When it comes to incontinence, the main difference between dogs and humans is one of access. You can make a quick run to the bathroom, but until your dog develops opposable thumbs, he can’t open the door and he’s at your mercy. Ultimately, that’s a blessing, since an accident inside is the first sign you need to pay attention to his health.
Incontinence is a loss of your dog’s ability to control his bladder. It may be as simple as a few dribble spots on the carpet or as serious as a soaked bed. You may notice a urine smell on your dog and see raw or inflamed skin around the penis or vulva.
Incontinence can affect dogs of either gender, but it typically doesn’t occur until the middle or later years of the dog’s life. Fortunately, treatment for incontinence usually yields good results.
There are several causes of incontinence. The most typical is known as hormone-responsive incontinence, which is caused by a hormone deficiency. The hormones (testosterone in males and estrogen in females) impact a dog’s ability to control the urethral sphincter, a band of muscular tissues near the base of the bladder. These tissues act as a reservoir or control device, either retaining urine or permitting it to flow out through the urethra.
Anything that negatively affects the production of hormones ups your dog’s risk of developing incontinence. For instance, the production of these hormones naturally decreases in an aging dog. Age-related hormone-responsive incontinence usually shows itself when the dog reaches eight or nine years old.
Spayed or neutered dogs are more susceptible to developing the condition because their reproductive organs (which are responsible for the production of hormones) have been removed. Incontinence is most frequently observed in spayed females between the ages of three and five.
Other forms of incontinence include:
- Submissive urination, usually seen when a dog is in a stressful situation. In these cases, the dog usually passes a small amount of urine and assumes a submissive position, lying on his back or belly.
- Neurogenic incontinence, usually a result of a tumor, infection, or spinal cord injury that disrupts the nerves that control the bladder.
- Overdistention of the bladder, causing a partial obstruction that leads to dribbling. To the owner, the signs will appear similar to neurogenic incontinence.
- Kidney failure, in which the kidneys cannot concentrate the urine, causing the dog to drink more than usual.
When it’s time to see a vet
If your dog is dripping or dribbling urine or has more than one significant accident when he has ample access to the outdoors, it’s time to see a vet. You may notice:
- Accidents that occur most frequently when he’s asleep or extremely relaxed (your dog may rise from rest, leaving a puddle or wet spot behind).
- Irritation or frequent licking of the genital area, causing raw or inflamed skin.
- Increased drinking of water.
It’s important to check kidney function to make sure there’s not another medical reason for your dog’s accidents, such as a urinary tract infection, kidney infection, or diabetes.
Your vet will also do a urinalysis to check for the presence of any bacteria. Further tests, including blood work and X-rays, can rule out other health issues that may be causing the problem.
If hormones are the culprit and you’ve got a female dog, your vet will likely prescribe phenylpropanolamine, which helps improve the tone of the urethral sphincter. If that’s unsuccessful, the next drug will likely be estrogen in the form of diethylstilbestrol. For neutered males, your vet will prescribe testosterone to accomplish the same thing. In these cases, incontinence is usually easy to treat.
If the cause is neurogenic, treatment will be more difficult. It may involve long-term catheterization combined with antibiotics to reduce the chance of infection.
How to prevent incontinence
There’s little you can do to prevent incontinence–you can only deal with it once it arises. In the case of submissive urination, the best advice is to keep a stress-prone dog out of situations that may lead to an accident. Never punish the dog for his behavior, as that will likely make the problem worse.