False Pregnancy in Dogs: A Complete Guide to Dog Phantom Pregnancies

false pregnancy in dogs

False pregnancy in dogs is a serious condition. Find out the signs and symptoms of dog phantom pregnancies, how long they last, and how to help.

Your female dog could show signs of pregnancy – even though she’s not! This condition, also called phantom pregnancy or pseudopregnancy, is quite common in dogs.

In this complete guide to phantom pregnancy in dogs, we’ll tell you all you need to know about this condition. Also how to help her get through it in a safe and healthy way.

You can use the following links to quickly get the answer to your most pressing question.

What Is False Pregnancy in Dogs?

A phantom pregnancy occurs in mammals when they show the signs of pregnancy but are in fact not pregnant.

Humans and other animals also experience false pregnancies but they are rare compared to phantom pregnancies in dogs. It is to do with hormonal differences between species.

Scientists believe that pseudopregnancies in canines had an evolutionary function. That it allowed primitive she-wolves to nurse the offspring of other females in the pack.
phantom pregnancy in dogs

So let’s have a closer look at false pregnancies in dogs.

Why do dogs have phantom pregnancies?

Reproduction is driven by hormones and false pregnancy in dogs is thought to be caused by their unique reproductive pattern. But the exact reason for this not fully understood.

Pseudopregnancy in dogs usually occurs from 6 to 12 weeks after the female dog was in “heat” (estrus).

The various symptoms are caused by levels of the hormones progesterone and prolactin. Prolactin, for example, is the hormone that stimulates milk production.

False pregnancy can also be caused by exposure to and subsequent withdrawal from progesterone, the hormone that regulates ovulation and menstruation.

Furthermore, pseudopregnancy in dogs seems to be influenced by factors in the environment, nutrition and breed. The age of the dog and number of times she has given birth also affects her likelihood of developing this condition.

So what are the chances that your dog will develop a pseudopregnancy?

How common is false pregnancy in dogs?

Scientists have estimated that around 50% of dogs who haven’t been spayed will develop a pseudopregnancy during their lifetime. Sometimes it can be as high as 75%, particularly in some breeds – including Afghan hounds, Beagles and Dachshunds.

Once your dog has had a phantom pregnancy, the chances of it happening again after future estrus cycles are also increased. There are dogs that experience a false pregnancy after every season if they weren’t successfully mated.

Some vets even believe that most female dogs will show some signs of a false pregnancy after every estrus cycle. These signs are often so mild that they go undetected.

However, these undiagnosed false pregnancies could also be a reason behind behavioral problems, including aggression. This might even result in some dogs being rehomed or euthanised unnecessarily.

So what the signs of false pregnancy in dogs? They can vary a lot from dog to dog and from season to season.
false pregnancy in dogs

Behavioral signs of false pregnancy in dogs

Changes in behavior are usually the first signs of a phantom pregnancy in dogs. Because the dog is confused about what’s happening to her body, the first signs are usually restlessness and possibly anxiety.

Root and others recently published a landmark survey among vets about phantom pregnancy in dogs. They confirmed that changes in behavior were often the only sign of a phantom pregnancy. Ninety-six percent of the vets reported that they had seen pseudopregnant dogs that showed only behavioral signs.

The most common sign, seen in 96% of cases, was for the dog to collect and mother objects – like a soft toy. This was followed by the dog being less active and displaying nesting behavior – preparing the place to have her pups, just like pregnant dogs do.

Most of the vets reported that they had seen aggressive behavior in dogs with phantom pregnancies. The reason for this is most probably to defend their den.

When physical symptoms of a pseudopregnancy develop, this usually happens a bit later.

The physical symptoms of false pregnancy in dogs

The most common physical symptom you’ll notice is that your dog’s nipples become darker and that her mammary glands become enlarged. This is in response to the high levels of prolactin.

There might be a clear or brownish discharge from the mammary glands and later they can begin producing milk. Dogs often start licking their mammary glands and this stimulates further milk production.

Other physical signs could include loss of appetite and vomiting. Some dogs lose weight, while others could gain. Weight gain is often caused by fluid retention and the dog can develop a swollen, bloated belly.

A mucous discharge from the vagina is also not uncommon. Some dogs could even have contractions similar to those seen in labour

So how long does a phantom/false pregnancy in dogs last?

Duration of a pseudopregnancy in dogs

The signs and symptoms of false pregnancy in dogs usually run their own natural course.  They normally subside in two to three weeks without needing treatment.

The duration can however be influenced by factors like the dog’s overall health, the extent of the hormonal imbalance, and the dog’s breed.

You should have your dog checked by a vet if the condition carries on for longer than four weeks. Or if any of the above mentioned symptoms become severe.

false pregnancy in dogs
Your dog may need treatment to prevent complications. Or she might actually be pregnant or suffer from another condition with similar symptoms.

Complications of False Pregnancy in Dogs

When your dog has a phantom pregnancy she isn’t at high risk of developing complications.

The two complications that occur most often are infection of the mammary glands or irritation and inflammation of the skin around the glands. These conditions could make your dog quite ill and need to be treated by your vet.

Frequent pseudo pregnancies could also increase your dog’s chances of developing pyometra, infection in the uterus, and tumors in her mammary glands.

However, signs similar to a pseudopregnancy are also seen in some serious conditions. These include an inactive thyroid gland, benign tumors of the pituitary gland in the brain, and pyometra.

Other symptoms of pyometra are lethargy, vomiting and a foul smelling discharge from the vagina. So if your dog has any of these symptoms as well you should definitely take her to the vet.

The signs that look like a pregnancy might, of course, also mean that your dog is actually pregnant.

False Pregnancy vs Real Pregnancy

It can be difficult to tell a phantom pregnancy in dogs from a real pregnancy.

So unless you’re 100% certain that there was no chance that your dog could have mated you might want to make sure that she isn’t pregnant.

This will require a visit to the vet. An ultrasound can confirm or rule out pregnancy by time symptoms of a false pregnancy in dogs show up around 6 weeks after the estrus cycle.

If your dog is not pregnant the vet will also examine her to rule out any of the other conditions that could cause breast development and milk production.

When a real pregnancy, or any other condition, has been ruled out you’re probably asking: “My dog is having a phantom pregnancy, what do i do?”

How to treat false pregnancy in dogs

A pseudo pregnancy in dogs is usually self-limiting. Most cases are mild and don’t need treatment.

The one thing that vets do recommend is to stop your dog from licking her mammary glands. You should also avoid brushing and touching this area.

This stimulates more milk production which can make condition last longer. It also increases her chances of getting an infection.

You can use an Elizabethan collar to stop her from licking, or even a t-shirt.

Some vets suggest that milk production can be reduced by removing her water overnight to limit her fluid intake. However, it’s best to do so only under the instruction of a vet.

You should ask your vet if the signs of the false pregnancy become worrying or if she appears ill. Also if the symptoms last longer than four weeks.

What Your Vet Can Do

The study by Root et Al found that, on average, 52% of cases of phantom pregnancy in dogs seen by vets were not treated.

The current treatment of choice, used by vets far more than any other, is Cabergoline. This medication reduces prolactin and stops milk production. It is long-lasting and has very few side effects.

It is usually given for 5-10 days but the length of the treatment varies from dog to dog.

In the past pseudopregnancies were often treated with hormones, including estrogens, progestrogens and androgens. But, their benefits generally outweigh their many side effects. For example, progestins can actually cause pyometra.

Your dog’s vet might also prescribe mild sedatives to reduce anxiety or aggression. Sometimes diuretics are given to both reduce milk production and relieve fluid retention.

Now you might be wondering whether there is a way to prevent a false pregnancy from happening in the first place – particularly if your pet goes through this often.

How to stop pseudopregnancy in dogs

The only, and permanent, way to prevent phantom pregnancy in dogs is by having them spayed. This is the best solution unless, of course, you intend to breed with your dog.

When her ovaries are removed she no longer experiences estrus cycles or the hormonal cascade that causes phantom pregnancies.

You might have heard of spayed dogs having a false pregnancy – and this does happen. But only if she is spayed while she is experiencing a pseudopregnancy or still feeding her pups.

Can A Spayed Dog Have A False Pregnancy?

Root et al reported that 49% of the vets in their survey reported that they had seen pseudopregnancy in spayed dogs.

This happens if they’re spayed while they still have symptoms of a false pregnancy. The cause is related to the interruption of the normal hormonal cycle by the operation.

The symptoms could become more apparent and even persistent after spaying – especially in dogs that often had false pregnancies.

The main sign is usually enlarged mammary glands and milk production. Root et al also believe that a pseudopregnancy might even be the reason why some owners report that their dogs are more aggressive after being spayed.

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This is why your vet will recommend that your dog should only be spayed once she no longer has any of the symptoms of a false pregnancy.

Is Your Dog going through a False Pregnancy? - Useful advice from TheLabradorSite.com

False pregnancy in dogs – a summary

If you think your dog may be suffering from a false pregnancy, don’t panic!

Taking some minor actions can help make her more comfortable and symptoms will often subside on their own without treatment.

If your dog experiences severe symptoms or multiple episodes, it’s best to speak to your vet.

The only sure way to prevent a false pregnancy is by getting your dog spayed.

Has your dog had a false pregnancy? What did you do? Please share your experiences in the comments section below.

This article has been extensively revised and updated for 2019.

References and Further Reading

  • Gobello, C. et al. 2001. A review of Canine Pseudocyesis. Reproduction in Domestic Animals.
  • Pet MD. False pregnancy in female dogs. PetMD.
  • Root, A.L. et al. 2018). Canine pseudopregnancy: an evaluation of prevalence and current treatment protocols in the UK. BMC Veterinary Research.
  • Thangamani, A. et al. 2018. Canine Pseudopregnancy: a review. Journal of Veterinary science and technology.
  • Ward, E. 2009. False pregnancy or pseudopregnancy in dogs. VCA hospitals.

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She is also the founder of the Gundog Trust and the Dogsnet Online Training Program 

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  1. My spayed Cross Terrier is now 16 years old and has had fantom pregnancies, roughly ever 8 months, for the last 5 years.

    Many years ago, I also had a spayed pedigree Staffordshire Bull Terrier who had phantom pregnancies every six months, for many years.

    Neither dog was given treatment by the vet, but we managed, and still do manage them fine.

  2. My dog has just had a second false pregnancy and this one was very distressing for her. The first one she just seemed to carry one toy around for a few days but this time round she had extreme symptoms, even false labouring and producing milk. She nested lots of her toys keeping only the squeaky ones and buried her stuffed ones in the garden, I’m assuming because they did not respond when nudged. She was treated with hormones as her weight plummeted due to not eating. A very scary time. I was told to let her keep the babies initially by the first vet I saw in practice but, after speaking to another vet I began removing them one by one as she constantly mothered them, Licking/bathing, carrying them about in her mouth amongst other mothering and it seemed to keep her anxious and distressed.She was an amazing mum to her pseudo litter i have decided to let her litter next time ahead of getting her spayed.

  3. My dog was diagnosed with a false pregnancy and a small amount of milk i thought it hd passed cause she is still eating drinking and going for her walks and still plays with me and her toys but her behaviour has changed she will just sit and look at me and my husband and will cinstantly growl and bark at us everytime we get up to go into the kitchen or to go to the bathroom she will bark if we walk back in with a cup of tea or food she will bark we cant do anything at the moment wonder if she has anxiety issues or depression

  4. My staffy went to be spayed today but it’s been cancelled due to false pregnancy. I feel guilty for not realising. I just thought Kali was being more clingy than normal. And that she couldn’t get comfy in her bed, which I now no was her nesting. The vet is treating her with meds to enable spaying asap. Poor doggo.

  5. My TT is having a phantom pregnancy after being spayed at a year old after her first heat. She was spayed two months after being on heat rather than the normal 3 months – I’ve given her scrambled egg as she’s off her food. Other symptoms are ; very hot undercarriage so slept upside down; mammary glands got huge; vet squeezed milk; aggressive to other dog ; Lethargic ; whiny; clingy; … I regret spaying two months after heat cycle rather than the usual three month minimum but vet said it would be ok but it clearly wasn’t- just sharing this in case it helps anyone else – Advice – be super patient; sit quietly with them ;cuddle ; dim lights; super kind : supportive – even if dog is aggressive as they really need you at this time – Make time for them as they are worth it with how much they give us ! Unconditional love x good luck

  6. So my pit had a false pregnancy after her last heat I tried to mate her but the only got stuck once my question is can she still get pregnant this heat after her phonyom pregnancy last heat?

  7. So glad I found this article. My German Shepard has phantom pregnancies every 4 months. She had the ovary sparing spay. The first time she had a false pregnancy, I took her to two different vets for tests. Cost over $800. I was certain something was wrong. Not eating, not drinking much, not wanting to play, whiny, clingy, pacing through the house, gathering all her toys and sleeping with them, can’t snuggle close enough to me or my son, sleeping a lot, depressed. Ughhh. Just got back from the 4th vet and NOT ONE Vet has said anything about false pregnancy. They run all these tests and tell me that she is perfectly healthy. Thank you for putting my mind at ease. Now I’m wondering if I should have had the ovary sparing spay or traditional spay?? I will keep an eye at for uterine infection and mammary tumors. I can’t understand why NO vet has mentioned this to me???

    • So sorry to hear. My girl just had her second false pregnancy. The first one cost 800 because of testing and she had mastitis. This one was $220, so glad I bought insurance for her three weeks ago.

    • 🙋‍♀️
      Our Catahoula also had the overt sparing spay at 2.5 years old. She is now 5 and has had false pregnancies 3 times now.
      We have taken her to 3 different vets and none had any interest in helping her.
      I am now feeling very guilty about the type of procedure we got her.
      The vets did say that they couldn’t take out her ovaries now😞

  8. We have a 3 year, 90% Rottweiler 10% Irish setter, that has a false pregnancy every cycle. We have a 4-year-old 100% Rottweiler that has had 2 litters. We have a male rottweiler as well. My 4 year old Rottweiler mates with my male but the 3-year-old partial Rotti does not. by the males choice. He will not breed with the 3-year-old but will with the 4-year-old. The 3-year-old always has false pregnancies and seems to react fairly strong. The false pregnancy started at 1 year old and happened before we had the male and before the 4-year-old female was ever bred. I wanted the false pregnancy dog to have at least one litter for health reasons but I am thinking it might be best to just get her fixed so this emotional roller coaster can stop.

  9. Yes all the symtoms above with our Rosie. She carries a ball about & treats like a baby bless. This is not her 1st so will def be looking into spaying as she looks so depressed & eating & drinking little.

    • My dog Princess is 13 years old, she’s 8 pounds, and she’s a Toy poodle Schipperkee Mix. She’s had more than a handful of false pregnancies, she’s had Three litters of puppies in the past, with her last litter at nine years old without complications. She just started having a false pregnancy a few days ago, and she has went years without a single episode. She start doing things that are out of character for her normal behavior, like going underneath the bed and continually scratching at the carpet with her paws, digging a nest. She will carry around her toys in her mouth and will carry them from room to room. If she is without her stuffed toys she’ll whine until I realize she wants her “Babies” and open the door for her to get her toys. It’s cute how she mothers her toys but makes me sad, because it makes me wonder if she misses her puppies, which I’m sure she does!

  10. My Chalkie is currently experiencing a false pregnancy. She is lethargic, nesting, loves to carry around an old toy she’s had since day 1 we had her while whining constantly. She is not eating and drinking much and has vomited 3 mornings running. Also, while she has always liked cuddles and being made a fuss of, she is constantly trying to lie alongside me with as much body contact as possible.
    This has been going on about 10 days now so thinking about contacting the vet.

  11. My golden retriever is currently experiencing a false pregnancy. She likes collect my daughters baby dolls and treat them like puppies. She chooses to stay in her crate almost all day. She has drastically reduced her food and water intake. She way more lovey and licks you nonstop. There is no way she is actually pregnant so the vet wants me to monitor her a couple more days before bringing her in. She gets stressed and paces if I take the dolls out… so for now I’m letting her keep them in there.

  12. My husky is presently experiencing a false pregnancy. At first I panicked , but now I am trying to keep her calm by having her lay beside me, while I pet her. It calms her down.
    After reading this article , I would like to try the direutic and mild sedative…
    Poor dog.