Canine False Pregnancy: What Is It, and Is It Dangerous?

Updated June 24, 2022
Dog lying on the table at the reception at the veterinary clinic

Canine false pregnancy can appear much like the real thing. A dog can develop a large belly, swollen mammary glands and nipples, and display nesting behaviors, all without having been bred or producing offspring. Most phantom pregnancies resolve on their own. However, in rare cases, false pregnancy in dogs can be dangerous, and you may need to intervene. Discover the signs your dog is experiencing a false pregnancy, how you can help treat these symptoms -- naturally or with veterinary assistance -- and when you should seek help.

Is False Pregnancy in Dogs Dangerous?

Have you ever thought your dog was pregnant following their heat cycle, even when you were sure they didn't have the opportunity to breed? If so, your dog might have gone through a false pregnancy. A false pregnancy, sometimes referred to as a pseudo pregnancy or phantom pregnancy, mimics many of the symptoms of a real pregnancy, although there are no embryos involved.

False pregnancies are a natural phenomenon and fairly common; experts estimate that as many as 75 percent of unspayed female dogs will show signs of one in their lifetime. Generally, the symptoms are mild and nothing to worry about. In fact, most owners do not even realize their dog is having one unless the condition is prolonged and does not resolve naturally.

What Causes a Dog to Have a False Pregnancy?

It may surprise many owners to know that every female dog actually goes through a period of hormonal false pregnancy following their heat. This is the result of normal hormonal changes following during a dog's heat cycle, whether or not mating occurred.

Progesterone levels rise during the estrus stage, and when progesterone levels naturally fall after heat, this triggers the production of prolactin. Prolactin is a hormone that is accountable for the physical and behavioral changes owners may notice during false pregnancy. The signs can be very mild and go unnoticed by the dog and/or owner, or may be more obvious or persistent.

Signs of Canine False Pregnancy

Symptoms of false pregnancy are similar to the signs dogs exhibit in early pregnancy. These signs typically last 14 to 21 days and should resolve on their own.

Physical Signs

  • Mammary swelling - A dog's mammary glands and nipples can become enlarged during false pregnancy.
  • Lactation - You may notice a bit of milk leaking from one or more nipples, or you may be able to express a little milk manually. However, this is not recommended because it can stimulate further production and prolong the condition.
  • Increase in abdominal size - Many people begin to suspect a pregnancy when their dog's abdomen becomes fuller, though during false pregnancy it is a result of fluid retention rather than growing fetuses.
  • Discharge - It's not uncommon to notice some mucoid vaginal discharge in cases of false pregnancy. However, if the discharge is pus-like or foul smelling, it could indicate a serious heat cycle complication.

Behavioral Changes

  • 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. They will root around their bedding or try to drag it to a quieter location. If your dog normally sleeps on blankets, they may dig around in them and ruffle them up for a nest.
  • Surrogate mothering - In the most prolonged cases of canine false pregnancy, a dog will adopt toys or other items as their surrogate pups. They may carry them around and display anxiety when separated from them, just as a real mother would feel anxious about their own pups.
  • Changes in demeanor - In addition to nesting behavior, you may see your dog exhibit restless, lethargic, or depressed behavior. Some dogs may also display aggressive behaviors.
  • Self-nursing - Due to the discomfort of mammary swelling, dogs in false pregnancy may begin licking their own nipples.
  • Low appetite - Dogs having a false pregnancy may lose their appetite and some may even become nauseous and vomit.
French bulldog with her teddy bear on bed

Dog False Pregnancy vs. Real Pregnancy

Considering a false pregnancy and a real pregnancy appear virtually the same from the outside, it can be very challenging to know which your dog is experiencing. Some dogs can appear so genuinely pregnant that even experienced breeders may think they're expecting a litter. You will need your vet's help in determining whether your dog is truly pregnant.

The easiest way to do this is to have your vet palpate the uterus around 28 days of gestation to see if any embryos can be felt. They can also perform an ultrasound to detect their heartbeats, though the puppies' bones won't be mineralized enough to show up on an X-ray until after day 55. It's important to know that a dog can have a false pregnancy even after mating, so don't assume your dog's symptoms are an actual pregnancy until a vet has verified it.

Veterinarian doing ultrasound

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 within three weeks or fewer. These tips can help you and your dog deal with the symptoms of false pregnancy.

  • You may feel inclined to allow your dog to keep the toys they have adopted as surrogate "puppies." However, some experts suggest removing these items unless it causes them significant stress. Keeping your dog from nesting with their toys can help minimize the duration of their false pregnancy.
  • Take your dog out of the house for walks and play sessions to offer a change in perspective and help distract them.
  • Avoid massaging or using a cold or warm compress on their mammary glands, as this can stimulate milk production.
  • If your dog is self-nursing, you can place a cone on them to prevent licking.
  • Be patient with your dog. They have no control over their instincts and natural inclinations during this time, but your understanding will help relieve some of their anxiety.

False Pregnancy Complications

Although a normal false pregnancy is not dangerous, a prolonged case can be uncomfortable for your dog or could indicate a medical problem. In some cases, medical intervention may be necessary to bring a pseudo pregnancy episode to an end. See your veterinarian if your dog's symptoms last longer than 21 days, they appear very painful, or they become extremely aggressive.

Your vet may recommend administration of a diuretic to address water retention or slow milk production, and in extreme cases, synthetic hormones may be necessary. Mastitis can occasionally occur from milk production.

Veterinarian shows metastases mastitis on the chest of an animal

Some disorders, including hypothyroidism, can result in extended false pregnancy symptoms. It's important to test for these diseases if your dog experiences a false pregnancy that lasts longer than usual (generally more than eight weeks).

Natural Remedies for False Pregnancy

Owners who like to use homeopathic options may wish to try other interventions with their vet's input. Experts report that several homeopathic agents, including Pulsatilla 15C (Wind Flower, Boiron) and Urtica 3C (Stinging Nettle) can be used for false pregnancy in dogs. Always confirm with your veterinarian before beginning a new supplement and follow appropriate dosing information.

Preventing False Pregnancy

Spaying a female dog is the best way to prevent false pregnancies or any other reproductive-hormone related complications, including pyometra. If your dog does show signs of pregnancy without the possibility of mating, it's possible they could be experiencing a phantom or false pregnancy. Closely monitor the nature and duration of their symptoms to prevent complications. With a little patience and understanding of this natural dog condition, you will both get through it.

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Canine False Pregnancy: What Is It, and Is It Dangerous?