Essential pet advice with vet Jo Gourlay

This week we take a look at a false pregnancy, a condition that primarily affects un-neutered bitches but can also be seen, less commonly, in entire female cats.

As well as trying to understand what the condition is, and why it occurs, we will also discuss how to recognise and treat it.

The term false pregnancy, also sometimes referred to as phantom pregnancy, is describing a hormonal condition resulting in a non-pregnant animal mimicking the physical and behavioural signs of pregnancy, nursing or lactation.

In bitches, the signs normally occur six to 10 weeks after they have been in season, which is when they would be expected to whelp (have puppies) had they become pregnant. It is believed to happen because it is would have been of evolutionary benefit in a group situation, so stems from when they were in a pack environment in the wild.

Not all bitches in the group would become pregnant but these false pregnancies would allow the non-pregnant animals to produce milk and help raise the puppies of the pack. In practice, I have known of dogs suffering with false pregnancies to accept and raise puppies whose own mother has died. The problem is that in the majority of cases in domesticated dogs, the condition is of no benefit and can lead to additional complications such as mastitis (inflammation of the mammary glands).

As you would expect, the clinical signs are similar to late pregnancy: restlessness, nesting behaviour (creating a bed ready for pups, nursing soft toys and sometimes aggression due to guarding these toys as if they were puppies), anorexia, lethargy and mammary glands often swollen with milk.

Our bitch used to become very possessive of her sock bundles (soft toys made out of our old socks) during false pregnancies and completely intolerant of our male terrier.

Diagnosis of the condition is often done on clinical signs and knowing when the bitch was in season, although ruling out genuine pregnancy is vital. Although it may take three to four weeks, the condition is normally self-limiting so will resolve on its own.

As previously mentioned, 
one potential adverse complication is mastitis developing so this needs to be checked for until the mammary glands return to normal.

Many of the signs of false pregnancy occur because of the release of a hormone called prolactin, so when treatment is advised, a drug which stops prolactin production is used. In addition, some vets may advise limiting the food intake to reduce the milk production. Unfortunately, recurrence of the problem is common in subsequent reproductive cycles, so the same thing is likely to occur after the bitches next season.

If the signs have been severe enough to warrant treatment, then spaying may be recommended unless she is intended for breeding.

It’s important that the false pregnancy is over before they are neutered, so if you decide to go down this route to prevent a repeat episode, speak to your vet about the timing of the operation as well as potential benefits and risks.