The prospect of a whole litter of pups can be a wonderful thought, however the idea of your dog being unexpectedly pregnant is more likely to elicit feelings of alarm, worry and confusion. Even more so if you’re pretty certain your dog hasn’t had any opportunity to get pregnant!
Fear not – it’s highly likely that your dog is experiencing a phantom (false) pregnancy, which will be even more confusing for your poor pooch than it is for you! A false pregnancy is when your dog experiences all the symptoms of pregnancy, both physical and behavioural signs, with no litter of pups as the end result.
More formally referred to as pseudocyesis, phantom pregnancies are a surprisingly common phenomenon that many unspayed female dogs will encounter in their lifetime. If you’ve got a female dog that’s recently come out of heat, get prepared for them to start mimicking pregnancy in both physical and behavioural ways.
Even though your dog will appear pregnant, you’ll probably be relieved to hear that there isn’t a litter of pups on the way. It’ll also save you the confusion and questioning of pondering how your pooch got pregnant in the first place!
Typically, your dog will start to exhibit the signs of a phantom pregnancy around 4-9 weeks after their season. Although it can give you the shock of your life to find that your dog is seemingly pregnant out of nowhere, it’s reported that around half of the female canine population will experience a phantom pregnancy in their lifetime, unless they’re spayed of course.
Phantom pregnancies are quite a mystery, the exact reason that they happen is unknown. The phenomenon is the annoying aftermath of the dog’s typical hormone cycle, occurring after she’s been in season.
Once her season has finished, the ovaries automatically start releasing the hormones that prepare the body for the changes that pregnancy will bring, even if she hasn’t mated with a male dog. This prolonged production of the pregnancy hormone, progesterone, lasts several weeks. As these levels of progesterone decrease, another hormone called prolactin starts to rise. These all prepare your dog for pregnancy and trigger the symptoms. However, if she isn’t actually pregnant, the hormones are still produced and make the dog think she’s preparing for a litter of pups.
Another common theory stems from the ancestry of the canine population. Way, way back, dogs used to live as pack animals in the wild, and it’s believed that all the female dogs in the pack would chip in to help raise the litter of pups from another pair in the pack. Consequently, dogs may still hold on to this nurturing instinct nowadays. Although, this is all just theories and ideas, so there’s no concrete evidence behind this.
There’s no definite age at which your female dog will have her first season, it ranges drastically from dog to dog. Puberty can hit some at only 5 months, whereas some larger breed dogs may not encounter their first season until they’re 18 months old. Unless you decide to spay your dog, she’ll come into heat every 6-12 months. And unfortunately, they might experience a phantom pregnancy with each cycle. We've got a full post where you can read more about what to expect when your dog comes into season so you're prepared.
Phantom pregnancies present themselves through a variety of symptoms, and these can be exhibited as either physical signs or behavioural changes.
Physical signs you might notice include:
Enlarged mammary glands
Vomiting (morning sickness)
Contractions and false labour (this is rare, only the really unlucky pups experience this)
False pregnancies are a truly strange phenomenon, and it’s no surprise as to why they can fool pooches and parents alike into thinking they’ll be welcoming some new additions into the house. The physical signs are almost identical to a real pregnancy.
A study investigated the physical signs behind phantom pregnancies, and it was found that the most commonly reported physical sign was enlarged mammary glands and/or milk production, with 89% of dogs studied reporting this symptom. Some of the symptoms, such as vomiting and lethargy are non-specific and could be indicative of other problems so it’s important to get it checked out.
On the other hand, here’s some of the behavioural signs to look out for:
Collecting items (socks, shoes, toys) and acting like they’re her puppies
Aggression and possessiveness around the items she’s collected
Unable to settle down
Excessively grooming herself (licking)
Nesting behaviours to create a den, including digging at, ripping and moving bedding around
Nesting is one of the most common behavioural signs, alongside collecting random items around the house and pretending that it’s one of her puppies. It’s totally natural behaviour, even though it may look a bit weird to you as an onlooker. Essentially, your dog is just starting to act in a maternal way, and nesting is just her creating a safe, secure environment, both for her to ‘give birth’ and for her non-existent puppies to sleep in.
The symptoms your dog can go through are quite vast, so one dog may experience a completely different set of symptoms to another. Also, the severity and symptom set could completely differ from one season to the next.
Luckily, this strange change in your pooch should clear up all on its own, leaving no evidence behind that it ever happened at all (except leaving you super relieved, or even disappointed, that a litter of pups isn’t coming). Usually, it completely stops anytime between 1-4 weeks.
If during your dog’s season they haven’t (to your knowledge) had any contact with an intact male, you’d definitely be shocked to see these pregnancy symptoms if you weren’t aware of the possibilities of phantom pregnancies. Although, if you do know what they are, and you’re 100% certain they’ve not had the opportunity to mate, you can make a good assumption that it’s a phantom pregnancy.
However, the only way to tell for sure is by going to the vets. Luckily, there are multiple tests the vet can perform to detect whether your dog is expecting or if their body is just pretending, we’ve got a full post all about everything you need to know about dog pregnancy here, if you want to know more.
It’s always a good idea to get your pooch checked out at the vets anyway, just to make sure it’s not the real deal. More importantly, if your dog is only experiencing nonspecific symptoms, such as vomiting and lethargy, you should get them checked out anyway. A very severe illness to the womb, called pyometra, can sometimes be confused with a false pregnancy, so it’s always best to consult the vet.
No, treatment is rarely ever necessary to solve phantom pregnancies. Typically, your dog’s hormones will return to their normal balance after a few weeks, medication will only be prescribed for dogs having serious trouble.
Anxiety medication is sometimes considered, alongside diuretics, which help to reduce the production of milk and fluid retention. Hormonal therapy is occasionally given to some dogs to sort out the imbalance and ease the symptoms, although this is pretty rare.
Side effects of all these medications often outweigh the benefits, so it’s only really prescribed if the ‘pregnancy’ has gone on for a while and symptoms are severe. It’s more than likely the vet will diagnose your dog with a phantom pregnancy and just decide to ‘wait and see’ how she gets on.
As we know, a common symptom of phantom pregnancies is unnecessary milk production, which can be frustrating for both you and your dog. However, it’s likely that your dog will excessively lick her mammary glands, which only further stimulates the production of milk.
To help, you must get your dog to stop licking herself, which can only really be done if you put the dreaded cone round her neck. Just to warn you, she definitely won’t be your friend if you do this! Another option is to make her wear a t-shirt at all times so she doesn’t have access, and also make sure you don’t stroke her around this area either.
There isn’t much you can do in the event of a phantom pregnancy, other than give your dog a bit of sympathy. This is a confusing time for the both of you, even more so for your poor pup. Be around for cuddles if she seems extra clingy (easy job), or give her space if that’s what she desires.
As she’ll probably be pinching your possessions, such as your shoes and socks, try and cut her some slack even though it’s irritating. She’s not being naughty; she thinks they’re her puppies! Some dogs may feel the benefit of extra exercise and brain games as they might help to take her mind off her symptoms and reduce the restlessness.
Fortunately, your dog should be back to their normal self shortly, you’ll both just have to cope with some weirdness for a little while. Despite this, there are a few problems that may arise following a phantom pregnancy. Problems usually don’t go much further than an infection of the mammary glands and the skin being inflamed around this area. If you spot any redness, swelling or irritation, contact the vet to get the problem fixed promptly.
After one phantom pregnancy, it’s highly likely that your dog will be faced with another when they have more seasons in the future. They won’t strictly occur every time your dog has a cycle however, it doesn’t follow a set pattern. False pregnancies can impact any breed of dog at any age.
Realistically, there’s only one way to prevent your dog from having a phantom pregnancy, and that’s to get her spayed. Spaying is recommended by vets, having other benefits such as reducing the risks of pyometra, womb infections and reducing the risk of cancers relating to the reproductive organs.
We’ve got a full post all about spaying and neutering your dog if you're looking for further information and guidance. However, always speak to your vet about spaying to see if it’s the best option for you and your four-legged friend.
Although phantom pregnancies are a really strange phenomenon, and probably a very alarming one, take comfort in the fact that they’re incredibly common. An unplanned pregnancy can cause quite the stir, so by the end of it, you’ll probably be incredibly relieved that you’ve not got a dozen newborn puppies to looks after!
Written by: Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS
Andy graduated from Bristol University in 2010 and sees nutrition as a foundation for our pet's wellbeing and takes a common-sense approach. We are what we eat, and it shouldn't be any different for our pets.