False pregnancy in dogs, or pseudocyesis, is the term used to describe the physical and behavioral changes in a dog who isn’t pregnant but who acts like she is. The signs of a false pregnancy usually appear between six and 12 weeks after a bitch’s heat cycle. False pregnancies are relatively common in dogs.
From an ethological standpoint, false pregnancies may occur in dogs because of the social structure of the wolf pack. In the wolf pack only the alpha female mates but the other females in the pack need to be able to care for puppies in the pack. They need to be able to assume mothering duties. They experience the same hormonal changes as the alpha female who is having the litter. Our dogs today go through something of the same experience when they have a so-called false pregnancy. They are ready to step in and take over maternal duties even though they haven’t actually mated or had a litter. Even some spayed female dogs display the behavior associated with false pregnancies. The connection to wolf behavior may explain why this condition occurs in dogs but it’s rather rare in cats.
False pregnancies are caused by the hormonal changes that dogs go through whether they are bred or not. The reproductive system of intact dogs goes through these hormonal changes on a regular basis. Hormonal changes, such as the decrease in progesterone and the increase in prolactin, may be responsible for false pregnancies.
For bitches that are spayed during diestrus, when progesterone is at a high level, it is not uncommon to have a false pregnancy.
Bitches who have hypothyroidism can experience blood changes which stimulate the production of prolactin. This can cause symptoms associated with false pregnancy.
False pregnancies don’t interfere with a bitch’s ability to have a real pregnancy or to be bred.
There are numerous symptoms associated with false pregnancy in dogs. Many owners find them either endearing or exasperating.
Your dog may exhibit nesting behavior. She may tear up papers and blankets and try to make a whelping area or den for herself.
Mothering. Your dog may select toys, shoes, socks and other things to be her “puppies.” She can become very upset if you try to take them away from her.
Mammary gland enlargement. Your bitch’s mammary glands may become larger and secrete milk or serous fluid.
Mild signs of illness. Your dog may exhibit signs of weight gain, mucous vaginal discharge and abdominal swelling during her false pregnancy. She may look like she’s pregnant. If she also seems depressed or lethargic it’s a good idea to take her to your veterinarian to make sure she’s all right. You may also want to make sure that she is having a false pregnancy and that she’s not actually pregnant. There have been occasions when people were certain their bitch couldn’t possibly be pregnant and she delivered a litter.
Signs of illness. Watch your dog for definite signs of illness: lack of appetite, lethargy, vomiting, depression; cloudy, bad-smelling vaginal discharge. These are the signs of a uterine infection which is a serious, life-threatening condition.
Diagnosis of False Pregnancy in Dogs
Your veterinarian will be able to diagnose a false pregnancy by giving your bitch a physical examination and talking to you about your bitch’s heat cycle history. He or she will ask you if there is any possibility that your bitch was bred. Again, you do need to be sure on this point. Your vet will do a palpation to feel for the presence of puppies. He or she may also need to do an ultrasound to try to rule out a real pregnancy.
Your vet may need to take x-rays to see if there is a pregnancy or if your bitch is experiencing some other abdominal problem.
Your vet may also suggest blood work for your bitch.
In most cases your bitch will end her false pregnancy in two or three weeks. She will lose interest in her “puppies.” In most cases no specific treatment is recommended unless there is some kind of extreme problem.
You should not stimulate your bitch’s mammary glands. If you stimulate them then it will increase their swelling and stimulate their milk production. They can also become inflamed.
You may wish to decrease your bitch’s food intake during the false pregnancy to help discourage the milk production. You can also limit your bitch’s access to water at night for the same reason. Your veterinarian can prescribe the drug Lasix (given to heart patients and racehorses) to increase urine production. This can also help decrease your bitch’s milk production.
In extreme cases some bitches have been sedated but this is for very extreme cases only.
If your bitch is licking at her mammary glands excessively you should talk to your vet about getting your bitch an Elizabethan collar. You should not place compresses on your bitch’s mammary glands.
False pregnancy in dogs can be frustrating for many owners. Your bitch may behave exactly like she’s pregnant. She may go through “morning sickness.” She may refuse to eat. She may carry her “puppies” around and try to hide them. She may bark at other pets if they dare try to play with one of her “puppies” — how is Sparky to know that the squeaky toy is now a puppy? Your bitch is driven by hormones and instinct to mother something. False pregnancies can be both funny and sad.