Canine False Pregnancy

Pregnant chihuahua dog

A canine false pregnancy can seem like the real thing, yet you don't wind up with a litter of pups. Learn about the signs of a false or "phantom" pregnancy and what causes this condition.

False Pregnancy in Dogs

Have you ever thought your dog was pregnant following her heat cycle even though you were sure she didn't have the opportunity to breed? If so, your dog might have been going through a false pregnancy. A false pregnancy essentially mimics many of the symptoms of a real pregnancy and delivery although there are no embryos involved. False pregnancies are fairly common and typically nothing to worry about, and most owners never even realize their dog is having one unless the condition is prolonged. If you have a female dog that isn't spayed it's likely she'll experience at least one false pregnancy or more during her lifetime because of how the heat cycle works.

What Causes a Dog to Have a False Pregnancy?

It may surprise you to know that every female that cycles actually goes through a period of false pregnancy following her heat. This is easier to understand when the stages of the heat cycle are broken down.

Stages of the Cycle

  • Proestrus - This stage of the reproductive cycle is what most people understand as the typical heat cycle complete with vulva swelling and bloody discharge.
  • Estrus - This is the second stage of the noticeable heat cycle when the color of the discharge lightens, the vulva becomes spongy and the female flirts and allows breeding. At this time, the ovaries release eggs for fertilization.
  • Diestrus - This is the period that immediately follows the end of discharging, typically signally the end of heat.

The Corpus Luteum

When the eggs are released for fertilization, the ovary produces a structure called the corpus luteum. This structure eventually fades away if the female hasn't been bred, but until it does, it produces a hormone known as progesterone that prepares the dog's body to support a pregnancy. It usually takes about 60 to 70 days for the corpus luteum to fade away if no breeding has taken place. However, the structure is able to survive for longer periods in some cases, and this is when a classic false pregnancy is observed.

Signs of Canine False Pregnancy

  • Lactation - The breasts generally swell a bit due to the hormonal changes involved with each stage of a dog's cycle, but a female that is going through an extended false pregnancy may actually begin milk production. You may notice a bit of milk leaking from one or more teats or you may be able to express a little milk manually. This is not recommended because it can stimulate further production and prolong the condition.
  • Discharge - In addition to milk, you may also see water or a discharge that appears like brown-colored water coming from the breasts.
  • Increase in abdominal size - Many people begin to suspect a pregnancy when their dog's abdomen becomes fuller.
  • Nesting behavior - A truly pregnant female eventually begins creating a nest for her upcoming litter, and a dog going through a false pregnancy typically does the same thing. She'll root around her bedding or try to drag it to a quieter location. If your dog normally sleeps on blankets, she'll dig around in them and ruffle them up for her nest.
  • Surrogate mothering - In the most prolonged cases of canine false pregnancy, a dog will adopt toys or other items as her surrogate pups. She'll typically collect her "brood" and keep them with her in her bedding. She may carry them around with her and display anxiety if she is separated from them, just as a real mother would feel anxious about her pups.
  • Mock labor - In the most extreme cases, the female will experience a false labor. She will actually appear to go into labor and seem as though she is trying to deliver a puppy.
  • Behavior changes - In addition to nesting behavior, you may see your dog exhibiting restless, lethargic or depressed behavior. Some dogs may also display aggressive behaviors.
  • Appetite Changes - Dogs having a false pregnancy may lose their appetite. You may also see them vomiting and showing signs of nausea and an upset stomach.

Dealing With a Phantom Pregnancy

In the majority of cases, no medical treatment is required, and the physical symptoms and behaviors simply run their course and fade away. Typically a false pregnancy lasts about three weeks or less. Here are a few tips about dealing with the symptoms.

Behavioral Issues

If your dog has a false pregnancy and you are wondering what to do, keep these tips in mind.

  • It's easier to allow your dog to keep her surrogate pups until she tires of them. Taking away the toys she is treating like a baby will only increase her anxiety needlessly. She will eventually lose interest in them after a few weeks.
  • It sometimes helps to give your dog a change in perspective. Try getting her out of the house for some fresh air and exercise. These initial walks may not last long if your dog is pining to return to her makeshift litter, but you can gradually increase the amount of time you walk her as she begins to get back to being her old self.
  • Don't play into her anxieties and behaviors with excessive attention. You'll only convince her that she actually has something to worry about.
  • Be patient with your dog. She has no control over her instincts and natural inclinations during this time, but your understanding will help relieve some of her anxiety.

Prolonged Physical Symptoms

In a few cases, medical intervention may be necessary to bring the episode to an end. Although a false pregnancy is not potentially dangerous, a prolonged case is uncomfortable for your dog physically and behaviorally.

  • Lactation can be stopped by administering bromocriptine, a medication that inhibits the hormones that trigger milk production.
  • Your vet may also choose to administer a diuretic to end milk production.
  • If a female experiences repeated false pregnancies, spaying her after the conclusion of one of these episodes is the surest way of preventing a recurrence in the future.

Natural Treatments for False Pregnancy

While you should always review your dog's treatment with your veterinarian, owners who like to use homeopathic options can try some interventions with their vet's input. 15c of Pulsatilla (Wind Flower, Boiron) can be given to your dog every two hours during the first 12-hour period. Then give the dose four times a day until your dog is feeling better. You can also give 3C of Urtica (Stinging Nettle) following the same dosing instructions as Pulsatilla. Urtica is thought to help a dog reduce her milk production.

Spaying and False Pregnancy

Spaying a female dog is the best way to prevent false pregnancies. However, it's not unusual for a female dog to have a false pregnancy within several days after being spayed.

Dog False Pregnancy vs. Real Pregnancy

Since a false pregnancy and a real pregnancy appear virtually the same from the outside, you'll need your vet's help in determining whether your dog is really pregnant. The easiest way to do this is to have your vet palpate the uterus around 28 days gestation to see if any embryos can be felt. It's important to know too that a dog can have a false pregnancy after mating, so don't assume your dog's symptoms are an actual pregnancy until a vet has verified it.

A Stressful Time for You and Your Dog

Dealing with a canine false pregnancy can be a little stressful for owner and dog alike, but a little patience and understanding will help you both get through it.

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Canine False Pregnancy