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False Dog Pregnancy: Signs, Causes & Care (Vet Answer)

Written by: Dr. Maria Zayas DVM (Veterinarian)

Last Updated on April 6, 2024 by Dogster Team

brown dog ultrasound

False Dog Pregnancy: Signs, Causes & Care (Vet Answer)

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Dr. Maria Zayas  Photo

WRITTEN BY

Dr. Maria Zayas

DVM (Veterinarian)

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

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What do you do if your dog goes into heat, comes out of it, was safe at home the entire time, and then pops up lactating and nesting four weeks later out of the blue? If you’re sure they couldn’t have gotten pregnant, why are they acting pregnant? Is that a bad thing? Are they sick? Could there be a tumor in their reproductive tract?

This is a common concern of female dog owners, but the great news is this is a completely normal phenomenon that occurs hormonally for intact female dogs after every heat cycle, though not always with signs we can see because of it. Occasionally there can be some complications related to this event, so here’s how to know what’s normal and what’s not for your dog when they appear pregnant but aren’t.

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What Is False Dog Pregnancy?

Dogs have a heat or estrus cycle rather than a menstrual cycle. An important difference is that dogs will have vaginal bleeding without shedding their uterine lining. There are different phases of their cycle dictated by changes in their hormone levels, with expected changes in their bodies as different hormones take precedence over others in each phase.

Proestrus, the first phase, is what we think of when we say a dog is in heat. They have a swollen vulva, vaginal bleeding, and attract males.

Estrus, the second phase, will have the vaginal discharge change to a lighter color and coupling between the female dog and a male dog.

After mating, diestrus occurs, the last phase. The body produces extra progesterone from a part of the ovary, and in a dog that isn’t pregnant, this structure will slowly wear away, and progesterone levels will slowly drop. This process takes about 70 days, and during this period, the body, from a hormone standpoint, appears just as if it’s pregnant.

In a pregnant dog, other pregnancy hormones maintain this part of the ovary until after delivery, when it is then rapidly destroyed instead of wearing away slowly.

While progesterone levels are high and a dog’s body thinks she’s pregnant, this may come with signs of pregnancy such as swollen or even lactating mammaries, distended bellies, nesting behaviors, and mothering of inanimate objects like toys. This is what we call a false pregnancy. It occurs approximately four to eight weeks after bleeding in a heat cycle is seen and can last two to three weeks in a normal case.

All female dogs go through this hormone cycle every time they’re in heat, but not all dogs will show outward signs, and it usually doesn’t happen visibly every heat cycle.

Sausage dog pregnant laydown at the bed Dauchand
Image Credit: iamjorge, Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of a False Pregnancy in Dogs?

As listed above, common signs associated with a pregnant dog are the same ones we see with false pregnancy. The most common ones are swollen mammaries and nesting behaviors.

In more significant cases, lactation can be seen, along with decreased appetite, increased drinking and urination, and mothering behavior of soft objects around the home.

Problematic false pregnancies can be paired with protective or even aggressive behaviors from the dog around their nest or perceived puppies and possible weight loss.

What Causes False Dog Pregnancy?

Dogs technically undergo a false dog pregnancy every heat cycle, but usually, we only use this term if they’re showing signs outwardly of a pregnancy. We don’t know why some dogs will show signs while others don’t and why it will happen in some heat cycles and not others. Some breeds may be predisposed, but we’re not sure why.

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How Is False Dog Pregnancy Diagnosed?

pug dog checked by vet
Image Credit: New Africa, Shutterstock

For the most part, an intact female dog showing signs of pregnancy that isn’t pregnant is having a false pregnancy. A dog with signs that are confirmed to not be pregnant is enough to be diagnosed. A hormone test can be used by a veterinarian to confirm a dog isn’t pregnant if needed.

In some cases, even a spayed dog can be diagnosed. If a dog is spayed during the diestrus part of their heat cycle, the rapid loss of progesterone but continued production of prolactin that was started during that phase can cause signs of pseudopregnancy to persist. It is best not to spay a dog until diestrus has resolved for this reason.

How Is False Dog Pregnancy Treated?

False pregnancy in dogs is self-limiting and, if given a couple of weeks, will resolve on its own. For dogs showing signs for longer than three weeks or having highly problematic signs, treatment can be attempted through hormone therapy. While hormones targeting the phases of the heat itself won’t work for treatment or aren’t available, prolactin inhibitors can be given to stop lactation and help resolve the false pregnancy.

How Do I Care for a Dog With a False Pregnancy?

Rhodesian Ridgeback dog sick with vet
Image Credit: Zontica, Shutterstock

Dogs may be stressed or agitated during a false pregnancy period. Giving them space and time to nest is usually a good idea. Dogs that are lactating and compulsively licking their mammaries because of this will likely continue to lactate, so placing them in an e-collar to prevent licking can help this resolve faster. It is generally not recommended to place the dog in a onesie or wrap the mammaries since any tactile stimulation increases milk production.

Is False Dog Pregnancy Preventable?

We have no good way to prevent false dog pregnancy in an intact dog. Not spaying a dog during the diestrus phase of their heat cycle is a good preventative measure, as is spaying a dog in general. For dogs that show signs of false pregnancy every heat cycle, especially if the signs are escalating or taking longer than they should to resolve, it is usually recommended to spay those dogs and not risk other complications like pyometra.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are other names for false dog pregnancies?

Pregnant Terrier Mix
Image Credit: Anna Hoychuk, Shutterstock

This is also known as pseudocyesis, pseudopregnancy, or phantom pregnancy.

What percentage of dogs have false pregnancy?

Upwards of 75% of intact female dogs will show signs of a false pregnancy at least once in their lifetime.

Should I take my dog to the vet for a false pregnancy?

While many dogs having a false pregnancy don’t need to be seen by a veterinarian, you should still reach out to your veterinary team to let them know what’s going on. This is so they can ask some screening questions about the signs you’re seeing, the timing of the heat cycle, and the chances of actual pregnancy to identify any concerns that may need an appointment.

Will a dog gain weight during a false pregnancy?

Technically they can, though this is due to water retention rather than an increase in actual body mass. If a dog begins to eat less, they may lose body mass during this time, which would be noted after the false pregnancy resolves.

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Conclusion

False pregnancy signs are important to know for households that have intact female dogs since this syndrome is common in their lifetime. False pregnancies, which can be stressful and difficult to manage in some homes, can be avoided if a female dog is spayed at the appropriate time. If you need to know if your dog is showing signs of a true or false pregnancy, a trip to the vet will help tell the difference.

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Featured Image Credit: Ermolaev Alexander, Shutterstock

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