Canine False Pregnancy

Kelly Roper
This dog looks pregnant, but is she really?

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.

The Cause

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.
  • 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 actually appear to go into labor and seem as though she is trying to deliver a puppy.

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. Here are a few tips about dealing with both.

Behavioral Issues

  • It's easier to allow your dog to keep her surrogate pups until she tires of them. Taking them away 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.

  • 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 after the conclusion of one of these episodes is the surest way of preventing a recurrence in the future.

Telling the Difference

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 or not 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.

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.

Canine False Pregnancy