A phantom pregnancy is a common condition among unspayed female dogs that develops soon after the dog has been in heat. The condition is also called pseudocyesis, false pregnancy, or pseudopregnancy.
A dog experiencing phantom pregnancy will mimic the behavioral and physical signs of being pregnant and become evident six to nine weeks after being in heat. In most cases, the symptoms are mild and resolve within 2-3 weeks.
Unfortunately, there are instances when the signs are extreme and persist for long requiring medical treatment. Always keep a close eye on your dog because a persistent phantom pregnancy can cause serious health issues such as mammary gland infection and cancers.
Studies indicate that nearly half of all female dogs will experience at least one phantom pregnancy in their lifetimes unless spayed. Breeds prone to this condition include Beagles, Afghans, and Dachshunds.
Symptoms of phantom pregnancy in dogs
Common symptoms of phantom pregnancy in dogs include swollen mammary glands, swollen tummy, nesting behavior, nursing behavior, lethargy & reduced physical activity, reduced appetite, and in severe and extreme cases the dog will experience false labor or a mammary gland infection.
Let’s now have a look at each of the signs of phantom pregnancy.
1. Swollen mammary glands
The most common sign of phantom pregnancy in dogs is the enlargement of the nipples and mammary glands and the areolas becoming somewhat rounded. The nipples may turn slightly darker red, an indication of increased blood flow. Towards the later stages, the nipples may occasionally leak milk.
2. Nesting behavior
A female dog with phantom pregnancy will also display a nesting behavior, a behavioral sign of true pregnancy. The dog will start collecting toys, blankets, and clothes to prepare a nest for her babies – though in this case there are no puppies on the way.
3. Nursing behavior
You may also notice her “mothering” a toy or another item just like she would a puppy. She may become more attached to one particular toy and even become very protective around it. She will become aggressive when you try to take the toy away.
4. Being lethargic
Another symptom of phantom pregnancy in dogs is being lethargic and disinterested in play. She will sleep in her “nest” or other isolated spots for an extended period. Playing with her favorite toys will also become a less-interesting activity.
5. Reduced appetite
Does your dog seem disinterested in her favorite treats or doesn’t seem hungry most of the time? One of the reasons behind this behavioral shift could be a phantom pregnancy, especially if she was recently in heat and never mated. A change in appetite is a result of changes in hormone levels in the dog’s body.
6. Swollen tummy
A swollen tummy is can be a sign of phantom pregnancy in dogs, although it only occurs in extreme cases. If you’re sure your female dog did not mate and you notice that her belly is swollen, you need to seek immediate veterinary assistance. If it’s not phantom pregnancy then it could be something serious including:
- A womb infection such as pyometra
- Bowel issues due to improper digestion
- Heart problems that can lead to fluid accumulation in the belly
- Enlarged internal organs such as the spleen and liver (often due to cancer)
- Bladder stones and tumors
7. Mammary gland infection (mastitis)
Severe cases of phantom pregnancies often cause mastitis, an infection of the mammary glands. Your dog will need medical attention from a vet if this happens.
8. False labor
This happens on rare occasions, especially if you fail to seek medical help for prolonged phantom pregnancy. The dog will experience contractions and go into false labor, tricking you into believing she’s about to have a bunch of puppies.
9. Other signs
Some signs can be hard to tell if they are signs of phantom pregnancy or other health problems. They include periodic vomiting, depression, restlessness, and anxiety. We advise taking your dog to the vet if you notice any of these signs.
What causes phantom pregnancy in dogs
Phantom pregnancy in dogs can be caused by hormonal changes that start soon after the estrus phase of the heat cycle or spaying a dog too soon after being in heat. The change in hormone levels is to prepare a dog’s body for pregnancy regardless of whether she is pregnant or not.
During the second phase of the estrus cycle, called the estrus phase, the levels of the progesterone hormone are high and the dog is ovulating. This is the phase when she’s ready to mate and lasts for about 10 days (it can be longer or shorter in some breeds).
Progesterone levels will peak 3-4 weeks after the estrus phase to prepare the uterus to receive the fetuses and maintain pregnancy. This happens whether or not there was successful mating.
Progesterone levels will then drop 6 weeks later while the prolactin hormone increases. The increase in prolactin hormone is what causes the symptoms of phantom pregnancy if successful mating wasn’t achieved.
Since the dog is not pregnant in this case, the level of prolactin hormones will decline after 4-6 weeks, and that is when the signs of false pregnancy should also disappear.
Spaying a female dog too soon after being in heat can also cause a phantom pregnancy. Spaying involves the removal of ovaries, which changes hormone levels at the wrong time in the dog’s estrus cycle, leading to symptoms of phantom pregnancy. It’s recommended to wait at least 8-10 weeks after a dog is in heat to perform the spay surgery.
Treatments for phantom pregnancy in dogs
Before a veterinarian can decide to treat phantom pregnancy, they will do a few tests to make sure the dog is not pregnant. Since most phantom pregnancy symptoms are mild and can resolve within a few weeks, treatment may not be necessary.
In case the symptoms are severe, such as having mammary gland infection and behavioral problems, the vet may recommend the following treatment options:
Cabergoline is a hormone administered to stop pregnancy hormones from being produced, which helps reduce symptoms of phantom pregnancy such as milk production.
b). Physical exercise
Keeping your dog active and playful will distract her from thinking about the prospect of having puppies. This will help reduce symptoms of phantom pregnancy.
c). Prevent stimulation of the mammary glands
The mammary glands will produce more milk if they are constantly stimulated through constant licking of the nipples. You can use a buster collar or protective body suit to stop your dog from licking herself.
d). Remove any toys she’s ‘mothering’
If she’s displaying nursing behaviors such as “mothering” her toys, it would be best if you took the toys away when she’s not watching.
FAQs about phantom pregnancy in dogs
Let’s have a look at a few frequently asked questions about phantom pregnancy in dogs.
a). How long does a phantom pregnancy last in dogs?
A phantom pregnancy in dogs lasts for 2-3 weeks and in most cases, there is no need for treatments. Phantom pregnancies that last for more than 4 weeks can cause mastitis and other health problems, so you need to take your dog to the vet.
b). Is there a natural treatment for dog false pregnancy?
The best natural treatments for dog false pregnancy include physical exercise, preventing stimulation of the mammary glands, and ensuring your dog is not “mothering” any of her favorite soft toys.
c). How common are phantom pregnancies in dogs?
Phantom pregnancy in dogs is very common with approximately 80% of unspayed female dogs likely to experience at least one false pregnancy in their lifetime. Female dogs that are spayed soon after being in heat can still show signs of a false pregnancy due to sudden hormonal changes resulting from the removal of ovaries.
d). Why does a dog with phantom pregnancy take toys away?
A dog experiencing a phantom pregnancy taking toys away is either a nesting behavior or nursing behavior. She can take toys to build a nest for what she believes to be her soon-to-come puppies or to “mother” the toy like a puppy, i.e. nursing behavior.
e). What can trigger false pregnancy in dogs?
The most common trigger for false pregnancy in dogs is rapid changes in hormone levels. About 6-8 weeks after being in heat, progesterone levels will drop rapidly while the levels of prolactin hormone rise. This makes the dog experience a false pregnancy if successful mating did not happen.
f). Why is my phantom pregnancy dog whining?
A dog with a phantom pregnancy will experience mood or behavioral changes such as aggression, depression, anxiety, restlessness, whining, and being fidgety. In severe cases, she will experience signs of labor – which in this case is false labor.
You can watch this video for more information. Courtesy: Our Pets Health.