Adrienne is a certified dog trainer, former veterinary assistant, and the author of "Brain Training for Dogs."
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 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 Undergo 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
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 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.