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Is your pet showing signs of pregnancy without mating?

It could be pseudopregnancy, a hormonal imbalance that mimics pregnancy like condition and behavioural change in your dog

Ensure your pet is not left alone with her toys while going through phantom pregnancy. 
Ensure your pet is not left alone with her toys while going through phantom pregnancy.  (Unsplash/ Jesse Schoff)

It can be very unsettling for a pet parent to discover their female dog suddenly showing symptoms of pregnancy when she’s actually not been mated. Known as ‘phantom pregnancy’, ‘false pregnancy’ or ‘pseudopregnancy’, we have been noticing many dog owners dealing with it in the recent months. The degree and intensity of the problem varies from dog to dog. However, it is enough to raise alarm and confusion in the mind of an uninformed pet parent. 

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Pet parents frequently come with pseudo-pregnant pets and request abortion. While they are relieved to realise that it is simply a false alarm, it does get a little difficult to comprehend what exactly is happening to their beloved pet, and what they can do to help. This condition can also occur in cats but it is very rare.

Pseudopregnancy is usually triggered by hormonal imbalance. The prolactin hormone, which is responsible for lactation, rises in the canine’s body while progesterone levels fall. This hormonal confusion mimics signs similar to an actual pregnancy. What triggers the hormones to behave this way is still unknown. It is believed that this may be a natural phenomenon; pseudopregnancy is advantageous in a pack of dogs. It guarantees that puppies in a pack do not go hungry and that milk is provided by female dogs other than their mother.

Lactation may not always be a sign of pseudopregnancy, though. The range of symptoms is extremely wide and includes bloating, weight gain, and mammary gland enlargement. It also causes behavioural changes like building a nest for her imaginary puppies, getting more possessive of her toys, etc. 

Maya, a Siberian Husky, was once so possessive of her toys during such an episode that she swallowed five of them in an attempt to keep them safe. She had to undergo a surgery to remove them. The dogs experiencing this phenomenon may get snappier due to the mood swing they experience. For instance, some of the sweetest dogs I see at the clinic show signs of extreme aggression while pseudo pregnant. This is a protective mechanism that a dog would use to protect her pups.

The good news is that pseudopregnancy is self-limiting and only lasts approximately a month. The symptoms will gradually reduce in severity and eventually, disappear. The bad news is that a dog that has had pseudopregnancy after one heat cycle is likely to have it after each subsequent heat cycle. THe smaller breeds get their first heat by five to six months, while the larger dogs get it around 10 months. And usually within two months after their heat, some dogs exhibit phtam Pseudopregnancy is predicted to occur in 50-70 per cent of unspayed dogs at some point in their lives. 

Now, there are several DIY home cures for pseudopregnancy floating around on the internet. Smearing vinegar or apple cider vinegar on the mammary glands of these dogs is one of them. However, you must be cautious before actually using any of the cures. For instance, vinegar can irritate the already inflamed mammary glands, so it's not a good idea to use it in this case. In majority of the times, the solution is a much simpler one – being patient and waiting for the pseudopregnancy to pass. 

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If your dog's behavioural changes are damaging and destructive to herself and others during this time, you may want to consider allopathic medications like cabergoline. In some dogs, homeopathy appears to help as well. On rare occasions, we have to resort to strong medication to help dogs deal with pseudopregnancy. The permanent solution, however, to prevent recurring episodes of pseudopregnancy is to spay your dog. 

While there are various differing viewpoints on whether spaying is beneficial to dogs, one thing is certain. Some claim that removing reproductive organs is not a natural process. However, not allowing a dog to mate every six months, as nature intended, is also unnatural. As a result, if a dog is not mated or spayed, it is almost certain to suffer negative consequences in the future. 

Spaying, therefore, acts as a treatment for dogs which suffer from pseudopregnancy, as well as prevention from contracting infections in the uterus, a condition known as pyometra, which can become life-threatening.

It’s also a myth that after spaying, a dog's behaviour alters, or that they become more indolent. The only true disadvantage to spaying is that some dog breeds tend to gain weight after the treatment. Their weight, like ours, may be maintained by exercising and discipline over eating. Therefore, as a pet parent, you must make an informed decision. Your veterinarian can guide you based on your dog’s breed, age, and health status on when you can consider spaying your pet. 

Pseudopregnancy can be an emotional roller coaster for your dog. If your pet is clingy, make sure you spend enough time with them at this time. Don’t allow them to lick their mammary glands because this can lead to an infection. To keep her from licking, you can put an E-collar, or simply put a T-shirt on her. Keep an eye on the toys she has access to, and make sure she has adequate food and water. During this time, all that your dog requires is a little more care and understanding from you. So, be generous with both. 

Dr Nameeta Nadkarni is a practising veterinary soft tissue surgeon and pet blogger from Mumbai, who loves to play the piano in her free time and is ruled by her whimsical cat, Catbury, at home.

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