About 80 percent of unspayed (non-sterilized) female dogs will show signs of a false pregnancy once in their lives. For the majority of them, this may happen many more times.
We also refer to a false pregnancy as a pseudopregnancy, pseudocyesis, or phantom pregnancy in dogs.
Find more about this common condition as we look at its causes and symptoms.
What Is a False Pregnancy in Dogs?
False pregnancies start around 45 to 60 days after your dog’s last estrus cycle, known as heat. They mimic lots of the symptoms of a real pregnancy.
False pregnancies can last from about a week to a month. The symptoms can happen in a dog of any age that still has her ovaries and uterus. Although a false pregnancy can occur after any estrus cycle, they don’t necessarily happen after all of them.
Why Do False Pregnancies Happen?
The normal hormonal changes that occur after every estrus cycle are what cause false pregnancies. Their purpose is to get your dog’s body ready for pregnancy. Occasionally, these changes continue even when a dog isn’t pregnant.
Progesterone levels are high when a dog is ovulating and start to drop about 6 weeks or more later. The decrease in progesterone results in higher levels of another hormone, prolactin. Higher amounts of prolactin lead to the symptoms of false pregnancy.
Spaying your dog too quickly after an estrus cycle can also cause a phantom pregnancy. Some vets suggest waiting 8 to 10 weeks after your dog was last in heat before spaying her. How often your dog goes into heat can depend on the breed. It typically happens between 1 and 3 times a year.
What Are the Symptoms of a False Pregnancy in Dogs?
The symptoms of false pregnancy in a dog are very similar to the physical and behavioral changes that dogs experience during an actual pregnancy. Symptoms become more intense with each estrus cycle.
Symptoms can include some or all of the following:
- Depression and feeling lethargic
- Swollen mammary glands, a reduced appetite, and occasional vomiting
- A swollen belly, fluid retention, and milk production
- Acting as though labor is happening
Your dog may also display nesting behavior. This could involve gathering their toys in a certain place and protecting them there. They may guard the area constantly and carry around a particular toy all the time. Dogs sometimes become aggressive and try to self-nurse during a pseudopregnancy.
How Does a Vet Diagnose a False Pregnancy?
If your dog is showing the signs of a false pregnancy for the first time, you should take her to the vet. They will check the symptoms and your dog’s medical history. They’ll carry out a physical examination. If there’s no chance your dog could be experiencing a real pregnancy, your vet will be able to make a pseudopregnancy diagnosis without any further tests.
If there is a chance your dog could be pregnant, your vet will test her blood for levels of the hormone relaxin to help decide if it’s a true pregnancy. Depending on how far along in the pregnancy she could be, they may also want to carry out an ultrasound or x-ray to see if she is carrying puppies.
You should always see your vet if the symptoms of pseudopregnancy last longer than 8 weeks. They may be symptomatic of hypothyroidism or liver dysfunction that can alter your dog’s hormone levels. This can be serious.
Are False Pregnancies Dangerous?
A typical false pregnancy in a dog is not dangerous. In fact, experts consider pseudopregnancy a relatively standard feature of a female dog’s hormone cycle.
It’s possible this kind of behavior was useful when dogs lived in packs. Pseudopregnancies meant there were females available that didn’t have their own puppies but could still provide protection or even milk to the pack’s puppies.
What Is the Treatment for False Pregnancy in Dogs?
Most dogs won’t need any treatment and the symptoms will simply clear up in a month or so. The most effective long-term treatment is to spay your dog. This happens when your vet surgically removes your dog’s ovaries (and sometimes the uterus as well).
The result is that your dog will no longer experience estrus cycles or false pregnancies. Spaying will also help prevent mammary gland cancer and serious uterine infections.
If your dog experiences a false pregnancy and her mammary glands become swollen and produce milk, it helps to leave them alone and not stroke or bathe them. Failure to do so will simply stimulate them further and cause the symptoms to last longer.
Easing Symptoms of a Pseudopregnancy in Dogs
You could also try to help your dog cope with her behavioral changes by taking away toys and stopping her self-nursing. Cones or Elizabethan Collars can help with this.
Sometimes, medications can relieve symptoms. For instance, diuretics can reduce fluid retention, and tranquilizers can calm anxiety.
There are ways to alter your dog’s hormone levels too. A prescription for cabergoline can lessen the impact of the hormone prolactin on your dog’s body. This can help reduce the symptoms of false pregnancy in a dog. Most vets would normally consider this treatment as being excessive and try out other treatments first.
What is the Recovery Time From a False Pregnancy in Dogs?
Because pseudopregnancy in dogs is due to hormonal changes, your dog should get back to normal within a few weeks.
Unspayed dogs can often experience false pregnancies during every heat cycle. It’s therefore worth repeating that spaying puts an end to the heat cycle and hormonal changes. It will stop future false pregnancies.
Get in Touch With a Vet
If this is the first time your dog is experiencing a pseudopregnancy or if they display symptoms for longer than 8 weeks, then you should contact a vet. If you have any concerns at all get in touch with us straight away. We have a team of highly qualified vets able to offer immediate help and advice.
Check out our blog section for other useful articles. You’ll find our dog pregnancy calculator here.