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Phantom Pregnancy in Dogs: Symptoms and Causes

5 min read

Phantom pregnancies in dogs are very common, with symptoms from mothering behaviour and lactation, to lethargy and vomiting. Find out more about signs, causes and possible treatment.

Has your dog started acting like they are pregnant, mothering their toys and creating a nesting space? Have you noticed mammary development and even milk from their nipples? Some female dogs may display signs equivalent to morning sickness; with lethargy and dog vomiting. If your dog has not been mated, this may leave you scratching your head as to why they appear pregnant. If they have been mated, before you get too excited about visions of cute puppies, you need to make sure it’s not a false or phantom pregnancy.

Read on to discover what the signs of phantom dog pregnancy are, how a false pregnancy gets diagnosed and when medical treatment is necessary.


What is phantom pregnancy in dogs?

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


9 signs 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:

  1. Mammary development
  2. Lactation
  3. Enlarged belly
  4. Loss of appetite
  5. Lethargy
  6. Vomiting
  7. Nesting
  8. Being protective of small inanimate objects
  9. Restlessness or aggression

When does phantom pregnancy in dogs happen?

Phantom pregnancies in dogs can happen after heat (i.e., the period where they’re most fertile.) However, it does not necessarily happen after every heat and can differ for each dog and their cycle.

How long does a phantom pregnancy last in dogs?

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?

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, triggering 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.

The origins of phantom pregnancy in dogs 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. 


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!

How is false pregnancy in dogs diagnosed?

To diagnose false pregnancy your vet will take a history about your dog’s recent seasons and any matings. They will examine your dog for abdominal swelling, mammary growth and lactation.

How can I find out if my dog is actually pregnant or not?

If you don’t think your dog is having a phantom pregnancy and suspect they might be pregnant, take them to the vet. They’ll be able to carry out a blood or urine test and possibly an x-ray or ultrasound to confirm whether it’s a false pregnancy or not.

Is there a treatment for phantom pregnancy in dogs?

There is treatment for phantom pregnancy in dogs, depending on the severity of the case. We’ve listed some treatments below:

Distract them 

If your dog is showing mild symptoms of phantom pregnancy, you can provide them with lots of dog exercise to distract them from mothering.

Gently remove toys she’s mothering

Mild symptoms of mothering can usually be managed by removing toys she is protecting. You’ll need to do this in a non-distressing way by distracting her with a game or a Kong toy and getting someone else to quietly remove the toys she is mothering. It’s important to not punish your dog for mothering.

Help avoid overstimulation of the mammary glands

Your dog may be licking her nipples to increase milk production. This can cause some irritation, and even dog mastitis, so a protective vest may be needed.

Treatment from the vet

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. We have more on this below:


Is spaying a good solution for phantom pregnancies in dogs?

Spaying (ovariectomy or ovariohysterectomy) is a long-term solution that will prevent future episodes of phantom pregnancy. However, a dog should not be spayed during a phantom pregnancy as this can cause the symptoms to persist. The changes that occur to the womb during phantom pregnancies increase the risk of uterine infection (pyometra), which can be life-threatening. If your dog has phantom pregnancies and you are not planning to mate from her, it is advisable to have her spayed to reduce this risk. Other benefits of spaying include reduced risk of developing mastitis, mammary, uterine or ovarian cancer, and removing the possibility of unplanned pregnancies.

Discover more about puppy neutering and spaying from our in-depth article, such as what does the process involve, recovery tips as well as what changes to expect.