A false pregnancy usually occurs in an unneutered bitch around 6 to 10 weeks after her last season, or heat, has finished. The signs of a false pregnancy are associated with a hormone called prolactin. This hormone causes a bitch to produce milk, and to behave as if she is pregnant, or has puppies. For this reason, the condition is sometimes also called a "phantom pregnancy".
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Symptoms of a phantom pregnancy
- Depression, irritability or aggression
- Nesting - moving their bedding, digging, changing where they sleep
- Obsessive behaviour with certain toys, guarding toys and carrying one round, or taking it to her bed more than normal
- Loss of appetite
- Enlargement of the mammary glands
- Milk production
- A swollen abdomen (occasional)
Causes of a phantom pregnancy
A phantom pregnancy occasionally occurs after a bitch has a season. After every season, the bitch has hormonal changes which prepare her body for pregnancy, even if she is not pregnant. A possible reason for this is that when dogs lived in a pack, having more female dogs that could nurse the puppies would increase their chance of survival.
What can you do to help your dog?
A phantom pregnancy in a dog typically lasts anywhere from a week to a month. They will often resolve without treatment. Milk will usually dry up quicker if you avoid touching or stimulating the mammary glands.
If your dog produces milk and she is well in herself, try to increase her exercise and decrease her food intake slightly. If there is no improvement after 7-10 days, or she starts to show signs of mastitis (firm/hot and painful mammary gland(s) or blood present), a vet appointment is recommended. Your vet might discuss trialling medication to help stop her false pregnancy. Medication is usually given for 5 to 7 days; occasionally, a prolonged course of treatment is required to completely stop the phantom pregnancy.
Historically, advice was given to take the toys away from bitches that are having a phantom pregnancy. However, this is actually very stressful to the bitch, and is no longer recommended. Dr Sarah Heath, a veterinary behavioural specialist, highlights the need to consider the underlying emotional motivation of care in these cases, and the potentially damaging emotional effect of removing toys.
Supplements are available, which can help your dog with the behavioural changes and associated stress that she may be experiencing. Examples of calming supplements include, Nutracalm, Zylkene, Kalmaid, Adaptil Express tablets (different to the Adaptil Pheromone Collars). Other products include plug-in diffusers and sprays; Adaptil products contain Dog Appeasing Pheromone, whilst Pet Remedy contains a blend of calming essential oils.
Treatment of a phantom pregnancy
Your vet can examine your dog and discuss an ultrasound to rule out a true pregnancy as a cause of her signs. If required, your vet can prescribe medication to stop the phantom pregnancy. It is important to note that having a false pregnancy may increase the risk of mastitis and mammary tumours, as your dog gets older. Your vet may discuss spaying your dog in order to prevent a phantom pregnancy recurring.
How can I prevent my dog from having a phantom pregnancy?
Getting your dog neutered will prevent a phantom pregnancy, because dogs that have been spayed do not have the same hormone changes as unneutered dogs. This involves removing the uterus and ovaries.
When to see your vet
- If your dog is getting anxious or depressed, aggressive or anorexic, she requires a vet appointment.
- If she has hot mammary glands, they are painful, or the discharge does not appear to be milk, she requires a vet appointment.
- If your dog appears unwell after her season, she may have an infected uterus (also called a pyometra) and requires a vet appointment straight away.
Read more here about phantom pregnancies in dogs here.
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