Phantom pregnancy in dogs refers to a condition where a female dog exhibits symptom of pregnancy, but is not actually pregnant. This is also known as false pregnancy or pseudo-pregnancy and can affect any type of female dog, regardless of age or breed.

Symptoms of phantom pregnancy in dogs

You can expect to see many of the same symptoms of an actual pregnancy to manifest in the case of a false pregnancy. Although the signs vary between individuals, these are the main physiological and behavioural changes to look out for:

  • Mammary development
  • Lactation
  • Enlarged belly
  • Loss of appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Vomiting
  • Nesting
  • Being protective of small inanimate objects and toys
  • Restlessness or aggression
  • Licking the vulva

How long does a phantom pregnancy last?

The symptoms of a phantom pregnancy most commonly occur 6-8 weeks after your dog finishes her season, and should resolve within 2-3 weeks. Once your dog has had a false pregnancy after a season, it is very likely to recur at each subsequent season.

What causes phantom pregnancy in dogs?

The origins of phantom pregnancy are thought to be due to the pack behaviour of our domestic dog’s ancestors. All the females in the pack help to rear the family pups and feel motherly towards them, even when they are not their own offspring. This cooperative behaviour is driven by hormones. After a female dog has a season, she experiences a prolonged peak of the ‘pregnancy hormone’ progesterone lasting 8-9 weeks, whether she is pregnant or not. As levels of progesterone decline levels of a second hormone, prolactin, increase.  This is what triggers the physical and psychological symptoms of pregnancy. In some dogs this may be mild – not enough to notice – but in others the symptoms can be very convincing to both the dog and her owner.

What to do when the phantom pregnancy symptoms appear

Phantom pregnancy in dogs is very common and, if symptoms are behavioural and mild, you can try distracting your dog with increased play and walks. While they’re distracted you can remove any toys they have adopted as surrogate babies, being careful not to cause distress. You should make an appointment with your vet if the symptoms persist or are severe. Remember that non-specific signs such as vomiting and lethargy may also be due to other diseases and illnesses. It’s also important to rule out a true pregnancy as your dog may have had an illicit mating so booking a scan prior to visiting your vet will help him rule out a pseudopregnancy!

How is false pregnancy in dogs diagnosed?

An ultrasound will determine if there are puppies or not.

Is there a treatment for phantom pregnancy in dogs?

Mild symptoms can usually be managed by distracting your dog from nesting and mothering. In more persistent or severe cases, the vet might recommend a treatment to help restore the hormonal balance. You should also consider discussing with the vet about spaying your female dog after the false pregnancy has subsided, to prevent recurrence.