zoology biology benno meyer rochow science blog pregnancy human dog

False Alarm for Female Physiology

Have you ever heard of “pseudocyesis”?

Teachers can have an enormous impact on whether a child likes a subject or not. I, for instance, hated math at middle school, but with a new teacher at high school I began to love math to an extent that I wanted to study it at university. History was another subject, whose teacher killed my early interest in it, because he demanded that we kids byhearted hundreds of historic dates. Had he told us of the pseudo-pregnancies (also known as false or phantom pregnancy and pseudocyesis) of Queen Mary in 1555, Queen Draga of Serbia in 1900 and the Zar’s wife Alexandra in 1903, history classes could have been so much more interesting!

Pregnancies of this kind, that do not exist, are actually a diabolical bluff of nature and can be due to a variety of causes like a tumour of the pituitary gland, a growth elsewhere in the body (causing an imbalance of the hormonal cocktail of principally prolactin, oestrogen and cortisol) and psychological factors. Caused by fear of an unwanted child or an extreme desire to conceive, false pregnancies are not exactly common in humans, but when they do happen they show almost all the regular signs of “the real thing” and can have immense consequences (as seen in the case of Queen Mary the First of England and Queen Draga of Serbia, whose false pregnancy persuaded the 10 years younger Alexander the First to marry her). Virtually indistinguishable from a proper pregnancy, what happens in the pseudo-pregnancy is that the period stops, morning sickness appears, the abdominal circumference increases, the breasts swell up and a display of darkening around the nipples is apparent; mothering instincts come to the fore and in the end even labour pains may occur.

In dogs pseudo-pregnancies can be induced by having a bitch mate with a dog, but without the latter depositing sperm. Our lovely black dog in Jamaica, appropriately named “Kuro”, was a prime example of this kind of phantom pregnancy. She was only one and a half years old, when we noticed that she became less active, spent a great deal more in her ‘nest’ in the garden and seemed unhappy when we approached her nest. Then the enlargement of her abdomen became more and more apparent and an increase in the mammae with teats being clearly visible indicated to me that she must be pregnant. When she stole some of my daughter’s soft toys and we found them and other objects in her nest, we interpreted that as an attempt to prepare the nest for the arrival of some puppies. The night we expected the big event to occur Kuro was restless, had no appetite, was whining and panting a little bit more than usual and obviously happiest to retire to the quiet recess in her nest. The big surprise came at the end of what I expected to be the whelping time in the morning.

A slim and totally normal Kuro, waggling her tail, was standing in front of the back door, her abdomen suddenly reduced to its earlier slim shape, but there were no puppies! It was an enormous surprise to us and a great introduction to the phenomenon of pseudo-pregnancies. Scientists are not unanimous in their interpretation of this physiological spook of Nature, but it does seem plausible that at least for animals with seasonal reproduction pseudo-pregnancies could be seen as a kind of “practice”, to keep the body in shape for things to come when the real event takes place. Luckily for humans pseudo-pregnancies are a lot less common than in dogs and besides our women have other ways to keep their bodies in shape, don’t they?

© Dr V.B. Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com, 2018.
Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to V.B Meyer-Rochow and http://www.bioforthebiobuff.wordpress.com with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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