Ask Dr Iain-False Pregnancy


Dear Dr. Iain….


Dear Dr Iain

Could you please write an article on false pregnancy (phantom pregnancy) in Griffons and what we can do about it as I have had one or two of my Griffons suffering from false pregnancies and I am sure others would be interested in reading your article on this subject.

Kind regards Ros and Dave Finch


Doc, does my bitch have a false, phantom or pseudo pregnancy?

Thanks Ros and Dave for your question and I hope my answer doesn’t disappoint you as it has with many clients in the past who present their bitch, who can’t possibly be pregnant but is still lactating profusely and perhaps nesting on a collection of golf balls. They want a remedy for this obviously abnormal condition, or is it?

False, phantom and pseudo pregnancy are different names for the same condition which is an absolutely normal and fairly common phenomenon that can occur in any entire ovulating bitch. This doesn’t mean that vets aren’t sympathetic to your concerns but usually the best advice is that you simply ignore the situation because it will usually resolve itself anyway.

Why do bitches develop false pregnancy? Bitches are odd compared to most other mammals because even if they don’t fall pregnant during their oestrus period, the corpora lutea left behind in their ovaries from the recently ovulated eggs will still produce similar levels of progesterone as a pregnant bitch. This is regardless of whether they have or haven’t been mated. Most other mammals require hormones produced by the developing embryo/s to stimulate the corpora lutea to produce progesterone. About 2 to 3 months after ovulation, which in a non pregnant bitch is the late dioestrus stage of her cycle, the progesterone levels in her bloodstream will start to fall. In a pregnant bitch the same thing happens just before whelping but it will be a more dramatic fall. What triggers rising blood levels of prostaglandins which in turn diminishes blood supply to the corpora lutea and hence causes falling progesterone levels? That hasn’t been fully worked out but in the pregnant bitch it might be in response to increasing blood levels of a hormone called relaxin. Many vets offer a blood test to detect relaxin, which can be used to confirm pregnancy after about 4 weeks post mating, as an alternative to ultrasound examination. Relaxin is a hormone that is produced by the growing pup’s placentas. A non pregnant bitch whether or not showing signs of false pregnancy will not test positively for relaxin. Regardless of whether the bitch is pregnant or not, falling progesterone levels will elicit the production of another hormone, prolactin, which is responsible for the development of the mammary glands, milk production and nesting behaviour. Why do some non pregnant bitches develop these full blown false pregnancy signs and others don’t? Nobody really knows.

The symptoms of false pregnancy are usually milk production but can include abdominal distension, anorexia, restlessness and mothering dolls and golf balls! Some might have the classic drop in temperature and even experience contractions. These symptoms will usually regress within 2 to 3 weeks and the condition won’t affect the timing of the next oestrus cycle. There is no association between false pregnancy and any reproductive abnormalities. The same bitch might not develop signs of false pregnancy after her next oestrus period but she might and if she does then it will always be 2 to 3 months after ovulation.

Do’s and don’ts for a bitch with false pregnancy. If a bitch has marked and persisting mammary gland development and milk production and is proven to be not pregnant whether by relaxin blood testing, ultrasound exam or even radiography, then you must ensure that nobody is providing any stimulation to her mammary glands. Why? Because if any other dog, puppy, kitten or even the bitch herself is licking, sucking or just rubbing at the mammary glands then this will cause ongoing stimulation of prolactin production and the condition will persist. So even if the mammary glands look uncomfortably large, you must resist the urge to express them or even to apply hot or cold packs to them. If we suspect the bitch is stimulating the glands herself which is usually the cause of a persistent false pregnancy, we will recommend fitting a T-shirt or something similar to prevent her reaching the mammary glands. Fitting an Elizabethan collar over her head might work but sometimes even rubbing the mammary glands with the collar is enough stimulation to keep up milk production!

Sometimes reducing the bitch’s food intake for several days will help reduce her milk production and hasten the regression of the false pregnancy.

Other causes of false pregnancy symptoms?  If the bitch hasn’t had a recent season yet has mammary gland development then we may run tests such as a thyroid hormone (T4) blood test in case she has hypothyroidism which can also cause high prolactin levels.

Another potential cause is where someone in the household may be on HRT (Hormonal Replacement Therapy) for problems such as those experienced by some women during menopause. If the bitch (I won’t make any puns about meaning the canine variety!) comes into contact with any HRT cream or lotion then that too can elicit symptoms of false pregnancy.

Will spaying a bitch stop a false pregnancy? Even if you plan not to use the bitch for breeding in the future then delay spaying her until the false pregnancy has resolved, putting her through the stress of surgery will not speed up regression of a false pregnancy at all. Even spaying a bitch shortly after her season has finished can make it more likely that she may develop false pregnancy because we are suddenly removing those progesterone producing ovaries and so will stimulate prolactin production. Ideally we should delay spaying until 3 to 4 months after her season if we want to minimise the chances of a false pregnancy occurring.

Mastitis and pyometra. Any bitch who is producing milk is susceptible to developing mastitis. If any mammary glands are particularly swollen, inflamed and painful to touch then do visit the vet as antibiotics may be required.

Another reason to visit the vet is when a bitch shows signs of pyometra, an infection of the uterus, which typically develops a month or two following her season. False pregnancy doesn’t increase the risk of this occurring. A bitch with pyometra will typically be unwell, drinking excessively, possibly also have a distended abdomen and in some cases will have an exudative discharge from her vulva. The risk of a bitch developing pyometra and also mammary tumours increases with age and so once a decision is made that you won’t be breeding with a bitch then she should be spayed.

Medical treatment of false pregnancy. Very occasionally a severe and persistent false pregnancy, especially if mastitis is involved, might be treated medically to hasten its regression. Nowadays we never recommend the use of androgens such as testosterone, nor progesterone or it’s alternatives for treatment of false pregnancy. Another drug that was useful, bromocryptine, hasn’t been available for several years now in a veterinary preparation.

There is a human drug, cabergoline, which is a prolactin suppressant and is available as Dostinex or Cabaser tablets. Your vet may prescribe this but even the smallest tablet available is 0.5mg (500ug) and a typical dose for a bitch is 5ug/kg bodyweight for 10 to 14 days which isn’t convenient for most Griffon sized bitches. So in most cases a compounding pharmacist is needed to supply this drug in a form that is practical to use which takes several days to prepare and is very expensive. Maybe in the future a veterinary preparation of this useful drug may become available in Australia. However, if the bitch is self stimulating her mammary glands then even this drug won’t work!

So, do try restricting her food intake and make sure that that you or she isn’t stimulating her mammary glands and most cases do resolve by 2 to 3 weeks. By all means do send any golf balls she’s sitting on to me because I’m forever losing them on the golf course and my preferred brand is ‘Ben Hogan’!

Dr. Iain Mitchell B.V.Sc (Hons), M.A.C.V.Sc.


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