What is phantom pregnancy in dogs?

Dr Sean McCormack is Head Vet at tails.com, having previously worked in clinical practice primarily treating dogs and cats. Alongside bringing his breadth of canine knowledge to our product range, he shares insights on your vet-related questions – this time, it’s phantom pregnancy in dogs.

It’s always a worrying time when our dogs don’t quite seem like themselves. If you’ve landed here, you probably either suspect your dog might be having a phantom pregnancy, or your vet has told you they are, and you’re swotting up on how to help them. So, keep reading to find out more about what it is, the symptoms and treatment.

What is phantom pregnancy in dogs?

Phantom pregnancy, also known as pseudo-pregnancy or false pregnancy, is a condition in female dogs where the body thinks and acts like it’s pregnant due to a hormone imbalance. This happens in unspayed female dogs. Most commonly several weeks to a couple of months after their last season or heat cycle. 

Very rarely you can find signs of phantom pregnancy in spayed female dogs. This usually occurs if she was in a certain phase of her season at the time of spaying, or if some ovarian tissue remains in the abdomen after a spay surgery. 

What are the symptoms?

Phantom pregnancy in dogs results in both behavioural and physical symptoms. These range from nesting behaviour, mothering inanimate objects right through to lactation or milk production. Affected female dogs may become more clingy with their owners, appear restless, anxious or withdrawn, go off hiding or prepare a nest as if they’re about to give birth. They can become possessive of toys and belongings, carrying them to their nest area and gathering them in close as if they’re puppies. 

The mammary glands will enlarge and may even start producing milk, and at times this can result in complications, such as mastitis – inflammation and infection of the mammary glands. An affected dog may lick and even paw at her nipples to stimulate milk to flow. In severe cases, the abdomen may even enlarge. 

What’s the treatment for a dog phantom pregnancy?

Sometimes false pregnancy in dogs resolves of its own accord when the hormones find a balance and start to decrease. In these cases the dog’s behaviour and physical symptoms will return to normal. 

But for many affected dogs, they’ll need medical treatment by a vet in order to stop the phantom pregnancy. Without treatment, they may go on to develop more serious issues. Infections such as mastitis are common, and womb infections also known as pyometra can also result. 

Dogs that have one phantom pregnancy will often go on to have more, potentially after every season for the rest of their life. This can mean they’re more prone to mammary or breast cancer later in life too. 

The immediate medical treatment for phantom pregnancy in dogs is an oral medication called Cabergoline. This comes in liquid form and is given for 1-2 weeks. You’ll also want to remove some of the stimulation to produce milk, so prevent the dog from licking her mammary glands with a bodysuit or buster collar.

Removing the toys or objects she’s decided to ‘mother’ can also help reduce the hormonal drivers of the condition. And finally just distracting her from her nesting area and mothering behaviour will also help. 

The permanent solution to preventing false pregnancies in future, and their associated risks, is to surgically spay or neuter her. This has the added benefit of preventing actual pregnancies and unplanned litters.  

When should you go to your vet?

If your dog has had a season or heat cycle within the last 1-3 months and begins to develop any of the behavioural or physical signs of phantom pregnancy in dogs outlined above, it’s usually fine to wait about 10-14 days to see if it resolves, unless she seems really out of sorts. If it continues beyond this though, or she’s showing more serious symptoms, it’s worth getting her checked by the vet as soon as possible. 

The earlier a phantom pregnancy is detected, the easier it is to treat and the less risk of complications. It’s also important to find out whether your dog is actually pregnant or if it’s a false alarm phantom pregnancy. Your vet can do a blood test, or palpate or scan their abdomen to work this out. 

Read more tips from Head Vet Sean.

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