When my dog started behaving protective around me, I wondered what was going on.
It turned out that I was pregnant; then, it happened with each of my next three kids.
Vets say this is not uncommon, but there's little research-based evidence.
I'll admit it — historically, I've never been much of a dog person. But when I was dating my now-husband, he made it clear that owning a dog was a nonnegotiable in the future he envisioned, and I liked him more than I disliked dogs. We were married only a week before he begged to pick up a puppy from Pittsburgh, and I agreed, in exchange for him doing one load of dishes in our tiny apartment sink.
Thus, I embarked on the challenge of keeping an energetic, full-size Australian shepherd named Winston happy and healthy in a one-bedroom walk-up apartment. I can't say I was always enthusiastic about the situation. (Maybe because it was, in retrospect, quite unwise!) My husband and Winston were instantly obsessed with each other, and I often felt like a third wheel in one of those '90s animal caper movies about a boy and his dog.
Then one month, everything — and I do mean everything — changed. Winston started choosing me to cuddle with, hopping on to our couch and sitting on my feet to keep them warm. In the mornings, I would stumble over his warm form posted up on the floor where he was guarding my side of the bed. He started whimpering more when I left the house for work and sometimes would sit in front of the door to try to keep me home. Winston was acting less like my husband's frat bro and more like my personal bodyguard, and I couldn't understand why.
That is, until I took a pregnancy test that came back positive.
Had Winston known our family was expanding before I did? Though the evidence is mostly anecdotal, vets and pet parents largely agree that it could be possible for dogs to sniff out a pregnancy, maybe even before their human family members know what's going on. While you can't use your dog as a pregnancy test, a sudden change in your dog's behavior might mean it's time to take one.
Is it true that dogs can detect a pregnancy before their human owners?
"Although there isn't clear research to confirm dogs' ability to sniff out pregnancy, there are lots of anecdotal reports," Philippa Pavia, a board-certified veterinary surgeon and the vice president of medical strategy at Bond Vet in New York City, said.
She cited one of her coworkers' pets as an example of this phenomenon. While the dog is often a bit shy, he has a history of becoming very affectionate with expectant parents. When this dog started jumping on another colleague's lap and settling in for long snuggles, its owner had a strong hunch about why. Pavia said the dog's owner kept their suspicions a secret, but it wasn't long before the colleague shared their pregnancy with the team.
But even the anecdotal evidence on this front is mixed. Rebecca Greenstein, an expectant parent, dog owner, and veterinary medical advisor for Rover, is having the opposite experience.
She said: "I want to be able to tell you my deeply intelligent and intuitive pupper knew I was pregnant. But I have searched for meaning in my 1-year-old Goldendoodle's behaviors and have concluded he has not one clue."
Greenstein's dog even jumps directly onto her pregnant belly so often that she jokes he's going to dent the baby's head.
Why dogs might act differently when you're pregnant
There are a few reasons dogs might have a noticeable reaction to a pregnancy in the household.
The first reason is chemical. Dogs are highly sensitive to changes in scent. A study published in 2022 found that dogs could detect changes in the scent of humans' breath and sweat based on experimentally induced psychological stress. The sample size of the study was small, but it supported research on how dogs could perceive changes in human emotions through smell.
Greenstein said that the "impeccable" canine sense of smell meant they're keen at detecting shifts in pheromones and hormones.
"In pregnancy, a woman's hormonal milieu changes so dramatically that it would make sense that our canine friends would pick up on that scent difference," she said.
Whether or not your dog can then equate a different scent signature with the concept of being pregnant is up for debate. Dogs' sense of smell, Greenstein said, has been used to detect everything from contraband drugs to some cancers and COVID-19.
"They may not necessarily understand what it is that they are smelling per se, but they can distinguish between the almost imperceptible changes in body chemistry and odor signatures that can occur in other medical conditions, ranging from diabetes to epilepsy," Greenstein said.
There's also the psychological element. Pregnancy can be a trigger for stress and anxiety that you pass along to your dog. In this way, Winston's extra snuggles might have been triggered by comfort seeking as much as comfort giving.
A small study of Shetland sheepdogs and border collies examined cortisol levels in dogs and their human owners, finding that the dogs' stress levels often mirrored those of their owners. And multiple studies have found that when dogs hear sounds of distress from their owners or even other dogs, they experience what's called "emotional contagion," exhibiting more comfort-offering behaviors.
Given all this information, when you're trying for a baby, it can be tempting to look for a little bit of extra meaning in your dog's behavior. But Pavia cautions against putting too much stock in this phenomenon.
"Dogs should not be relied upon as the sole diagnostic tool, and their findings should always be confirmed by medical professionals," she said.
How to help prepare your dog for your new baby
Your dog may or may not be aware of an impending arrival. Either way, it's important to prepare them well to meet your baby. Pavia recommends playing recordings of baby sounds and letting them sniff baby items once your little one arrives. She also tells dog owners to be mindful that an owner's pregnancy can be a stressful time for dogs and that they may require extra attention and care whenever you can give it.
Having a dog during early parenthood has some unique considerations for humans, too. Researchers theorize that parents who have a family pet might experience lower rates of mental-health conditions associated with the postpartum period, though more research is needed for this to be conclusive. Households with dogs also tend to be more active, and at least one study has found dogs have a positive effect on children's immune systems, which may even start in utero.
I've now been pregnant four times, and each time, Winston has resumed his protective alter-doggo. He has kept me company through endless morning-sickness sessions, sat on my swollen feet during preeclampsia, and lifted his loyal, old limbs up and down my stairs thousands of times to make sure I was holding up OK through pregnancy insomnia.
He's also been so patient with every toddler who tripped over his feet and every baby who gave a curious tug on his ear. I might never become a dog person, but I'm a ride-or-die Winston person; I'd go pick up that puppy from Pittsburgh again in a heartbeat. Though I'd probably try to get a better deal on the dishes.
Read the original article on Business Insider