Is your senior dog’s incontinence a cause for concern?

If your pet can’t control his bladder or bowels, it can be distressing for both of you. Here, Petplan vet Brian Faulkner looks at what could be causing the problem – and what you can do to help your pet.

Incontinence in older dogs can be a worry for owners, and a cause of stress for our pets, so it shouldn’t be ignored. Here, we look at what might lie behind it.

What is dog incontinence?

Urinary incontinence should not be confused with inappropriate urination, which can occur at any age. The former occurs when your dog is leaking urine without conscious awareness or control, often while they are sleeping. There’s usually a genuine lack of awareness that it’s happening at all, and you might notice damp patches in their bed.

Urinary incontinence is more common than you might think. It affects around one in 100 female dogs and is slightly more prevalent (affecting around three in 100) in those that have been spayed. Loss of bladder control is less common in male dogs, as they have a longer, narrower urethra, which adds a natural physical resistance to any urine leaking.

Bowel incontinence, on the other hand, is much rarer than urinary incontinence (affecting around one in 500 dogs) and isn’t gender specific. Loss of bowel control tends to occur in older dogs, unless it’s the sign of a more serious problem such as nerve damage due to injury.

What causes urinary incontinence in dogs?

The most common cause of urinary incontinence is an incompetent bladder sphincter, which means the sphincter muscle cannot contract properly. This can be caused by loss of muscle tone with age, so it’s a more common problem in senior dogs.

Some dogs can be born with anatomical ‘plumbing problems’ that predispose them to incontinence, such as a shorter, wider bladder neck, which means the bladder sits on the pelvic floor as opposed to hanging over the edge of it – much like a water balloon laying on a table as opposed to hanging over the side. Although these kinds of problems may be apparent from puppyhood, some only become an issue later in life.

Dogs that might be prone to incontinence may be pushed over the edge by a secondary bladder condition, such as cystitis caused by a urinary tract infection (UTI), or bladder stones. These can cause an increased urge to wee, resulting in the loss of bladder control. The good news is that the incontinence often goes away if the secondary problem is treated. In rarer cases, however, more serious conditions such as spinal cord disease or cancer could be responsible for uncontrolled peeing.

What causes bowel incontinence in dogs?

Bowel incontinence in older dogs is almost always due to age, which leads to compromised neurological function.

What to do if your dog is losing control of their bladder or bowels

It’s important to seek veterinary advice if your pet is regularly experiencing little accidents, to investigate the causes and rule out underlying health conditions. While bladder or bowel leaks are not necessarily painful for dogs, they can cause psychological stress if our pets feel they’ll get in trouble for not sticking to their house training.

As well as being upsetting for both of you, incontinence can also lead to other problems (for example, urine scalding could cause a secondary infection), so it’s important to keep a close eye on it. If your dog’s incontinence is causing distress, or if you see any blood in their urine or poo, always contact your vet sooner rather than later.

If the problem is anatomical or neurological, it may be a chronic condition that will require care to manage. But a range of treatments exists to help increase the tone of the bladder sphincter, and your vet will be able to advise on this. If the loss of control is due to a treatable condition, such as a UTI, it may be relatively easy to resolve.

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