Tony Buckwell advises a concerned owner

Is it a phantom pregnancy?

Q: We have a young springer spaniel bitch that had her first season about six or seven weeks ago. We made sure she kept away from other dogs, but now her milk glands are developing and her nipples are becoming more prominent. Is this normal? We are concerned that somehow she might be pregnant, so should we have her checked? Or is she experiencing a phantom pregnancy?

A: 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.

Signs of false pregnancy

The signs of false pregnancy will typically include milk production and maternal behaviour. The mammary glands swell and 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. They will often ride other dogs and allow themselves to be ridden, and they may go off their food for a few days.

It is quite likely that the signs you are seeing are simply those of your bitch maturing as she goes through her first seasonal cycle, but it would be best to set your mind at rest and ask your vet to check for pregnancy, either by palpating her abdomen or by scanning using ultrasound. Any puppies, if present, can be detected from about three to four weeks onwards. (Read what to expect when your gundog has puppies.)