What is False Pregnancy?
False pregnancies in cats are rare. The only way to determine if a cat is pregnant or is experiencing a false pregnancy is to visit the veterinarian. Because false pregnancies can sometimes mimic serious conditions, it's important to see the veterinarian right away if pregnancy symptoms are displayed by a cat who wasn't around a male cat during her heat cycle.
A false pregnancy, also known as a phantom pregnancy, pseudocyesis, or pseudopregnancy, occurs when a fully matured female cat displays all of the signs and symptoms of pregnancy without actually being pregnant. False pregnancy typically occurs between six to 12 weeks after the cat has been in estrus, also known as “heat”. False pregnancy does not affect a cat's future ability to breed in subsequent pregnancies.
Symptoms of False Pregnancy in Cats
Symptoms appear six to 12 weeks after the cat has been in heat and may continue for several months after a false pregnancy has been diagnosed. These symptoms include:
- Enlarged mammary glands
- Brown-tinged fluid or water secretion from the mammary glands
- Pink nipples
- Displaying nesting behaviors, such as using blankets and papers to make a nest
- Mothering inanimate objects, such as toys, stuffed animals and shoes
- Behavioral changes, such as being extremely affectionate, depressed or guarded
- Swollen abdomen
- Weight gain
- Mucoid vaginal discharge
- Loss of appetite
Causes of False Pregnancy in Cats
The exact cause of false pregnancy is unknown. Hormonal imbalances of the hormones prolactin and progesterone are thought to play a role in its development. During the cat's heat cycle, if she is bred with an infertile male cat, her body will ovulate and produce a corpus luteum. It is believed that once the corpus luteum is produced, the cat's body can no longer distinguish between a real and false pregnancy. Other conditions can cause the same symptoms as a false pregnancy in cats and will need to be ruled out by a veterinarian. These conditions include:
- Removal of the ovaries and uterus (ovariohysterectomy)
- Cancer of the mammary gland
- Infection of the uterus
Diagnosis of False Pregnancy in Cats
The veterinarian will need to know the cat's complete health history, the dates of the cat's previous heat cycle, when symptoms first began and the nature of the symptoms. The veterinarian will examine the cat and look for swollen mammary glands and signs of nipple discharge, and will feel the abdomen for the presence of kittens.
Blood tests and labs, such as a complete blood count, biochemical profile, thyroid function tests and a urinalysis will be done. These tests will look for symptoms of more serious conditions that could be causing the symptoms, such as hypothyroidism. A false pregnancy should present with labs that are normal. An abdominal ultrasound or x-ray may also be done. These tests can look for fluid accumulation in the abdomen or uterus, detect a true pregnancy, determine if a uterine infection is present and look for organ enlargement.
Treatment of False Pregnancy in Cats
No treatment is necessary if this is the first false pregnancy that the cat has experienced. Signs and symptoms typically go away within two to three weeks but can last several months. If the cat has experienced recurrent false pregnancies, the veterinarian may recommend the following treatment options:
More than one false pregnancy is indicative of a hormonal imbalance. Hormonal supplements can be prescribed by the veterinarian to correct these imbalances and prevent future false pregnancies from occurring.
An ovariohysterectomy may be recommended for recurrent false pregnancies. During an ovariohysterectomy, the veterinarian will remove both ovaries and the uterus from the cat. This is done while the cat is under general anesthesia. The veterinarian will make a small incision into the abdominal wall. The two ovaries are tied off and removed along with the uterus. The cat's incision will then be closed with sutures.
Recovery of False Pregnancy in Cats
Cats who have begun to lactate or have swollen mammary glands should have cold or warm compresses placed on their glands. The compress will help to reduce these secretions. An Elizabethan cone, or “e-collar”, may need to be worn in order to prevent the cat from licking or self-nursing, which will cause lactation to occur. Under the veterinarian's advice, food may also need to be reduced to prevent or stop lactation from occurring. It's important to never remove the milk from the cat, as this will continue lactation rather than ending it.
Cats who have an underlying condition that caused the false pregnancy symptoms will need to follow-up with the veterinarian for additional care. Hormonal supplements will also need to be monitored. If the cat had an ovariohysterectomy, an Elizabethan cone will need to be worn to prevent the cat from licking or biting its sutures.
False Pregnancy Questions and Advice from Veterinary Professionals
My cat Lavender who is a British Blue shorthair cat and aged 4 years has had 3 matings with studs in 2016 & 2017 and has not been able to get pregnant - she has had 2 litters before this in 2014 and 2015 but no kittens in 2016 and I have tried again this year in February 2017 - we thought she was pregnant and was getting bigger and her nipples had appeared to pink up but I took her to the vet as she would have been due to give birth last week and the vet has confirmed that she does not have any kittens. We are going to wait until she calls again and the vet has suggested blood tests and a scan - she is in very good health and no health issues apart from not being able to get pregnant - can you offer any other advice to me re hormonal supplements and whether this might help her?
There are many possible causes of infertility in cats, even in a proven queen; these include infections, ovarian cysts and poor husbandry (I suspect that isn’t a problem). Hormonal imbalances may occur for various reasons, but it is important to understand why so that you know that there wouldn’t be a problem with subsequent matings. As your Veterinarian has suggested, a scan and blood tests would rule out the usual causes and would be the next step before any synchronization is attempted. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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My cat got outside while she was in heat March 8th and was outside for three days putting her around 62 days, hasn't been in heat since getting outside. Exhibiting all signs of pregnancy except her nipples aren't lactating yet. Around day 54 she started licking her abdomen and genitals, meowing excessively, and putting her bottom in the air like when she was in heat. Those symptoms have backed off and she's been eating a lot a resting and her nesting box. Is everything okay or is she not really pregnant?
I cannot say if she is pregnant or not without examining her; milk production doesn’t always start before queening. False pregnancy is a possibility as well as pyometra; I would just keep an eye on her as she will either give birth or if it is a false pregnancy, the behaviour will revert back to normal. You may be able to feel kittens in the abdomen by applying light pressure to the abdomen (don’t push hard). If you are concerned, visit your Veterinarian. Regards Dr Callum Turner DVM
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