How Do You Know The Difference Between A False Pregnancy And A Real Pregnancy In Dogs?

A false pregnancy, also known as pseudopregnancy, is a condition in female dogs where they show signs of pregnancy even though they are not actually pregnant. This occurs after a heat cycle when progesterone levels remain elevated, causing physical and behavioral changes in the dog that mimic pregnancy. It’s important to distinguish a false pregnancy from a real pregnancy because the treatments and required care are very different. If a false pregnancy is mistaken for a real pregnancy, it could lead to complications. Understanding the differences in symptoms and getting an accurate diagnosis from a vet is key to providing proper care for a dog and avoiding any unnecessary medical interventions.

Signs of a Real Pregnancy

Some of the most apparent physical signs of a real pregnancy in dogs include weight gain, enlarged abdomen, and milk production. As early as 3 weeks into the pregnancy, your dog may start to gain weight. This is due to the growing puppies as well as increased appetite. Weight gain is often one of the first signs an owner notices that alerts them to the possibility of pregnancy.

Around 4-5 weeks into the pregnancy, your dog’s abdomen will start becoming noticeably enlarged. This is from the growing uterus and fetal puppies taking up more room. You may be able to feel the fetuses in the abdomen around this time. As the pregnancy progresses to the middle and late stages, the abdomen will become very large and rounded.

In the last 2-3 weeks of pregnancy, the dog’s mammary glands will begin producing milk in preparation for nursing. The teats will become enlarged and may leak milk. This is a sign the dog will be going into labor soon.

Other physical signs during a real pregnancy include nipple pinkening, vulva swelling, nesting behavior, and lethargy. However, the weight gain, enlarged abdomen, and milk production are some of the most obvious and definitive physical indicators of true pregnancy.

Sources:

https://www.michigananimalhospital.com/site/blog/2021/11/30/dog-pregnant-signs

https://www.webmd.com/pets/dogs/signs-dog-pregnant

Signs of a False Pregnancy

Some of the most common signs of a false pregnancy in dogs include nesting behaviors, mothering toys, enlarged nipples, and milk production. Dogs experiencing a false pregnancy will often gather items like toys, clothes, or blankets to create a nest in preparation for their “litter.” They become very protective and affectionate towards these items, carrying them around and treating them like real puppies. According to the AKC, this mothering behavior is one of the most noticeable signs of a false pregnancy [1].

Enlarged or swollen nipples are another key indicator. While this is normal in a real pregnancy as the mammary glands prepare to produce milk, in a false pregnancy the dog’s nipples become enlarged even without puppies. The nipples may even produce milk, especially if the dog has had a prior litter. According to VCA Hospitals, this milk production can last up to a month and mimic a real pregnancy [2].

Differences in Behavior

There are some key differences in a dog’s behavior during a real pregnancy versus a false pregnancy. Dogs experiencing a false pregnancy often become more affectionate and clingy with their owners. They may guard toys or other objects as if they were real puppies, carrying them around and protectively keeping them close by. Some dogs will even gather up stuffed animals or other objects to create a nesting area in preparation for their “litter.”

In contrast, a dog going through a real pregnancy will often become more aloof and withdrawn as her pregnancy progresses. She is focused on the developing puppies rather than seeking extra attention from her owner. A pregnant dog has little interest in playing with toys or fetching objects. Her priority is preparing a nest for the arrival of her puppies.

According to the pet health site PetMD (https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/reproductive/c_dg_false_pregnancy), dogs experiencing a false pregnancy often demonstrate “maternal behaviors toward inanimate objects” more intensely than an actually pregnant dog caring for her puppies.

Differences in Physical Signs

One of the main differences between a real and false pregnancy is in the physical changes seen. In a real pregnancy, the abdomen will enlarge as the puppies grow over the course of 58-68 days. The dog’s weight will also steadily increase. According to the AKC, a pregnant dog’s weight can increase up to 50% above normal by late gestation.

In contrast, dogs experiencing a false pregnancy generally do not gain significant weight or have an enlarged abdomen. There may be some minor abdominal distention and mild weight gain from fluid accumulation, but not to the extent seen in a real pregnancy, according to VCA Hospitals.

Enlargement of the mammary glands is another key physical difference. With a real pregnancy, the dog’s nipples will enlarge and mammary glands will swell as they prepare to produce milk. In a false pregnancy, the mammary glands may still swell but not to the same degree. Milk production varies, with some false pregnancies resulting in milk letdown while others do not, according to the AKC.

Overall, the physical changes are much more pronounced in a real pregnancy versus a false pregnancy. Careful monitoring for abdominal enlargement, weight gain, and mammary changes can help determine if a dog is truly pregnant. However, an examination by a veterinarian may be needed for a definitive diagnosis.

Getting an Accurate Diagnosis

There are several ways veterinarians can accurately diagnose pregnancy in dogs, including physical exams, ultrasound, blood tests, and x-rays:

During a physical exam, the vet will palpate the dog’s abdomen feeling for fetal growths. This method can confirm pregnancy as early as 3-4 weeks into gestation when the fetuses start to develop [1].

An ultrasound scan can detect pregnancy in dogs very early, around 3 weeks gestation, by visualizing the fetal cardiac activity [2]. Ultrasound is considered one of the most accurate ways to diagnose and monitor dog pregnancy.

A blood test detecting relaxin hormone levels can confirm pregnancy as early as 22-27 days into gestation [1]. Relaxin is produced by the placenta once an embryo implants in the uterus.

Abdominal x-rays can determine litter size later in pregnancy around 55 days gestation when fetal bones become visible [3]. However, x-rays may miss very early pregnancy.

Dangers of False Pregnancy

While a false pregnancy may seem harmless, there are some potential dangers and risks to be aware of. One of the most concerning issues is depression. Dogs experiencing a phantom pregnancy may become lethargic, show a lack of interest in normal activities, and seem generally depressed. This can happen as their hormone levels drop back to normal after the false pregnancy ends. Experts recommend keeping a close eye on your dog’s behavior and moods, providing extra attention and stimulation if needed.

Appetite loss and lack of proper nutrition is another problem. Some dogs go off their food entirely during a false pregnancy, which can lead to weight loss, dehydration, and vitamin deficiencies if not addressed. Make sure your dog maintains a healthy diet by offering enticing foods like chicken, cheese, or wet food if they refuse regular meals. Consider dividing meals into smaller portions fed more frequently. If appetite loss persists, consult your vet.

Lastly, the swelling of mammary glands and potential milk production poses a risk of mastitis – a painful mammary gland infection. The mammary glands engorge with milk that has no puppies to feed. This stagnant milk increases chances of bacteria invasion and infection. Monitor your dog’s breasts during a false pregnancy and contact your vet if they appear irritated, inflamed, or leaky. Antibiotics may be prescribed to treat or prevent mastitis (Purina, 2022).

Treatment Options

There are several treatment options for false pregnancy in dogs:

Hormones

Vets may prescribe hormone therapy to stop the production of prolactin and shorten the duration of false pregnancy. Bromocriptine is commonly used and stops the release of prolactin from the pituitary gland (cite: https://vcahospitals.com/know-your-pet/false-pregnancy-or-pseudopregnancy-in-dogs). Cabergoline is another medication that can reduce prolactin levels (cite: https://veterinarypartner.vin.com/doc/?id=4952188&pid=19239).

Spaying

Spaying a dog eliminates the possibility of experiencing false pregnancies in the future. This surgical option completely removes the uterus and ovaries, so progesterone levels cannot rise after a heat cycle (cite: https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/reproductive/c_dg_false_pregnancy).

Removing Stimuli

Eliminating access to stimuli that trigger mothering behaviors can help shorten a false pregnancy episode. This includes taking away stuffed animals or toys that the dog mothers and limiting contact with puppies. Reducing stimulation helps the dog’s hormone levels return to normal more quickly (cite: https://www.petmd.com/dog/conditions/reproductive/c_dg_false_pregnancy).

Caring for a Pregnant Dog

Proper care of a pregnant dog is crucial for the health of the puppies and mother. Here are some tips for caring for a pregnant dog:

Nutrition

Feeding a high-quality puppy food or premium adult dog food is ideal during pregnancy and lactation. The calories help nourish the growing puppies and enable the mother to produce milk. Follow your veterinarian’s advice on the amount to feed. Generally, you’ll increase the amount by 25-50% in the last 3-4 weeks of pregnancy. Always keep fresh water available. According to the American Kennel Club, pregnant and nursing dogs require 2-3 times more calcium than normal. Talk to your vet about supplementing with calcium if needed (American Kennel Club).

Exercise

Moderate exercise is fine for a pregnant dog. Take shorter, regular walks to keep her fit and to strengthen abdominal and rear leg muscles for birth. Avoid intensive exercise and rigorous activities in the last few weeks, as this can potentially harm the puppies. Follow your vet’s guidance on an appropriate exercise plan (EverydayHealth).

Preparing Whelping Area

A few weeks before delivery, set up a nesting/whelping area for the mother. This should be a warm, quiet, comfortable space away from other pets and children. Place blankets and towels that smell familiar in a box or enclosed area. Make sure the mother dog can come and go freely. Monitoring during delivery will be easier if she’s confined to the prepared whelping space.

Preventing Future False Pregnancies

The most effective way to prevent future false pregnancies in dogs is to get them spayed. Spaying is a surgical procedure in which the dog’s ovaries and uterus are removed, eliminating their ability to go into heat and hormonal changes that can lead to pseudopregnancy.

Some key points about spaying to prevent false pregnancy:

  • Most dogs can be safely spayed around 6 months of age. Consult your veterinarian for the ideal timing.
  • Spaying completely stops the estrus cycle, preventing the hormonal fluctuations that trigger false pregnancies.
  • If a dog is spayed during a false pregnancy, the condition will immediately start to subside.
  • Spaying has other health benefits like reducing the risk of certain cancers and infections.
  • Spaying is a one-time procedure that permanently prevents heat cycles and false pregnancies in the future.

Outside of spaying, limiting the number of estrus cycles a dog experiences can help reduce the chances of false pregnancy. Work closely with your vet if you opt not to spay, as hormones and fertility drugs may be used to better control estrus cycles.

While less effective than spaying, these steps can help mitigate false pregnancies. But for the best results, most vets recommend spaying your dog to prevent recurring false pregnancies.

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