If you’ve ever observed your dog having trouble peeing, you know firsthand how worrisome it can be as a pet parent. It can be even harder not immediately knowing what the cause is, because that affects how concerned you should be. A dog straining to pee will often go in very frequent, small amounts, and there may even be small amounts of blood present.
While these symptoms should be taken seriously and always prompt a visit to your veterinarian, it’s also important not to panic, as there are a variety of causes that are readily treatable. Read on for everything you need to know if your dog is straining to pee.
Urinary Frequency in Dogs: What’s Normal?
The urinary system’s role is to filter and remove things that the body doesn’t need, and these are all excreted in the form of urine.
The body parts involved include:
The ureters are tubes that connect the kidneys to the bladder, and the urethra connects the bladder to the outside world. When a dog is straining to urinate and going in small and frequent amounts, it most commonly involves a problem in the lower part of the urinary system like the bladder or urethra.
Normal urinary frequency in dogs varies a bit based on their age, size, and how much water they drink. There are also behavioral differences, such as marking behavior in dogs who are not neutered. It’s important to know an individual dog’s baseline level of urination so that deviations from their “normal” can be recognized.
Adult dogs who are potty trained will typically urinate three to four times per day.  They typically urinate first thing in the morning, then every four to eight hours thereafter, and they can often hold it overnight.
Puppies take time to develop this level of bladder control and also to learn potty training. As such, they can’t hold their pee very long at first. By the time puppies are old enough to come home with their new family and are weaned, they typically will urinate eight to 10 times daily.  This will gradually decrease in frequency as they age.
It is also helpful to understand how much urine an average dog makes to have a better understanding of how much urine should be coming out each time. The normal amount of urine made is 1 to 2 milliliters per kilogram of body weight, per hour. That means that for every 10 pounds (4.5 kilograms) of a dog’s body weight, they will make about 4.5 to 9 milliliters of urine per hour, which roughly equals 1 to 2 teaspoons.
The amount that a dog urinates at any given time will depend on how long they have been holding it. For example, a 10-pound dog should urinate approximately 6 to 12 teaspoons every six hours.
Dog Straining to Pee: What Does it Look Like?
Pet owners often report that their dogs are urinating more frequently (pollakiuria), dribbling small amounts of urine in multiple spots, and spending a longer time trying to get the urine out. The stream of urine may appear slower or thinner than normal, and sometimes even drop by drop if their bladder is already empty.
Straining to urinate slowly and painfully is called stranguria, while difficult and painful urination is called dysuria. Sometimes pet owners mistake these symptoms as a pet appearing constipated because of the visible straining they observe. Dogs with these symptoms often seem uncomfortable, and it is not uncommon to see small amounts of blood in the urine (pink or red-tinged pee) because of inflammation or irritation along the urinary tract. Dogs may also have accidents in the house, despite being potty trained, because they have the urge to pee much more frequently.
When a more serious structural cause is present, such as a bladder stone or tumor, symptoms may progress to the point that no urine can pass (urinary obstruction or blockage). This can come on gradually or be a very sudden change, and these dogs will often be repeatedly straining without any pee coming out.
Partial blockages where very little urine can pass are also serious and may be harder to distinguish from a simple bladder infection. The key difference is that with a bladder infection, dogs are still passing normal amounts of urine collectively — it’s just split up into smaller, more frequent amounts. As such, you may observe only drops of urine at times if your dog has recently already urinated. With a partial or complete blockage, little to no urine is passed each time the dog tries to urinate, despite not having urinated anything recently.
Dogs with a urinary obstruction will also often progress to developing serious systemic symptoms within a day if left untreated. These symptoms can include:
- Increasing pain and distress
- Very lethargic
- Not eating
This is due to the effects of urine and toxins building up in the body causing problems with the kidneys and electrolytes. The belly may even start to become distended as the bladder enlarges.
Causes of a Dog Straining to Pee
A variety of different causes that range in severity can produce similar symptoms: straining to urinate, urinating in small and frequent amounts, and blood in the urine. As such, it is not possible to definitively know the cause from symptoms alone. Below are examples of some conditions that can cause these symptoms in dogs:
Urinary tract infection (UTI)/bladder infection
A UTI is a result of bacteria growing along the urinary tract (typically the bladder or urethra). This is the most common cause of these symptoms in dogs.
Urinary crystals and/or bladder stones (uroliths)
Accumulation of minerals in the urine can form crystals or bladder stones. What may have started out as microscopic crystals or mild sand-like debris can develop into quite large rock-like stones that can fill up the entire bladder. There are different types of crystals and bladder stones and various causes that contribute to them. This can include chronic urinary tract infections, genetics, and diet, among others. Struvite and calcium oxalate are the most common types of bladder stones in dogs.
Prostate enlargement (male dogs only)
All male dogs have a prostate gland near the bladder. If the prostate becomes enlarged, it can put pressure on the urethra and cause straining to urinate. Inflammation of the prostate can be due to hormones in a dog who is not neutered. Less commonly, it can stem from an infection or tumor in the prostate in any male dog, regardless of if they are neutered.
Tumor or growth along the urinary tract
A growth can be a non-cancerous polyp in the bladder, or it can be a cancerous tumor anywhere along the urinary tract (most common in the bladder). If a cancerous growth is present, the most likely cause is transitional cell carcinoma (TCC). Luckily, this is less common than urinary tract infections and bladder stones.
What to Do if Your Dog Is Straining to Pee
All dogs who are straining to pee should see a veterinarian. While many of these cases are due to a simple bladder infection that is easily treatable, others are more serious and require emergency care. As long as a dog is still passing urine and is feeling well otherwise, they can often wait to see their regular veterinarian during normal business hours. In the meantime, ensure they have access to plenty of fresh water to encourage them to stay well hydrated.
You may be wondering when you should be concerned about a more serious cause. The biggest thing to monitor for are signs of a dangerous urinary blockage, which means that a dog cannot pee because something is physically blocking the flow of urine.
To recap, the biggest red flag for a urinary blockage is when a dog keeps trying to pee and little to nothing comes out. These dogs may also have systemic symptoms such as lethargy, vomiting, or not eating. This scenario should prompt an immediate visit to a veterinarian or 24-hour emergency hospital.
Treating a Dog Who Is Straining to Pee
When discussing treatment options for a dog who is straining to pee, it’s important to remember that straining to pee is merely a symptom of an underlying problem. As such, finding out the cause and treatment specific to that condition will help to alleviate the symptoms.
A veterinarian will likely use a combination of reviewing the dog’s medical history, a thorough physical examination (including feeling the bladder size), and testing to help determine the cause. Testing often includes analyzing a urine sample for abnormalities.
If an infection is suspected, a urine culture may be recommended to know the type of bacteria and best antibiotic to treat it. X-rays or an ultrasound of the bladder may be recommended in cases where bladder stones or tumors should be ruled out. Blood testing is sometimes also recommended to look at the dog’s kidney health and electrolytes.
Finding the cause will help determine the best treatment specific to that condition. The treatment plan depends on a dog’s specific underlying cause of urinary trouble and may include:
- Antibiotics for a UTI
- Prescription urinary diets to dissolve bladder stones
- Surgery to remove bladder stones
- Laser lithotripsy to break up bladder stones (uncommon)
- A procedure to push the stones from the urethra back into the bladder (retrograde urohydropropulsion)
- Urinary catheter to bypass a blockage (like a tumor) while other treatments are being explored
- Medications, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory Piroxicam, to help control pain and inflammation from bladder/urinary tract cancer
- Surgery and chemotherapy to treat cancer
- Targeted treatment for prostate inflammation
The prognosis will also vary depending on the cause, the severity, and whether your dog has other medical issues.
Preventing Strained Urination in Dogs
While it’s not always possible to prevent the issues that can cause strained urination in dogs, there are things that you can do to help lower the risk.
Here are some proactive steps to take:
- Keeping your dog at a healthy weight
- Ensuring your dog has access to clean, fresh water
- Going on regular walks so your dog can empty their bladder
- Feeding a therapeutic diet if your dog has a history of urinary crystals or bladder stones
- Youngerman, C, “House-training your puppy.” UC Davis Veterinary Medicine. (2019 April) Retrieved from: https://healthtopics.vetmed.ucdavis.edu/health-topics/canine/house-training-your-puppy