Phantom pregnancy in dogs is very common. Symptoms can range from mothering behaviour and milk production to vomiting and abdominal contractions. Most phantom pregnancies are mild and resolve within a few weeks.
Phantom pregnancy is a phenomenon where a female dog experiences symptoms of pregnancy without being pregnant. This is also known as a false pregnancy or pseudopregnancy. It affects female dogs that haven’t been neutered, regardless of age or breed.
What is phantom pregnancy in dogs?
- The reproductive cycle of a bitch includes different stages and repeats itself on average every 5-10 months. This can vary between individuals and breeds.
- Being “in season” or “heat” is the stage of the cycle when they bleed.
- All bitches produce pregnancy hormones after being in heat, even if not pregnant or mated.
- Phantom pregnancy in dogs is caused by a normal hormonal change that occurs 6-8 weeks after they finish their bleeding season. Symptoms should resolve within 2-3 weeks.
- Most bitches are not affected by these hormonal changes, but for those who suffer from phantom pregnancy, the hormone changes trick their bodies into thinking they are pregnant and about to give birth.
- The reason why these biological processes occur in a non-pregnant dog remains a mystery.
What are the signs of phantom pregnancy in dogs?
The most common signs are:
- Teat (mammary glands) enlargement
- Milk production (lactation)
- Collecting and mothering of objects
- Nesting behaviour
But your dog can also show:
- Weight gain
- Swollen tummy
- Abdominal contractions
- Changes in activity levels (increased or decreased)
- Reduced appetite
- Anxiety and nervousness
Are there some dogs at higher risk of phantom pregnancy?
There is no age or breed predisposition.
Bitches that have had a phantom pregnancy once are very likely to have it again.
Frequent phantom pregnancies can increase the risk of mastitis, womb infection (called pyometra), mammary tumours, and unwanted behaviours being learned (such as anxiety, destruction, and aggression).
If your dog has phantom pregnancies and you do not intend to mate with her, having her spayed is advisable to reduce these risks.
How is a phantom pregnancy in dogs diagnosed?
False pregnancies are diagnosed by:
- Taking your dog’s history of recent seasons and any matings
- Examining your dog for abdominal swelling, teat enlargement, and milk production (lactation)
On some occasions, your vet may need to do:
- Radiographs (x-rays)
- Ultrasound scan
- Blood test
- Urine test
What is the treatment for phantom pregnancy in dogs?
It is always important to confirm the diagnosis with a vet.
Phantom pregnancies usually resolve in 2-3 weeks without any treatment.
Following the diagnosis, the vet might recommend one of the options:
- Home and behaviour modification
- Treatment with medication
Home and behaviour modification
It is vital that you monitor your dog closely with the guidance of a vet, as the signs can change and require further intervention.
The conservative treatment includes:
- Removing the mothered objects
- Preventing teat stimulation
Check the home treatment section for more detailed information.
Treatment with medication
Cabergoline is a medication that treats the hormone responsible for the signs of pseudopregnancy.
Anti-anxiety medication is recommended in cases where anxious, destructive, or aggressive behaviours are present.
Spaying is a permanent solution that will prevent future episodes of phantom pregnancy. However, a dog should not be spayed during a phantom pregnancy, as this can cause the symptoms to persist.
It’s usually advisable to wait 8-10 weeks after your dog’s season to perform the surgery.
What can you do at home to help your dog with phantom pregnancy?
If your dog is showing mild symptoms of phantom pregnancy, you can help them with home and behaviour modification:
- Increase exercise by walking several times a day
- Increase playtime
- Provide mental stimulation games
You can distract your dog from mothering by providing them with lots of exercise, play, and mental stimulation games.
Exercise and play help with distraction but also spend energy that is then not used to produce milk.
Removing the mothered objects
Gently do this by distracting her with a game or a toy.
This is especially important if your bitch is showing nervous or aggressive behaviour when approached while she is in her nest with her toys. If this is the case, it is advisable to only remove toys or blankets while she is out on a walk.
Do not punish your dog for mothering.
Preventing teat stimulation
Your dog may be licking her nipples. This will increase milk production, may cause irritation, and even mastitis. If your dog is licking, try to stop them by using a body suit or a buster collar.
How to prevent phantom pregnancies in dogs
Phantom pregnancy is a hormonal change that cannot be controlled.
The only way to prevent it is to spay your dog.
Talk to your vet if you are worried.
When to worry
When should you worry about phantom pregnancy in dogs?
Call your vet if your dog shows any of these signs:
- Aggressive behaviour
- Losing weight
- Symptoms are not resolving after 3 weeks
Joii can help with:
- Identifying the signs of phantom pregnancy
- Treating mild signs of the disease
- Identifying when a physical vet assessment is necessary