False Pregnancy

Many years ago, I was watching a wildlife documentary narrated by the god of nature films, David Attenborough. Its subject was a wild dog in Africa and her relationship with the pack. Because food is so precious to wild animals and a hard fought for necessity, only the alpha bitch of the wild dog pack breeds as it requires the skills of all the dogs in the pack to rear the pups. The pack needs to work together to hunt food, fight off predators, defend a territory, and feed and nurture the young. Unfortunately, this lesser ranking female that was the subject of the film, also had a litter of three pups but the pack was not interested in supporting her and ostracised her from the group. She had to find her own food, couldn’t carry all her pups to keep up with the pack and gradually lost all contact with them – survival for her and her pups was unlikely.

Our domesticated dogs still retain many of the features of wild dogs.

When a bitch comes into season ready to breed, her hormone changes prepare her body for pregnancy and caring for young. Even if she is not pregnant her hormones will convince her body that she is and will produce the behavioural and physical changes ready to rear a litter. She will become more maternal and will look after and nurse her favourite toy. She will develop nesting instincts, make dens in quiet rooms and she may even produce milk. These changes in wild dogs will ensure the females of the pack look after and nurse the alpha bitch’s pups as though they were their own and bonds the pack together. In our domestic environment, if pairs of socks is being carried around and protected as though they are puppies - your bitch is having a false pregnancy.

Within two weeks these symptoms usually disappear, and you pet returns to normal.

However, false pregnancy symptoms can become more intense. Occasionally, a bitch will produce a very large amount of milk with the risk of infection within the mammary glands. Mastitis can produce a fever and generalise illness as well as abscesses in the glands themselves. If she continually licks her mammary glands, it can be very difficult to stop milk production. I have known one Doberman produce milk for over 10 months, so severe was the problem. Very occasionally a bitch may become aggressive defending her “puppy” and become very unlike the mild-mannered pet you are used to. If the symptoms are more severe, then your vet can prescribe hormone treatment to help. Neutering you dog will prevent false pregnancy altogether but can only be done when no milk is present.

So what happened to the lone wild dog and her pups? After stretching my heart strings to breaking point, the film crew caught up with her a couple of months later. She and other ostracised dogs had found each other and made their own pack and all her pups had survived. I do like a happy ending.