Do Dogs Get Sad After Phantom Pregnancy?

What is a Phantom Pregnancy in Dogs?

A phantom pregnancy, also known as a false pregnancy or pseudopregnancy, refers to a condition in intact female dogs where they exhibit signs of pregnancy after their heat cycle when no mating has occurred. This is caused by hormonal fluctuations after ovulation that mimic the hormonal changes of a true pregnancy. The main hormonal trigger is a rise in the hormone progesterone during the dog’s diestrus phase after ovulation, even though conception has not taken place. This tricks the dog’s body into thinking it is pregnant.

Some of the key symptoms of phantom pregnancies in dogs include restlessness, nesting behaviors, behavioral changes, abdominal distention, enlarged mammary glands, and milk production. The dog’s abdomen may enlarge, nipple development and milk secretion can occur, and mothering behaviors like nesting and aggression to protect the nest often are displayed.

How Common are Phantom Pregnancies?

Phantom pregnancies are fairly common in dogs, affecting up to 25% of intact female dogs. They can occur in dogs of any breed or age, but some breeds are more prone than others. Smaller breeds like Chihuahuas, Dachshunds, and Toy Poodles seem particularly susceptible, as well as Retrievers, German Shepherds, Cocker Spaniels, and Boxers. The condition appears to be partly genetic, so dogs from lines with a history of phantom pregnancies are at higher risk.

Overall, phantom pregnancy is one of the most common reproductive disorders seen in veterinary medicine for female dogs. However, spaying a dog at an early age greatly reduces the chances of it happening. For intact dogs that have gone through estrus at least once, the probability of eventually experiencing a phantom pregnancy is quite high over their lifetime.

Why Does it Happen?

Phantom pregnancy is caused by confusion over hormone changes. Female dogs go through hormonal fluctuations similar to those seen during a normal pregnancy after an estrus or heat cycle, even if they have not mated or become pregnant (vethelpdirect, 2020). These hormonal changes prepare the body for pregnancy and nursing young, so when no puppies arrive, the dog’s maternal instincts can manifest in mothering behaviors towards toys or other objects.

From an evolutionary perspective, phantom pregnancies may have developed in dogs as a survival mechanism. Displaying maternal behaviors after an estrus cycle increased the chances a female could adapt to the sudden arrival of orphaned puppies or take in abandoned litters. Her hormones primed her body for milk production and bonded her to surrogate puppies. This flexibility improved the survival odds in the wild (sciencedirect, n.d.). Today, spaying can prevent these hormonal fluctuations that lead to false pregnancies in domestic dogs.

Signs and Behaviors

Some of the most common signs of phantom pregnancy in dogs include nesting behaviors, lethargy, increased appetite, and mothering toys or other objects.

Nesting Behaviors: Your dog may begin gathering blankets, towels or other objects to create a nest area, similar to what a pregnant dog would do in preparation for giving birth. She may become protective and territorial of her chosen nesting area. According to the Blue Cross [1], this nesting instinct is one of the most apparent symptoms of a phantom pregnancy.

Lethargy/Increased Appetite: Your dog may seem more tired and lethargic than usual. She may also have an increased appetite as her body thinks it is producing milk for puppies. The VCAAH hospitals website notes that hormone changes can mimic pregnancy in dogs, causing physical symptoms like lethargy, weight gain and enlargement of the mammary glands [2].

Mothering Toys: One peculiar sign is that your dog may begin treating toys or other objects as if they are her puppies. She may start mothering and caring for them by carrying them around gently in her mouth and reacting defensively if they are taken away from her.

How Long Does it Last?

Phantom pregnancies in dogs typically last 2-3 weeks on average. However, they can persist for up to several months in some cases. The symptoms usually start about 6-8 weeks after the dog’s heat cycle ends as hormones fluctuate. Most dogs will return to normal behavior and hormone levels within a month or two.

According to the ASPCA, the average duration is about 2-3 weeks. However, they note it can vary from just a few days up to several months. The signs tend to become most intense about a month after the heat cycle finishes. After another month or so, the symptoms usually fade away as hormones rebalance.

Purina states that phantom pregnancy symptoms often last around three weeks, but occasionally may persist for up to two months before fading. So while the average duration is on the shorter side, some dogs continue showing motherly behaviors and physical symptoms for an extended duration.

In summary, while phantom pregnancies tend to be short-term lasting about 2-3 weeks, every dog is different. Make sure to monitor your dog’s behavior and consult your veterinarian if the phantom pregnancy persists beyond the typical duration.

Risks and Complications

There are a few potential risks and complications to be aware of with phantom pregnancies in dogs:

Mastitis – The mammary glands become enlarged and swollen, producing milk even without puppies. This can lead to mastitis, which is an infection of the mammary glands. It’s important to monitor the breasts during this time and contact your vet if they appear red, painful, or inflamed (1).

Depression – Some dogs can experience depression or sadness when they don’t give birth to puppies after their phantom pregnancy. They may seem withdrawn, disinterested, or lethargic. Extra affection and attention can help during this time (2).

Weight gain – Female dogs often eat more during a phantom pregnancy. Without puppies to feed, this can lead to unnecessary weight gain. Stick to regular feeding amounts and exercise to prevent obesity (3).

Treatment Options

There are a few approaches to treating phantom pregnancies in dogs:

Wait it out – Many mild cases of phantom pregnancy will resolve on their own within 2-3 weeks. Providing extra exercise and play can help distract the dog. Limiting access to toys and bedding may curb nesting behaviors. However, symptoms lasting over 4 weeks may require other treatment.

Hormone therapy – Vets may prescribe hormones like estrogen, progesterone, and androgens to disrupt the dog’s hormone cycle and end the false pregnancy. These help shorten the duration of symptoms. However, hormone therapy has potential side effects and is not recommended for prolonged use.

Supplements – Natural supplements like Raspberry Leaf, Chasteberry, and Vitex have been used to balance hormones and reduce false pregnancy symptoms. Research on their efficacy is limited, but they provide a non-hormonal treatment option to discuss with your vet.

Ultimately, the best approach depends on your individual dog’s health, risk factors, and symptom severity. Work closely with your vet to determine the safest treatment plan.

Caring for Your Dog

Dogs experiencing a phantom pregnancy need patience, affection, and care from their owners. Some key tips:

  • Give your dog plenty of love and attention. The extra affection will help reassure her.
  • Try to be patient – her maternal behaviors may persist for 2-3 weeks but will subside over time. Don’t punish her for these behaviors.
  • Distract her with new toys, activities and exercise. Take her for long walks, play fetch and interact positively to take her mind off “mothering.”
  • If she is gathering and mothering toys, gently take them away and limit access if the behavior is extreme. Provide a stuffed animal or blanket instead to mother.
  • Avoid over-stimulating the mammary glands. Discourage nursing toys or blankets for long periods.

With time, the phantom behaviors will pass. Ensuring your dog feels loved and supported will help her move through this false pregnancy as comfortably as possible.


The most effective way to prevent phantom pregnancies is to have your dog spayed. Spaying (ovariectomy or ovariohysterectomy) removes the uterus and ovaries, eliminating the dog’s heat cycles and production of progesterone that leads to phantom pregnancies.

According to the PDSA, most dogs can be safely spayed around 6 months of age, although giant breeds may benefit from waiting until 12-15 months old when growth plates have fused [1]. Consult your veterinarian on the ideal timing for your specific dog.

If you do not plan to breed your dog, spaying offers health benefits like preventing uterine infections and eliminating the risk of certain cancers. It is considered the most responsible way to own a female dog.

Limiting light exposure at night may also help prevent phantom pregnancies. Melatonin is secreted in darkness, which helps regulate reproductive cycles. Try keeping lights low in the evenings.

When to See a Vet

In most cases, phantom pregnancy in dogs is not a cause for concern and the symptoms will resolve on their own within 2-3 weeks. However, there are some instances when you should take your dog to the veterinarian:

Prolonged Symptoms: If your dog’s phantom pregnancy symptoms last longer than 3-4 weeks or she seems to be getting worse instead of better, it’s a good idea to have her examined. The vet can check for any underlying medical issues causing the extended symptoms.

Signs of Illness/Infection: Some more serious conditions like pyometra (uterine infection) or mastitis (breast infection) can initially look like a phantom pregnancy. If you notice any signs of illness like lethargy, vomiting, diarrhea, fever, or abnormal vaginal discharge, seek veterinary care right away.

Trouble Nursing: Sometimes dogs with a phantom pregnancy try obsessively to nurse stuffed animals or other pets. This can cause sore, cracked nipples which are prone to infection. It’s important to stop this behavior and have your dog’s breasts examined by the vet.

Not Eating: Loss of appetite is common early on but if it persists along with lethargy, it could signal a more serious issue requiring medical attention.

Medication Recommendations: Your vet may prescribe medication to help curb and shorten the duration of phantom pregnancies. They can also provide tips for managing the condition at home.

Spaying: If phantom pregnancies are recurring and disruptive, spaying your dog may be recommended to prevent hormonal fluctuations that trigger them. Your vet can advise you on the appropriate timing for this procedure.

While phantom pregnancies are generally harmless, it’s important to monitor your dog closely and have her seen if concerning or prolonged symptoms arise. Contact your veterinarian anytime you feel your pet requires medical evaluation.

Scroll to Top