False Pregnancy in Dogs

Vet and Labrador retriever
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Is your intact female dog showing signs of pregnancy when she has not mated? It might be false pregnancy, a condition that mimics pregnancy in dogs.

What is False Pregnancy in Dogs?

False pregnancy, also called pseudopregnancy, is a common condition of the reproductive system that affects intact (not spayed) female dogs. During false pregnancy, an intact female dog exhibits signs of pregnancy when she is not actually pregnant.

To understand false pregnancy, one must understand some things about the female dog's reproductive system. The heat cycle of a female dog has four stages:

  • Proestrus: This is the start of the heat cycle when the body is preparing to mate. The vulva may swell and there may be a bloody discharge. Hormone changes begin and males will be drawn to the female (but the female will not yet be receptive to mating).
  • Estrus: This is the mating stage. The female emits pheromones that attract males and she becomes receptive to mating. Blood flow from the vulva decreases or stops. Ovulation occurs during this phase.
  • Diestrus: During this stage, hormone changes prepare the body for pregnancy if mating has occurred. If there is no pregnancy, the hormones rebalance and the signs of estrus subside.
  • Anestrus: This is a recovery phase where the reproductive system is inactive. No signs of heat are displayed at this time.

Female dogs naturally experience a hormonal state of pregnancy towards the end of the diestrus stage. These changes prepare the body for pregnancy if she has mated. If she is not truly pregnant, the hormones should taper off within a week or two as the female enters anestrus.

In some cases, the hormonal changes of diestrus cause extreme symptoms or last too long. The female's body acts as if there is a real pregnancy when there is not. The mammary glands swell and lactation may begin. The abdomen may even appear distended. The female may act as if she is about to whelp puppies (or as if she already has had puppies). She may stop eating and begin to exhibit nesting behaviors, such as attempting to "mother" inanimate objects.

The exact cause of false pregnancy is not known and there are no known methods for preventing it from occurring in intact female dogs.

Signs of False Pregnancy in Dogs

  • Swelling of mammary glands
  • Lactation (milk production)
  • Distended abdomen
  • Nesting behavior and "mothering" of objects
  • Not eating
  • Anxiety

False pregnancy often resolves on its own within one to three weeks, even without treatment. Your veterinarian may need to intervene if signs persist or are extreme.

Treatment for False Pregnancy in Dogs

Contact your veterinarian if your female dog is showing signs of false pregnancy. Your vet will likely recommend that you bring your dog in for an exam to make sure she is not actually pregnant. Tests to confirm a pregnancy can be done around two to three weeks after conception. If you are not absolutely certain whether or not your dog has mated, then it's best to bring them to the vet about three weeks after the signs of estrus subside.

If your dog is not pregnant, your vet may recommend watching and waiting for a few weeks to see if the signs go away on their own. It's important not to manipulate the mammary glands in any way during this time period as it can stimulate further lactation.

If the signs of false pregnancy are severe or prolonged, your vet may recommend various treatments. One option is to treat with diuretics in an attempt to dry up the milk she is producing. Or, your vet may administer a hormone that will slow milk production.

Tranquillizers may be recommended if behavioral changes are severe. Other hormones may be used to stop false pregnancy, but each case is unique. You and your veterinarian will work together to decide which treatments are the best for your dog.

Should Your Dog Be Spayed?

Ovariohysterectomy is generally recommended for female dogs not suitable for breeding. However, spaying a dog during false pregnancy is not recommended as it may prolong the false pregnancy. If you decide that you want to have your dog spayed, the surgery should wait until the signs of false pregnancy resolve.