Phantom Pregnancy in Dogs - the facts + home treatment tips

It’s not always easy to know if your dog is pregnant or not, with phantom pregnancy being a common condition in entire female dogs.

If your dog’s nipples are swollen, if they’re pretending toys are puppies, or they are suddenly hungry it could be they are showing signs of a false pregnancy. Especially if they have never been mated!

This is what you need to know!

 
learn about phantom pregnancy in dogs
 

Maggie’s nipples never went down entirely after her first heat at the end of February, we have never had a female dog before so I thought this was normal. It got the better of me today so I googled it and have seen a range of horrible things. What's going on? - Katie

Phantom Pregnancy in Dogs

I'll start by saying that this is a young dog and they have had their season maybe three months or so ago. Maggie’s swollen nipples are almost certainly the result of something called a phantom pregnancy.

This comes about because the hormone changes in a female dog’s body after they've had a season and after they've been on heat are very similar, regardless of whether they are mated and get pregnant or not.

The hormone changes are very similar, and this effectively tricks the body into believing that it's pregnant, even when there's no chance that that could be the case.

There are many different symptoms of phantom pregnancy in dogs, with each dog showing a range of different signs.

Changes in Behavior

Your day can get changes in behavior. It can be restlessness. It can be irritability. It can also be a reduction in appetite.

You might also witness displaced nursing behavior in phantom pregnancy. Your dog might start to collect inanimate objects. It could be socks. It could be toys. It could be shoes. The dogs nurse them, gather them together as though these objects are their puppies. They can get very possessive of these objects, and this can even lead to aggression in some cases.

Mammary Development

As you now know, a dog can get mammary development. This can just be enlargement of the nipples and mammary glands. In many cases though, a dog can also start producing milk, sometimes a lot.

It is not unusual to get a few drops of milk if you squeeze their nipples. But in some cases, some dogs can develop a lot of milk. I think this is more the case if a dog is older, if they have had this condition a few times before, or if they have had puppies in the past.

Increase in Appetite and Weight Gain

In other cases, and despite having said some dogs will go off their food, there is an increase in appetite and weight gain. That might trick you even further into thinking that your dog is actually pregnant when they are not.

Phantom Pregnancy Timing

The signs of phantom pregnancy typically start roughly 60 days after their heat. Just about when they would be expected to give birth were they pregnant.

In some dogs, like Maggie, they could have mammary enlargement as soon as they come out of heat. For others, it will come on a little bit later, maybe after three and a half months. There is quite a broad range, and it's not uncommon that this happens.

For those dogs that develop phantom pregnancy, the signs tend to get worse with each passing season. That is certainly my experience of it. That is something to consider if your dog is becoming a little bit obnoxious or aggressive. If so, that is likely to be even worse next season.

Treatment

When it comes to treating phantom pregnancy in dogs, we usually do not need to give them any pharmaceutical treatment. It will sort itself out by itself without any intervention. Typically in a couple of weeks or less.

If you want to help this resolution take place faster, you can:

  • Increase their exercise levels

  • Reduce their food intake

  • Reduce their water intake (carefully) if they are producing a lot of milk.

Cutting back on your dog’s diet and taking them on longer walks is generally all it takes.

For the dogs that are showing severe signs, maybe they’ve developed mastitis (and I'll come onto that in just a second), there are other treatments that can be given to stop a phantom pregnancy right away. There are hormone treatments available that we can give. It will dry up any milk faster, and reverse the signs of phantom pregnancy.

I haven't needed to use this in any patient of mine for a long time. It is not something we often need to reach for, but the option is there if there are particular concerns. Aggression would be another reason to reach for the hormone treatment option.

Mastitis

Phantom pregnancy in dogs also increases the risk of mastitis if there is milk present. Especially if there is a lot of milk present. The simple reason is that milk is being produced but there are no puppies there to draw it off. It sits there stagnant, which increases the risk of infection.

To know if your dog with a phantom pregnancy does have mastitis, you need to feel along their teats and mammary glands. If they are very warm, if they are becoming quite firm, if they are red, or if they are painful then mastitis is a distinct possibility and your dog should be examined by your vet. It is likely they will need antibiotics.

Preventing Phantom Pregnancy

When it comes to eliminating the future risk of this condition, spaying is advisable. There is no other way that we can eliminate this risk short of giving them drugs to stop them from coming into heat in the first place. This in itself is not necessarily the best idea as it could potentially increase the risk of pyometra. Not sure what this is? Well, you can read my article , a complete guide to pyometra in dogs!.

If you're not planning on breeding your dog in the future, then getting them spayed is a good idea.

If you've got a younger dog, or if you've got a dog who's not yet gone through a heat or developed a phantom pregnancy but you're thinking about spaying them. I’ve got a thorough review looking at the risks and benefits of spaying a female dog that is bound to answer any questions you may have.

Other Causes of Swollen Glands

Swollen glands can also be a sign of other problems. It can indicate mammary cancer, which is generally a condition of middle to older age dogs. Cancer is pretty unlikely in Maggie's case, simply because she is so young.

Your dog can also get swollen glands if she is pregnant. Dogs typically develop milk a couple of days before giving birth. Mammary development though can begin earlier, especially in a bitch that has had a litter previously.

Mastitis, as I said, can cause swollen glands. That would maybe be in a dog who has already given birth and the glands are just getting firmer than they have been, or a dog who has phantom pregnancy and the glands got infected that way as I’ve discussed.

Cystic ducts and hormone abnormalities are other causes, although these are less common and really again, diseases of older dogs.

Conclusion

That is a rundown on phantom pregnancy in dogs. It is something that is not uncommon. It often doesn't need any treatment. However, keep an eye that the mammary glands aren't getting swollen, firm and painful.

Everything should sort itself out, but if you've got concerns or unsure of what is going on, if the glands or nipples are swelling up and you don't think your dog's been in heat, then getting your dog checked over by your vet is a good idea.


The above is a transcript taken from “The Dr Alex Answers Show”.

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