Phantom Pregnancies in Dogs

Those with female dogs will most likely deal with seasons at some point in their dog’s earlier years – the recommended time for spaying is between 2 and 4 years of age, unless medically necessary prior to this age. With seasons, comes the risk of phantom pregnancy! This can be quite a trying time for both us and our perfect pooches, so we bring to you, the My Pet Nutritionist guide to phantom pregnancies in dogs!

What is a Phantom Pregnancy, When, and Why Do They Happen?

Phantom pregnancy in dogs is fairly common other terms you may see are ‘false pregnancy’ or ‘psuedopregnancy’. Phantom pregnancy is a term used to describe behavioural and physiological tendencies similar to those displayed in a pregnant female dog, even though the dog experiencing these changes is not pregnant.

They can occur at any age, following an oestrus cycle (commonly known as a ‘season’ or ‘heat’) in an unspayed female. When your dog has a phantom pregnancy following their season, she may have another after the next season, but this isn’t definite – they can occur after every season, or just intermittently.

We’ve covered the what and the when, but now onto the why! At the end of your dog’s season, her ovaries begin to produce the hormones necessary for preparing the uterus for implantation of foetuses and pregnancy maintenance. Now, if your dog has been mated, and is pregnant, these hormones are very important, and well utilised. The problem arises when your dog is not pregnant, so these hormones are not required. It takes around 4 to 6 weeks for these hormones to reduce, and for symptoms to reduce, if the dog displays behaviours as if she were pregnant.

When these hormones are present without a pregnancy, changes in the body occur, which show as actions mimicking pregnancy. As the dog gets closer to the 4 to 6 weeks after the end of the season, as the levels of hormones start to reduce, false labour is stimulated, alongside mammary gland swelling.

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Symptoms of a Phantom Pregnancy

There are a variety of symptoms of a phantom pregnancy in dogs, such as:
  • Enlarged mammary glands (teats); milk may be present
  • Clingy behaviour
  • Lethargy and fatigue
  • Fluid retention
  • Potential vomiting
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nesting
  • Pacing
  • Carrying and guarding toys

Symptoms will vary between individuals, as well as severity of symptoms.

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Conventional Treatments

In severe or extreme cases of phantom pregnancy, your dog may require veterinary attention, where they may be given a hormone treatment. This treatment stops the production of pregnancy hormones, which heavily reduces symptoms, and stops milk production.

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Supplements to Help Your Dog

There are a few supplements that could help your dog through her phantom pregnancy. Let’s take a look at these! There’s also one frequently recommended, which we do not recommend, so we will look deeper into why!

Homeopathy is a very popular choice when it comes to those in phantom pregnancy. If you choose to use homeopathy, speak to a homeopath or supplier of remedies. The commonly given options for a phantom pregnancy are Pulsatilla and Urtica. Other remedies may also be advised for mood if the dog is in a low mood.

Dogs struggling with behavioural effects of phantom pregnancy, who are just not themselves, may require some calming supplements like Scullcap and Valerian.

Another supplement that can help in the event of a phantom pregnancy by aiding in the regulation of hormones, is Borage/Starflower oil. This does come with a caveat though – it must be used with caution, and in small amounts as it can cause liver damage, and may also be carcinogenic. This is due to the content of chemicals known as pyrrolizidine alkaloids.

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Vitamin B is a great supplement for those in phantom pregnancy, specifically B6, as it helps regress phantom pregnancies in dogs.

Magnesium is an essential mineral for our dogs, and it is great to increase in those with phantom pregnancy, as it encourages all round health within the body, keeping all systems running smoothly, and normally.

Finally, Theanine helps control arousal levels in mammals. Keeping the arousal levels in check is important in a female with phantom pregnancy, so as to reduce symptoms and keep hormone levels steady.

Evening Primrose Oil – Why Should You Avoid It?

We mentioned that one popular supplement isn’t one we would recommend – this supplement is Evening Primrose Oil. It can certainly help a bitch in phantom, but why don’t we recommend it?

Evening primrose oil is lower in the omega GLA than Borage oil, meaning it has less of an anti inflammatory effect. This isn’t the biggest problem with evening primrose oil though! The main issue is concerning Prostaglandins; a group of fats which have hormone-like effects in mammals. Prostaglandins stimulate the uterine muscles to shed the lining of the uterus which in turn causes increased pain and worsened associated symptoms. Evening primrose oil is what’s known as ‘oestrogenic’ – meaning it promotes oestrus, and makes symptoms more harsh.

Evening Primrose Oil also poses a risk to potential epilepsy patients, as it can trigger seizures, so as a precaution, we recommend avoiding it’s use.

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Other Tips to Help Your Dog

As well as offering appropriate supplements to your dog, there are some other things you can do to help them through a phantom pregnancy. Lets have a look at some of these:

Firstly, your dog will likely be feeling a little unusual, and sorry for herself. Her body is going through some big changes at this time, so the need for more attention and TLC is common. It is so important to be there for her – it can be a bit overwhelming with your dog clinging to you more than normal, but try to stay calm, and give her plenty of love and extra attention to comfort her.

Another behavioural aid during this time, possibly one of the most important things you can offer your dog, is enrichment! Why is enrichment so important? It keeps your girl’s mind busy! If you give her something to do that she finds fun, she’s less likely to feel down-in-the-dumps with her phantom pregnancy! Lickable mats, filled enrichment toys, dog puzzles, and fun trick training sessions with you can all be excellent enrichment!

Some girls have a reduced appetite, so you may also need to reduce the size of food portions, and feed more often. You may need to add some warm bone broth to the food to make it more appealing.

Now, some girls do start to nest, and collect toys or other small objects, which they ‘nurse’ as if they were puppies. She will often resource guard these, as they become very valuable items! The removal of these toys is a very controversial topic, but in the long run, careful removal of them in a way that doesn’t upset the dog, may be the best option, so she doesn’t get used to having her ‘puppies’. When you remove the toys, it is incredibly important to make it a positive experience.

Finally, if your dog is suffering with swollen mammary glands, or is producing milk, her breasts may be painful. You can gently use a warm compress on these areas once or twice a day to help reduce milk production, and to offer some relief.

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Preventing Further Phantom Pregnancies

Although they can, and often do reoccur, phantom pregnancies don’t always reoccur after every oestrus cycle. Should you rush to spay your young dog? No – not unless pyometra occurs! If your dog is older than two years old and fully mature, and phantoms are really tough on your girl, and happen frequently, this may be your best option, however. Another reason for spaying your female would be after recurring phantom pregnancies, to avoid pyometra developing. The changes to the uterus that occur during repeated phantom pregnancies, increase the risk of pyometra (infection of the uterus), which can be life threatening.

Raspberry leaf is a fantastic supplement to try to reduce the risk of further phantom pregnancies. A good quality raspberry leaf supplement can do a fantastic job of regulating hormones if given from day one of the oestrus cycle (the first day of bleeding), or even better, from the first sign of an incoming season (such as swelling of the vulva). Raspberry leaf should  be given for 12 weeks from the start of the dog’s season, as this is naturally the end of the gestational period if the dog were to have been spayed! Hormone balancing and maintenance is very important in girls who suffer with phantom pregnancies.

You can even offer your dog raspberry leaf tea as a tasty drink, warm or frozen onto enrichment toys!

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We hope this blog post has put your mind at ease, and provided you with some handy hints and tips to help your dog through her phantom pregnancy, and perhaps help prevent another!

Team MPN x

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