Phantom pregnancy is a hormonally caused attitude change of that occurs in female dogs. Female dogs can show typical signs of maternal behavior as well as physical changes that indicate a pregnancy, even when they have not been impregnated, and are not actually pregnant.
One to three months after being in heat, female dogs may develop symptoms of phantom pregnancy. The dog feels pregnant and shows strong maternal feelings. Typical behavior starts around the time the female dog would conceive the offspring if she was impregnated (usually 9 weeks after her heat). This behavior includes the collection of toys and stuffed animals that are used as a replacement for the absent offspring and are cared for and chaperoned. The creation of nests (e.g. using blankets) is also common behavior. Generally, the female is more aggressive than usual, agitated and shows a decreased appetite. Symptoms also include physical changes. Mammary glands become swollen, are very sensitive, and even produce milk. The stomach can become swollen. The female increasingly licks the genital area to stimulate the milk production. Due to phantom pregnancy, the female dog may become physically and mentally impaired for two to four weeks.
Phantom pregnancy is caused by changes in hormone levels during heat. The “disease“ is a remnant of the time when dogs were wolves. In a pack of wolves only the female leader of the pack produces offspring. Through a phantom pregnancy, non-pregnant female wolves are able to help suckling the offspring and secure their survival.
Usually hormone-free inhibitors (pills or drops) are used to suppress the production of the hormones responsible for the physical symptoms and attitude changes.
If your dog shows symptoms of phantom pregnancy, like aggressiveness, go and see a veterinarian at the next opportunity. Please don’t try to prevent your dog’s behavior by taking away its replacement babies because this could cause an aggressive reaction and further increase her anxiety. Also, it is important to refrain from cooling the mammary glands with creams or cold packs. Furthermore don’t milk the mammary glands, and allow our dog to do this herself. Make sure that she can accomplish this, and is not prevented by the use of a neck collar or the wearing of a t-shirt. By taking long walks with your dog and providing a wide variety of activities you can help alleviate the changes in attitude.