If your female dog has been through an estrus (heat) cycle, she might start gaining weight or her mammary glands might swell, both of which are clear signs that she could be pregnant. Without a proper vet examination, however, you can’t be sure. You might think that if you notice that your female dog started acting strangely after being in heat, chances are, she is pregnant, but there is something else that might be going on. It could be a false (or phantom) pregnancy.
False pregnancies are rarely discussed, but they actually happen very often among female dogs. A typical false pregnancy will start manifesting after your female dog has been through heat and all the signs that she is pregnant and awaiting pups can be there even though she didn’t even mate.
If your female dog isn’t spayed and was in heat, she might start showing some signs of a false pregnancy after several weeks. These signs are numerous and can be both physical and behavioral.
Signs of a False Pregnancy in Dogs
A female dog going through a false pregnancy may start exhibiting various changes in the way she behaves, and she might even undergo physical changes that are quite noticeable. Even so, these signs can differ from one dog to another. The most prevalent signs include:
- Alertness – your dog might become very alert, reacting to every sound and movement. This is because she is trying her best to be safe during her pregnancy.
- Whining – your dog might start whining, become quite nervous, even exhibit symptoms of stress.
- Pacing – restlessness and panicky behavior is yet another very common sign of a false pregnancy. Your dog is trying to find the safest place possible, and if she has trouble finding it, she will become nervous.
- Weakness – your dog might stop eating, or eat less, which will result in weight loss and weakness. The opposite can happen as well: she might also start eating more and gain weight.
- Lactation – because of the changes in her hormones, the dog’s mammary glands might not only swell, but may also begin lactating. This is the clearest sign of pregnancy or false pregnancy.
- Scratching and Digging – these are the typical signs that your dog is nesting. They are searching for a safe and comfortable place for the puppies. They will search for darker, enclosed, and warm places.
Your dog will do everything possible to bring the puppies to term. The signs and symptoms differ from one dog to another, and depend heavily on a dog's nature and hormone levels. Your dog might only have mild symptoms, or she may experience very intense symptoms, leading all the way to false labor.
History of Dogs Faking Pregnancy
When looking at the reasons why false pregnancies are so prevalent among dogs, research has turned to examining their closest relatives: wolves. Wolves are pack animals, and the hierarchy in wolf packs is extremely strict. The Alpha male and female dictate everything, and only they will mate when the times comes.
Because only the alpha female has the right to have pups, all the other females go through heat without mating. They help the alpha female raise her pups but because other females from the pack have gone through heat as well, but didn’t mate, their maternal instincts stem from the very same thing: false pregnancy, which is brought upon by hormonal changes after they come out of heat. It’s a natural protection mechanism that allows new pups to be accepted into a pack dynamic and looked after by the females.
Science of Dogs Faking Pregnancy
During a heat cycle, your dog's body goes through a variety of changes to prepare for mating, and ultimately impregnation. The rush of hormones starts signaling and sending key maternal functions into overdrive, which can trigger emotional and physical pregnancy symptoms whether or not your dog is actually pregnant.
While some of the scientific evidence for fake pregnancy in dogs is unknown, there are two areas which could play a role (although not always together.)
- Hormone imbalances that confuse your dog's body into believing it's pregnant are some of the most common causes. The severity of the imbalance can dictate how long your dog shows these symptoms.
- Emotional symptoms also play a part. For example, if your dog has had puppies before, she may be feeling the same way as she did then and be mimicking the behavior, leading to her body mimicking the symptoms as well.
Although the most unlikely cause, it has occured where dogs have faked their own pregnancies in order to get the extra sympathy, attention and food that they may have gotten had they been pregnant.
Training to Avoid Fake Pregnancy Symptoms
There are several ways to speed up the process and make the false pregnancy much shorter
- If your dog is nesting and it’s very severe, remove her false puppies from her. This will most often be her toys. She will complain and be quite devastated, but it will shorten the false pregnancy period.
- If your dog is lactating, there are several things that will speed up the process and minimize it. Diuretics and mild sedatives often reduce the lactation period or drugs to decrease milk production can be used too. Always consult with a vet who will decide whether these will be necessary or not.
- Decreasing your dog’s food and water intake will also work the same way because your dog will have fewer nutrients. Even though this might sound very cruel, the goal is to suppress lactation. Just ensure you are giving the right regulated amount for your dog’s usual weight and then lift the bowl up afterward so they can’t snack, graze or eat extra.
If your female dog is having a false pregnancy, your further actions heavily depend on her symptoms. Mild symptoms often resolve within two to three weeks. Since your dog can’t help her behavior because her hormones are all over the place, it’s best to make sure she gets through it quickly. Remain calm, be understanding, and patient. Pregnancy is a stressful condition for anyone going through it, so aggravating the situation will have negative effects.
If you have children, it is important to explain to them what is going on and how to act around your dog. A dog can sense when her human companions are anxious, so if everyone is calm, she will go through her false pregnancy much easier and with less complications.
By Charlotte Ratcliffe
Published: 03/28/2018, edited: 04/06/2020