Why Does My Dog Cry During Phantom Pregnancy?

Phantom pregnancy, also known as pseudopregnancy or false pregnancy, is a condition that occurs in unspayed female dogs when they exhibit symptoms of pregnancy without actually being pregnant. Some of the most common symptoms include nesting behaviors, enlarged mammary glands, increased appetite, lethargy, and behavioral changes.

During a phantom pregnancy, the dog’s body goes through hormonal and physical changes similar to those of a normal pregnancy. This is triggered when the female dog ovulates but does not successfully mate and conceive. The dog’s body prepares for pregnancy and lactation, even though there are no puppies. Phantom pregnancies typically resolve on their own after 2-3 weeks as hormone levels return to normal.

What Causes Phantom Pregnancy

Phantom pregnancy is caused by hormonal changes in the body after a female dog goes into heat. When a dog is in heat, increased estrogen levels signal the ovaries to increase progesterone production. After her heat cycle ends, the estrogen levels drop suddenly. However, the progesterone levels remain elevated for up to two months. This extended high progesterone mimics the hormonal profile of an actual pregnancy, causing the dog’s body to think she is pregnant when she is not [1].

The persistently high progesterone triggers many of the physical and behavioral changes associated with pregnancy and birth, even though no puppies have been conceived. This is known as pseudopregnancy or phantom pregnancy. The hormonal fluctuations after heat cause the pituitary gland to secrete prolactin and placental lactogens, which further reinforce the pseudopregnancy symptoms like milk production and mothering behaviors [2].

Why Do Dogs Cry

One of the most common symptoms of a phantom pregnancy is crying and whining. This is often triggered by the hormonal changes associated with pseudopregnancy that make the dog act maternal. Even though the dog is not actually pregnant or nursing puppies, her body still thinks it is. This makes the dog restless as she searches for puppies that don’t exist.

The maternal behavior and nesting instinct from the surge of the hormone prolactin can cause the dog to become extremely attached to toys or other objects. She may even treat these objects like surrogate puppies by carrying them around gently in her mouth or “nursing” on them. The dog may then cry out for the “puppies” when they are not in sight.

In addition, the rise in progesterone levels during a false pregnancy can create anxiety and restlessness. When combined with the maternal instinct, this can cause the dog to whine and cry while frantically searching for her imaginary puppies. The crying may be most intense at night when the dog’s separation anxiety is heightened as her “puppies” are not near her.

Providing extra attention and allowing the dog to spend time in her nest with familiar objects can help ease this distress. But if crying becomes excessive or disruptive, consulting a vet is recommended since medication may help in some cases until the false pregnancy resolves.

Other Behaviors

There are several other common behaviors that occur during a phantom pregnancy in dogs. Some of the main ones are:

Nesting – Dogs will begin gathering items like blankets, pillows, clothes, etc. to build a nest. It’s their natural instinct to want to create a comfortable and safe area for their “puppies.” They may move these items around frequently as they try to get the nest just right.

Mothering toys – Your dog may start to treat toys like they are her puppies. She will carry them around gently in her mouth and allow them to suckle. This maternal instinct gives her comfort.

Gain in appetite – Expecting dogs typically eat more to nourish growing puppies. The same thing happens with phantom pregnancies. Your dog may act like she’s always starving and her appetite will likely increase.

Enlarged mammary glands – The mammary glands enlarge as they prepare to produce milk for the puppies. This happens whether puppies are coming or not. Some dogs even start producing milk during this time. The enlarged glands are not painful but should return to normal after the phantom pregnancy ends.

These natural nesting and mothering behaviors all stem from your dog’s instincts. While the cause is false, these actions are very real to your dog in the moment. With patience and care, the behaviors will subside once the pseudopregnancy has run its course.

How Long Does it Last?

A phantom pregnancy typically lasts around 2-3 weeks in most dogs. However, it can last up to a month in some cases. The symptoms tend to be most intense in the first 2 weeks and then gradually fade over the following days and weeks. According to Purina, the symptoms usually start about 6-8 weeks after the heat cycle ends and may persist for up to 25 days. But each dog is different – some recover more quickly than others.

During the first couple weeks when symptoms are strongest, you may notice changes like milk production, nesting behaviors, mothering toys, lethargy and mood swings. Most of these behaviors tend to diminish in the 2nd and 3rd week. Your dog’s enlarged mammary glands and abdomen will also decrease back to normal size over this time period. With patience and care from her owner, the phantom pregnancy will run its course and your dog will return to her usual self.

Risks

Phantom pregnancy can lead to some health risks for dogs if left untreated. Some of the main risks include:

  • Mastitis – The mammary glands become enlarged and start producing milk. This can lead to mastitis, which is an infection of the mammary glands. Mastitis causes the breast tissue to become inflamed, painful, and red.
  • Depression – Some dogs can become depressed or anxious during a phantom pregnancy. They may seem withdrawn, quiet, or restless. This change in mood is likely due to hormonal fluctuations.
  • Weight gain – Female dogs often overeat during a phantom pregnancy, which can lead to excessive weight gain. The weight gain places extra strain on the dog’s joints and organs.

To minimize these risks, it’s important to identify phantom pregnancies early and seek veterinary care. Medications and lifestyle changes can help manage the condition and prevent complications.

Prevention

The most effective way to prevent phantom pregnancies is to have your dog spayed. Spaying removes the ovaries and uterus, eliminating the possibility of pregnancy and preventing the hormonal fluctuations that lead to phantom pregnancies. According to the Purina article, dogs spayed before their first heat cycle have a near zero chance of developing phantom pregnancy. Even spaying after the first heat cycle greatly reduces the risk.

If you do not wish to spay your dog, limiting contact with male dogs after a heat cycle can help prevent triggering a phantom pregnancy. Keep unspayed female dogs away from males for at least 1 month after their heat has ended, recommends the PDSA. Reducing stimulation and limiting male exposure helps stabilize hormones and prevents symptoms of false pregnancy from developing.

Treatment

For mild cases of phantom pregnancy, the best course of action is often to simply wait it out while providing comfort for your dog. The symptoms usually resolve on their own within 2-3 weeks as progesterone levels decrease (VCA Hospitals, 2022). Some things you can do during this waiting period include:

  • Make sure your dog gets plenty of exercise to help distract her (Purina, 2022). Long walks and play sessions can help relieve pent-up energy.
  • Restrict access to places where she has made a nest for her “puppies” as this can reinforce the mothering behaviors (PDSA, 2022).
  • Temporarily removing toys she is “mothering” can help break the cycle (PDSA, 2022).
  • Gently discourage lactation by binding the mammary glands and restricting fluid intake before bedtime (VCA Hospitals, 2022).

In more severe cases where the symptoms persist beyond 3 weeks, veterinarians may prescribe medication like cabergoline to help shorten the duration of a phantom pregnancy. But this is only necessary in some cases, as the condition is not inherently dangerous to an otherwise healthy dog (PDSA, 2022).

Caring for Your Dog

During this challenging time, be sure to give your dog plenty of love and attention. Extra cuddles and petting can help provide comfort. Limiting potential triggers like toys or bedding from the nest can reduce distress. According to the experts at Purina, “Have patience and don’t get frustrated. Your dog isn’t being clingy or needy by choice. She genuinely believes that puppies are on the way and her body is responding accordingly.” A little understanding can help you provide the best care while your dog recovers.

When to See the Vet

In most cases, symptoms of phantom pregnancy will resolve on their own within 2-3 weeks. However, you should take your dog to the vet if symptoms persist longer than this timeframe or if new concerning symptoms develop.

Signs that warrant a veterinary visit include:

  • Lethargy, loss of appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea
  • Swollen or painful breasts
  • Vaginal discharge or abnormal odors
  • Signs of mastitis like fever, redness, and warmth around the breasts

These could be signs of a uterine infection or mastitis developing as a complication of the phantom pregnancy. It’s important to have your vet examine your dog and provide appropriate treatment if an illness is suspected.

In general, seek prompt veterinary care if your dog’s symptoms aren’t improving or she seems ill. Your vet can provide medication or other therapies to help resolve the phantom pregnancy and diagnose any underlying issues.

According to PetMD, “Most phantom pregnancies will resolve on their own, but some cases require medical intervention.” It’s better to err on the side of caution if your dog’s condition is not resolving or she develops any signs of sickness.

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