Incontinence in Older Dogs

Involuntary elimination may indicate your pet has dementia

Senior Golden Retriever
©Natasha Japp Photography / Getty Images

The loss of house training—defecation and/or urination indoors—is a common problem in older dogs, although it may be difficult for you to determine whether the situation is due to dementia or a specific medical issue.

If you notice this symptom in your previously house-trained pet, a trip to the vet is in order. All behavioral problems should be checked out by a veterinarian—including the loss of house training—to rule out any medical conditions. 

Why Do Senior Dogs Have Accidents?

If your dog is eliminating in the house, the vet will examine for specific medical conditions such as gastric upset or a bladder infection. Your vet will take a urine sample to conduct a urinalysis. This test will show whether your dog has a urinary tract infection, which can be treated with antibiotics.

Bladder Inflammation or Stones

If a urinalysis shows crystals in the urine that indicate bladder stones or if your vet finds inflammation of the bladder, these are more serious conditions that may require dietary changes or medications. Bladder stones often require surgery to remove them.

If medical problems are found, the first thing to do is to treat the underlying condition. But if no medical reasons are discovered to explain the behavior, then, unfortunately, in a dog that's advanced in age, the diagnosis will likely be dementia.

Dementia

The symptoms of dementia in senior dogs are similar to the symptoms experienced by some people: confusion, disorientation, and disruption of sleep habits. Urinating and defecating in inappropriate spots are among the first signs; you may also notice your dog seeming to forget everyday things such as the location of its food bowl.

It can be heartbreaking to watch, but a dog with dementia may seem listless and uninterested in playtime and may become withdrawn and less enthusiastic about interacting with familiar family members.

While there's no "cure" for canine dementia and there is little you can do to prevent it, it does not mean your dog's golden years will be miserable. There are medications such as Anipryl and a variety of nutraceuticals (pharmaceutical-grade nutritional supplements) that can potentially help with the symptoms of dementia by reducing the pace of cognitive decline.

Creating and sticking to routines with your dog will be more important than ever. Take it for walks on a regular schedule (exercise is crucial) and try to avoid leaving it alone for extended periods of time so it doesn't become anxious.

Treatment

Your visit to the vet will go more smoothly if you are aware of the possible questions the doctor will ask. You may want to write down the answers to these questions ahead of time so you are prepared.

  • Is the dog aware of what it's doing, or is it unable to control its elimination? The latter is fecal incontinence.
  • Does the dog know it's not supposed to be defecating inside but just can't hold it in? That may indicate gastrointestinal or metabolic disease.
  • Is the dog physically healthy otherwise? If so, this essentially confirms the diagnosis of dementia.

Anipryl for Dementia in Dogs

Also known as selegiline hydrochloride (or L-diphenyl), Anipryl is the brand name for a drug used to treat canine cognitive dysfunction. It has been used to treat Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease in humans. The side effects are typically minimal and include vomiting, diarrhea, seizures and lethargy.

Next Steps for Incontinent Senior Dogs

While you can take steps to alleviate most symptoms of canine dementia, once a dog starts losing control of its elimination, it's unlikely to regain full control.

Some dog owners use doggie diapers for severe cases of incontinence. It may take several tries to find a product that your dog won't hate and that can sufficiently handle its messes, and sometimes baby diapers may be used to provide a more "snug" fit.

If your dog is more of a "leaker," it may tend to lose control of its bladder while sleeping. Investing in a special doggie bed may not be necessary; often the blue absorbent sheets used in hospital beds will help reduce the need for cleanup. You may also consider

When cleaning up after your dog's messes, be sure to use a cleaner that will eliminate the odor, such as an enzymatic cleaner, so your dog doesn't pick up the scent later and think it's found a new toilet area.

Dealing with a pet as it ages can be challenging and emotional. Educating yourself can offer support while living with a pet in its senior years.