What is a False Pregnancy?
A false pregnancy is when a mammal takes on traits of being pregnant, but has not actually conceived. (The most famous case of probable false pregnancy in a human was Mary I, Queen of England.)
Scientists really don't understand why false pregnancies (also called a phantom pregnancies, hysterical pregnancies, or - more correctly - pseudocyesis in humans and pseudopregnancy in other mammals) happen, but they speculate it might be all about the mind: The mammal thinks she is pregnant, and that belief changes her hormones, making her body show signs of pregnancy.
Common symptoms of pseudopregnancy may include:
* Enlarged abdomen
* Development of the mammary glands
* Milk production
* Maternal behavior (like creating a place to give birth and care for babies)
False pregnancy can occur in any mammal pet or homestead/farm animal. Actual mating is not necessary for a false pregnancy to occur. (Dogs sometimes fall into false pregnancy right after being spayed.)
Identifying a False Pregnancy
It's difficult to identify false pregnancies, since you cannot judge by outward behavior or physical appearance. Because the animal's hormones are altered, blood tests may come back positive when experiencing a pseudopregnancy. Patience, or an ultrasound, are the only sure ways to determine if a pregnancy is real.
(Adding to the confusion is the fact that rabbits can reabsorb their kits if they are undernourished or diseased. Not likely in most homesteading situations...certainly not ours!)
How to End a False Pregnancy
If you have, say, a goat that appears pregnant but is not, you could waste months waiting for kids that never appear. While this may not be a big deal on a farm of larger scale, it can really hurt the small-scale homesteader. So is there a way to end a false pregnancy once it's begun?
Unfortunately, mammals are not like broody hens that you can help "snap out of motherhood" by enforcing a "cooling off period." (Learn how to do that here.) The Merrick Veterinary Manual says sometimes tranquilizers are effective in treating a false pregnancy, or perhaps a dose of progesterone. But in almost all cases, time is considered the best medicine. Put on your patience cap! In many cases, the animal cannot be effectively bred until she is over her pseudopregnancy.
The Merrick Manual on Pseudopregnancy:
* Overview of Pseudopregnancy in Goats
* False Pregnancy in Small Animals
* Reproductive Disorders of Female Dogs
* Reproductive Disorders of Female Cats
Click over to MediRabbit for more information about false pregnancies in rabbits.
Cover image courtesy of Sean.