By:Brian C. Hurley, DVM and National Medical Director at AmeriVet Veterinary Partners.
Dog Parents may be unaware that their beloved female pet may experience what is called a “phantom pregnancy.” Phantom pregnancy is also known as a false pregnancy, pseudo-pregnancy, or pseudocyesis.
This condition occurs when intact (not spayed) females start to mimic the physical and behavioral signs of pregnancy and can follow a normal heat cycle.
The exact reason these hormonal changes occur in a non-pregnant dog is unknown. When a healthy, intact female experiences her heat cycle, her ovaries will produce hormones whether the female is pregnant or not. These hormones prepare the uterus to receive the fetuses and maintain the pregnancy. The increase in circulating hormones causes changes that mimic pregnancy. If the female is not pregnant, the hormone concentration drops around four to six weeks later. This decline in hormone levels sends a signal to the body that can sometimes stimulate mammary gland development and could cause possible milk production.
How to tell if your dog is experiencing a phantom pregnancy
Your dog’s behavior is one of the biggest telltale signs that your pup might be experiencing a phantom pregnancy. Your dog may start acting in a nurturing, motherly way. This is showcased when dogs begin moving bedding around to create a safe den for puppies, known as ‘nesting’. Additionally, dogs tend to become more affectionate to their toys and may even act aggressive or protective around them. Remember that if you have a household with small children, it is important to keep contact with your dog limited during this time to minimize the possible risk of an accident occurring.
Also, some dogs will exhibit physical signs such as a swollen belly, weight gain, and enlarged mammary glands that may or may not produce milk. Other signs of phantom pregnancy can include lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, and restlessness – all of which could also be indicative of other medical issues.
How can you help your pet recover?
In general, if you are certain your female dog has not been with an intact male, there is nothing you need to do except let the phantom pregnancy run its course. This can cause anxiety in some dogs, so be sure to give them extra attention and a little TLC (tender-loving care). Things like taking them for extra walks can help to ease their anxiety, and understanding that the behaviors exhibited are natural versus becoming upset with your pet is also helpful.
It is important to not massage or stimulate the release of milk during this time because that will result in further milk production.
Phantom pregnancy symptoms begin to show two months following the heat cycle. Usually, the symptoms will last a few weeks and can range between four to nine weeks before they dissipate; however, symptoms typically tend to resolve naturally within a 2-3 weeks.
When to consult your veterinarian
Pet parents often will visit their vet for reassurance that their intact female dog is not pregnant. Of course, visiting the vet is unnecessary if your pet has not been around intact males and is healthy otherwise. It is important to let your veterinarian know that your dog is exhibiting phantom pregnancy, even if they do not feel you need to bring them in for a visit.
If they feel a visit is warranted, they may recommend additional testing to ensure there are no underlying medical conditions that could result in these kinds of symptoms. If your dog will not be used for breeding, spaying (ovariohysterectomy) is recommended as this will prevent future episodes from occurring. Your veterinarian will recommend the appropriate timing for surgery.
If your pet is lethargic, not eating, restless, inflamed, has painful mammary glands, or is experiencing anxiety, please get in touch with your veterinarian. While not common, your veterinarian may prescribe medications for anxiety, for the reduction of milk production, or for infections.