimated to be as high as 50 to 75%, using a rather broad definition of the condition.

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How do I prevent my dog having a phantom pregnancy?

The only way to prevent phantom pregnancies is by getting your dog spayed. Not only does it prevent pregnancy and false pregnancies, it also reduces the risk of breast cancers and eliminates the possibility of potentially fatal infections of the womb (pyometra).

Should I take away my dog’s toys when she is having a phantom pregnancy?

Different people have different opinions on this. If your dog is getting particularly obsessive about a toy and believes she is nursing it, some may suggest removing it to reduce the hormone levels. But as most phantom pregnancies resolve on their own within 2-3 weeks, others believe it is best to leave the toys with the dog.

Why did my dog have a phantom pregnancy after being spayed?

It is never recommended to spay a female dog that is suffering from a pseudopregnancy, due to it causing the sudden drop of high levels of hormones that can result in milk production. But some of these can be difficult to detect and therefore, if done at this time, it can result in signs of a pseudopregnancy after being spayed.

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To prevent this happening, the general recommendation is you should, if possible, leave spaying a female dog until 3-4 months after the end of her last season.

Can a dog be pregnant and not look pregnant?

Dog pregnancies last for around nine weeks and it is perfectly normal to not notice any changes for the first 2-3 weeks. It can be difficult to notice any difference in a pregnant dog even after that in larger, deep-chested breeds or in dogs only carrying one or two puppies.

Yet there are some subtle signs that may give you an indication, like change in appetite, becoming more affectionate, becoming lethargic and, after 5-6 weeks, the dog may get some nipple development and start to gain weight. Please note most of these signs can also be seen in a false pregnancy, so it is always worth getting the pregnancy confirmed with a vet.

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When should I see a vet?

If there is a chance your dog has been mated, you should always see a vet to confirm she is not actually pregnant rather than going through a false pregnancy.

If your dog becomes ill, has mastitis or has severe behavioural changes due to the false pregnancy, you should take her to the vet to discuss the best options.