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Stella, a breeder’s Yorkshire Terrier, spends most of her time in a cozy nest of newspapers and towels she built herself, nursing and fussing over her newborn litter of five puppies.
But the puppies are actually socks and stuffed animals. Stella never gave birth.
Should Stella’s owner rush her to a pooch psychologist? Not necessarily. False or phantom pregnancy (also called pseudocyesis) occurs in an estimated 60 percent of female dogs that have not been spayed.
What are the Symptoms of a False Pregnancy?
An unspayed female dog can experience false pregnancy symptoms that last for weeks, according to the Mar Vista Animal Medical Center website. The symptoms first start appearing 60 to 80 days after the dog’s last heat (estrus) cycle.
These are some of the signs:
Nesting – Your dog may pace the house, gathering blankets and shredding paper to create a comfortable place to have puppies.
Mothering inanimate objects – Your dog may treat stuffed animals, socks and other inanimate objects as if they were puppies.
Enlarged nipples and lactation – Your dog’s mammary glands may become engorged, and she even may produce milk.
Extended abdomen – Your dog’s stomach area may swell and she may gain weight.
Your dog may seem to go into labor.
What Causes a False Pregnancy?
False pregnancy is a natural phenomenon that dates back to when dogs lived in packs, according to D for Dog. Although all the females in the pack would come into heat at the same time, only the alpha (dominant) female would mate. “The alpha female’s pups would be cared for and suckled by the rest of the females in the pack,” writes the website. “Pseudopregnancy (phantom pregnancy) made this possible, as all the other bitches would have milk to give to the alpha female’s offspring.”
A state of false pregnancy is actually normal for dogs, writes Mike Richards, DVM, on vetinfo.com, because of the sustained production of progesterone when they go into heat. This means that with each heat a dog is hormonally pregnant, regardless of whether she is actually pregnant; in other words, her body will feel to her as if she is pregnant, although there really are no puppies. Unlike other mammals (and primates) that have a monthly cycle, dogs only go into heat every six to eight months, which extends the production of progesterone. False pregnancy occurs when a dog’s progesterone level does not return to its normal level after her heat cycle.
The symptoms usually disappear when the dog’s hormones return to their normal levels. Some dogs may experience a false pregnancy with every heat. Dogs that have whelped (given birth) are more likely to experience this phenomenon than those who haven’t.
Although false pregnancies occur most often in unspayed females, petplace.com reports that dogs that were spayed when their progesterone level was high during their heat cycle can have false pregnancies. Spayed dogs that have hypothyroidism may also have false pregnancies due to blood changes that stimulate progesterone.
How is a False Pregnancy Diagnosed?
Your vet will check for puppies by feeling your dog’s abdomen and, if necessary, also taking an X-ray or ultrasound.
“It is usually possible to feel distinct lumps in the uterus representing individual embryos from about the 28th to the 35th day of pregnancy,” he writes. “Before and after that it can be hard to identify a pregnant uterus easily. After 45 days or so, when the skeletons begin to calcify, it is often possible to feel the distinct hardness of a puppy skull when palpating the abdomen, or to identify the puppies in an X-ray. By now, if your dog is not pregnant, your vet will probably be able to tell you that, since she should be pretty far into the pregnancy and at least uterine enlargement should be palpable.”
Your dog should also be examined to rule out pyrometra, a serious hormonal abnormality affecting unspayed dogs. As with a false pregnancy, pyrometra also can occur after your dog’s heat cycle. Its symptoms include drainage from the vulva, increased drinking and urinating, lack of appetite and/or lethargy.
How is a False Pregnancy Treated?
While a false pregnancy can be somewhat of a nuisance, it generally does not cause long-term problems. The symptoms normally disappear on their own after a few weeks.
“It is not usually necessary to treat for symptoms of false pregnancy, but they can be so close to those of a real pregnancy that the two can be very confusing,” Richards writes. He notes that while there are medications available that suppress the symptoms, he does not recommend them since the symptoms will typically return once the medications are discontinued. He said he did not know of a safe and effective way to limit milk production and other false pregnancy symptoms.
“It is not an emergency situation,” he writes. “There are medications to suppress the symptoms of false pregnancy but there tends to be a rebounding of signs once the medications are discontinued, so I favor not treating this condition if possible. If milk production causes discomfort, an analgesic such as aspirin may be helpful. ”
Mar Vista Animal Medical Center also notes that touching the mammary glands will stimulate milk production, so you should avoid applying warm compresses or wrapping them to prevent leakage. If necessary, your dog may need to wear an Elizabethan collar to prevent her from licking herself. In extreme cases a diuretic can be prescribed to end the lactation. Mar Vista warns not to deprive your dog of water, since it could be potentially dangerous.
How Can I Prevent a False Pregnancy?
Of course the best way to prevent a false pregnancy – as well as more serious problems like breast cancer and pyrometra – is to spay your dog. Although it may seem like a good idea to spay your dog while she is experiencing a false pregnancy in order to stop the symptoms, you should wait until the symptoms have disappeared. Although spaying removes the ovaries, according to Mar Vista Animal Medical Center it does not stop the production of prolactin from the pituitary gland, so spaying at this time could extend the false pregnancy.
Find A Vet HOW TO articles are intended for informational purposes only. You should always consult with your veterinarian about any health issues affecting your dog.
Has your dog ever experienced a false pregnancy? Tell us about it in the Comments section below.