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False pregnancy in dogs. Would spaying help?

Tony Buckwell advises a concerned owner

female labrador

The signs of false pregnancy in dogs

Q: I took my six-year-old bitch to the vet recently, as she seemed a little ‘off colour’ and a bit slow to eat her food. It transpired that she was having a phantom or false pregnancy. I am thinking of having her spayed to prevent this from recurring. What do you advise? (Read advice on spaying.)

What the vet says

Phantom, pseudo or false pregnancy can affect bitches of any age and are, in fact, a normal feature of the bitch’s heat cycle. Some bitches display the signs more readily, and if they have shown signs once, these signs may recur after subsequent seasons. The signs of false pregnancy generally start four to nine weeks after a season. In most cases, the mammary glands become enlarged and milk can be expressed. The dog’s behaviour can change; they can become very ‘clingy’ with their owners, possessive over toys, and generally unsettled. They may start nesting and, as you say, some dogs will go off their food.

It is advisable to ask your vet to check for pregnancy, either by palpating her abdomen or by scanning using ultrasound. (Read more on what to expect when your gundog has puppies.)

pregnant dog ultrasound

Ultrasound will confirm pregnancy

The benefits of neutering

Neutering your bitch will stop her getting pregnant and also stop her suffering from false pregnancy, pyometra or vaginal prolapse. It will not change her behaviour, although it does reduce her metabolic rate. This means that she will need at least 10% to 20% less food to prevent weight gain.

Controlling excess weight in spayed bitches can be problematic, but there are now several low-calorie dog foods on the market. Research has shown that body weight is more effectively controlled by reducing the amount of food several weeks before the bitch is spayed.

Age, in itself, does not preclude a bitch from being spayed. Normally, the decision to operate is influenced more by the condition of the individual dog. Some bitches seem to age more quickly, while others remain fit and healthy until they are well into old age. One study found that spayed bitches live, on average, 12 to 18 months longer than entire ones.

false pregnancy in dog

More on false pregnancy

  • After the first season, a puppy’s teats enlarge slightly, so nipple development in a young bitch can simply be a sign of normal sexual maturity. It doesn’t necessarily indicate that she is pregnant.
  • A bitch’s reproductive cycle doesn’t only last for the three-week period that people associate with them being in season. Cyclical hormonal activity extends for a further nine weeks, whether she is pregnant or not, and the associated signs are referred to as false or pseudopregnancy.
  • You may be able to express milk when gently squeezing the teats.
  • Many bitches will start building nests — some dig exceptionally large holes under bushes or garden hedges — nursing and carrying toys.
  • Other behavioural signs include becoming restless and panting.
  • Any puppies, if present, can be detected from about three to four weeks onwards on ultrasound.

This article was originally published in 2014 and has been updated.