Understanding False Pregnancy in Dogs

Updated on February 3, 2017
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Adrienne is a former veterinary hospital assistant, certified dog trainer, behavior consultant, and author of "Brain Training for Dogs."

False pregnancy in dogs.
False pregnancy in dogs. | Source

What is False Pregnancy in Dogs and What Causes it??

We all know what a real pregnancy is in dogs is, so what exactly is a false pregnancy? Also, known as a phantom pregnancy or hysterical pregnancy, a false pregnancy in dogs is simply that, a condition mimicking a real pregnancy only that the dog is not actually pregnant. This may be difficult to fully comprehend as you may wonder how a dog can start acting as if pregnant if it wasn't even bred or around male dogs while in heat!

False pregnancy often causes dog owners many concerns as the signs may mimic so closely a real pregnancy that they truly think their dog is pregnant. On the other hand, it may create false hopes in dog owners who purposely bred their dog and are keeping their fingers crossed the dog is really pregnant. But what causes false pregnancy in dogs?

The triggers seem to be at a hormonal level. Changes in the endocrine system leads 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:

Physical Symptoms

  • Mammary gland enlargement
  • Weight gain
  • Production of milk
  • Mucoid vaginal discharge
  • Reduced appetite

Behavior Symptoms

  • 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
  • Self-nursing
  • Restlessness

* Note: 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? Well, first of all, it's always best to have your vet rule out a real pregnancy in case you're not 100 percent sure. It's also good to see your vet if your dog is acting sick. False pregnancy should not make a dog lethargic, causing vomiting and 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.

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.

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.

Disclaimer: this article is not to be used as a substitute for professional veterinary advice. If your dog is having a suspect false pregnancy or is showing signs of illness see your vet. By reading this article you accept this disclaimer.


False Pregnancy in Dogs

Questions & Answers

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      • profile image

        Mary 3 months ago

        Can a dog still get pregnet after she goes threw a false pregnancy?

      • alexadry profile image
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        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 16 months ago from USA

        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~!

      • profile image

        lesa 18 months ago

        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.

      • alexadry profile image
        Author

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thanks Midget38, it's an interesting topic. I am taking a college course on dog reproduction soon and will discuss many of these topics.

      • alexadry profile image
        Author

        Adrienne Janet Farricelli 5 years ago from USA

        Thanks for stopping by, I am happy to hear you found my article on dog false pregnancy interesting!

      • profile image

        Midget38 5 years ago

        Hi Alexadry! Interesting info...will monitor my girls closely! Thanks for sharing!!

      • coffeegginmyrice profile image

        Marites Mabugat-Simbajon 5 years ago from Toronto, Ontario

        Interesting esp. that my sister has a female dog. Sharing and thank you.

      • Peggy W profile image

        Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

        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.

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