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Incontinence in Dogs: Signs and Treatment

Jack Russell incontinence
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Severity: i Medium

Is your dog leaking urine while resting? Urinary incontinence in dogs is a medical condition that causes canines to leak urine and be unable to control their bladder. It’s estimated that dog incontinence affects 20 percent of female dogs who have been spayed. 

In this article, you’ll learn what incontinence is, why it happens, how an incontinent dog is different from dogs experiencing other urinary problems, and how to treat and prevent incontinence in your dog.

What Is Urinary Incontinence?

Urinary incontinence in dogs is a condition in which a dog loses voluntary control of urination. It is most often observed by pet parents when they find their dog leaking drops of urine while lying down. When the dog gets up, there is a wet spot left behind. 

While any dog can be affected, urinary incontinence is most common in middle-aged to older spayed female dogs (which is why it is sometimes called “old dog incontinence”). Medium and large breeds are more affected by dog incontinence than small breeds. 

Dogs can also have problems with fecal incontinence, but unless a dog has a neurological disease like a herniated disc in their spine that is compressing the spinal cord and causes both fecal and urinary incontinence, these two conditions typically have different causes and are treated differently.

Incontinence Vs. Urinary Problems in Dogs

Incontinence is different from other urinary disorders in that a dog usually doesn’t realize it’s happening and often does not behave differently. They still go outside and void urine normally. What you will notice with incontinence in dogs is that after your pup gets up after lying down somewhere for a little while, there will be drops or a small spot of urine. 

In contrast, if a dog has a urinary tract infection, they will likely have an increased urge to urinate, may urinate smaller amounts more often, may have a strong smell to their urine, may strain to urinate, and may have bloody urine

Urine spraying, a behavioral condition usually seen in dogs that haven’t been spayed or neutered and causes them to urinate inappropriately inside the house, may be confused with incontinence, but it is not the same. 

Signs of Urinary Incontinence in Dogs

Spaniel lying on bed

An incontinent dog can pee normally when they go outside. The most common sign of urinary incontinence in dogs is that the dog is involuntarily leaking urine while lying down. 

Some of the other signs of urinary incontinence include:

  • Excessive licking “back there”
  • Brown staining around the vulva
  • Urine scald (a rash around the vulva caused by persistent wetness)

Causes of Urinary Incontinence in Dogs

In a dog with a healthy lower urinary tract, urine in the bladder is prevented from leaking by a sphincter that closes in the urethra (the tube that connects the bladder to the outside of the dog). Dog incontinence is often caused by a failure of the urethral sphincter to stop urine from escaping from the bladder. This is called urethral incompetence and in older female dogs, it is caused by hormonal changes. 

Other causes of dog incontinence include:

  • Neurological disease, such as trauma to the spinal cord due to herniated discs or blunt trauma (hit by car), nerve disease, or brainstem disease
  • Chronic inflammation from urinary tract infections
  • Birth defects
  • Cancer
  • Prostatic disease in male dogs

Diagnosing Urinary Incontinence in Dogs

If you suspect your dog has urinary incontinence, make an appointment with your veterinarian. They will conduct a full physical examination, and may also perform a rectal exam,neurological examination, and a urinalysis. 

If a urinary tract infection is suspected, your veterinarian will also order a urine culture and sensitivity to determine what bacteria is infecting the bladder and which antibiotics to use to treat the UTI

Your veterinarian may also want to run imaging studies, such as abdominal ultrasound and/or abdominal radiographs (X-rays) to see if there are any anatomical abnormalities. Sometimes bloodwork is ordered. 

Less commonly, if the cause of incontinence cannot be determined, the urinary bladder will be scoped under anesthesia, or special imaging studies will be ordered.

Dog Incontinence Treatment

Old dog wearing a diaper

Urinary incontinence in dogs is typically treated on an outpatient basis: no hospital stay is required unless your dog is sick. If there is a urinary tract infection, treating the infection can resolve the problem. Urinary tract infections can cost a couple of hundred dollars to treat unless they are complicated – then treatment is more expensive.

Dog Incontinence Medication

If a dog’s urinary incontinence is due to a leaky urethra, this condition is not cured but managed with medication. The most common medications prescribed for urinary incontinence in dogs include:

  • Phenylpropanolamine
  • Hormone replacement therapy
  • Diethylstilbestrol
  • Deslorelin
  • Leuprolide
  • Imipramine

Dog incontinence medication can be in the form of an oral pill or chew, or it can be implanted under the skin. Typically, medication is very successful in managing urinary incontinence due to urethral incompetence, and dogs stop leaking urine while they are on medication, negating the need for dog diapers

With the right treatment, dogs with hormonal urethral incompetence can live long, healthy lives free of the symptoms of urinary incontinence. The other good news is that the most common urinary incontinence medication, phenylpropanolamine, is relatively inexpensive: a 180-count bottle of 50 mg phenylpropanolamine will run you about $30 a month.

 How a dog responds to therapy is very individual, therefore it is important to work with a veterinarian you trust to determine the right course of therapy for your dog. 

Dog Incontinence Surgery

If there is an anatomical urinary obstruction, cancer, prostatic disease, or a neurological problem, surgery may be recommended. Once the underlying cause is treated, urinary incontinence will resolve on its own. 

How to Prevent Incontinence in Dogs

Spaying female dogs early (before the dog is fully mature) increases their risk of developing hormonal urethral incompetence in middle age, especially in large breed dogs. The same is true for early tail docking. 

You can lower your dog’s risk of developing urinary incontinence by delaying their spay/neuter surgery until they are fully done growing. Dogs mature at different rates, so ask your veterinarian when they think your dog will be fully grown.  

Obesity may increase the risk of urinary incontinence in dogs. Keep your dog at a healthy weight to reduce their risk of many diseases, including urinary incontinence.