Incontinence in Older Dogs

Involuntary elimination may indicate your pet has dementia

Senior Golden Retriever

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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 and 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 conditions are discovered to explain the behavior, then, unfortunately, in a dog that's advanced in age, the diagnosis will likely be dementia.

Arthritis

While it's not usually the direct cause of incontinence, arthritis is commonly present in dogs that have difficulty controlling their urine. A dog with arthritis may have difficulty getting into a crouching position or lifting its legs, and may not completely empty its bladder or bowels when on a walk. This could lead to an accident later.

Spinal Injury

While injuries to a dog's spine are more likely to cause fecal incontinence, a compressed vertebra could cause urinary incontinence as well. Often incontinence is the first sign that your dog has suffered a serious spinal injury.

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's little you can do to prevent it, it doesn't 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're 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're prepared.

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

Taking your dog for more frequent walks, provided it doesn't have another physical condition, may be one way to stave off accidents. And always be sure to keep the dog's legs, genitals and anal area clean and dry to prevent urinary tract infections that may lead to incontinence.

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 may 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, or you might try using baby diapers 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 to reduce the need for cleanup.

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 a challenging and emotional experience, but educating yourself can help you offer your pet a comfortable, happy life in its senior years.

If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.