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False pregnancy in female dogs

Q: Gracie, our 9-month-old golden retriever, was in heat a month ago and was spayed this week. Now she nests and carries her stuffed animals around—which she’s never done before. What’s happening?

A: It sounds like Gracie is going through a false pregnancy, a normal phenomenon in dogs.

Whether an unsterilized female dog is bred or not, her progesterone hormone levels go up during the two months following her heat, or bleeding period. Progesterone promotes gestation, or pregnancy, so the dog’s body thinks she’s pregnant, even if she isn’t.

At the end of the two months, progesterone goes down, while levels of a hormone called prolactin rise. Prolactin promotes lactation, or milk production, as well as mammary gland development and mothering behavior.

When Gracie was spayed, her ovaries and uterus were removed, which abruptly cut off her supply of progesterone, triggering prolactin secretion. Her high prolactin levels are inducing her to build a nest and mother her stuffed animals.

As Gracie’s prolactin levels settle back down, her false pregnancy will end. Until then, give her your support through her confusing adventure.

Editor’s Note: Pet parents often wonder if sterilizing their pets is helpful or harmful. Here are health reasons and tips for spaying or neutering pets.

Lee Pickett, V.M.D. practices companion animal medicine. Contact her at

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