If you own an unspayed bitch, there is a possibility, albeit slim, that she might experience a phantom pregnancy at some point. A phantom pregnancy is when a bitch behaves to all intents and purposes as if she is pregnant, which may involve both behavioural and physical changes, when it is impossible for her to have conceived. This condition does not occur in spayed bitches, and is not hugely common even in unspayed bitches, but is something that owners of unspayed bitches should nevertheless be aware of.
Identifying a phantom pregnancy
If your unspayed bitch appears to be displaying the signs of a phantom pregnancy, the first step to take is to consider carefully if there is any likelihood at all that the pregnancy might be genuine. Work out when her last season was, and think carefully about the possibility that she might have gained access to an un-neutered male dog, such as if you lost her for a short period of time or if she came into contact with an entire male dog. You might also wish to have your vet perform a physical examination and possibly, an ultrasound scan, just to be sure.
If you are totally sure that your bitch cannot genuinely be pregnant but is behaving oddly, the symptoms of a phantom pregnancy can include:
• Nesting behaviour, such as making a bed or den to deliver the phantom “puppies.”
• Treating her toys and other items as her “babies” and protecting them accordingly.
• Weight gain, particularly around the stomach.
• Enlarged nipples, possibly producing colostrum or milk.
• Behavioural changes such as clinginess or anxiety.
Why might a bitch undergo a phantom pregnancy?
An unspayed bitch’s lifecycle is managed by her hormones, and the same hormones that bring her into season also fuel the inherent desire in the unspayed bitch to breed and produce a litter.
If she undergoes a season without becoming pregnant, generally the hormone levels that prime her body and emotions for breeding will naturally drop off as part of the cycle until the lead up to her next season. However, in some cases, this can take longer than usual to happen, triggering the evolutionary desire and expectation in the bitch to give birth to young. Bitches that have already had one or more litters are more likely to be prone to phantom pregnancies than bitches that have never been bred, but the condition is not exclusive to bitches that have already reproduced.
Diagnosing a phantom pregnancy
While your bitch’s phantom pregnancy will ultimately run its course and her hormone levels will return to normal along with your bitch, a phantom pregnancy can be stressful for both the bitch and the owner. It is important to get your bitch checked out by the vet in case there is any other underlying problem causing the condition, and to ensure for definite that there is no genuine pregnancy involved. Your vet will usually perform a blood test and possibly a urinalysis to look for the hormones that indicate a genuine pregnancy, and possibly perform an x-ray or ultrasound to look for puppies and potentially any unusual growths or infections that might be triggering hormonal changes leading to the phantom pregnancy.
Dealing with a phantom pregnancy
There is a limited amount of ways in which you can deal with a phantom pregnancy that is already underway, and the condition will usually go away on its own as your bitch’s hormone levels change and return to normal. However, a bitch that has undergone one phantom pregnancy is exponentially more likely to go through the same process again with future seasons, and as bitches come into season once or twice a year and the phantom pregnancy may run on a lot longer, this can prove to be a recurring problem for dog and owner.
Spaying the bitch will of course resolve the problem, and if you are not intending to use your bitch for breeding, there is of course no good reason not to have her spayed as early as possible! One of the main problems of a phantom pregnancy can be milk production, which can be fairly copious. Your bitch may lick her nipples, which will stimulate milk production and increase hormone levels too, so preventing your bitch from doing this by means of a buster collar or putting your bitch in a t-shirt may help to shorten the length of the phantom pregnancy.
If the phantom pregnancy goes on for a long time or is particularly problematic, your vet may recommend a hormonal treatment to dry up her milk production and counteract the effect of the female hormones that are leading to the generation of the false pregnancy symptoms.