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Senior Dog Care: What to Do About Old Dog Incontinence

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If your dog is getting along in years, they'll be considered a senior soon if they aren't already. And with older age comes a few health and behavioral changes. While not every dog has the same experience as they age, there are a few things that most older dogs can expect. Urinary incontinence is one of them. 

Urinary incontinence is the inability to control the bladder, resulting in involuntary urine leakage. This can be frustrating (and a little heartbreaking) for you as a dog owner, since your precious pet was most likely house-trained before.

Some people will use the term "incontinence" to refer to both involuntary urination and bowel movements. Technically, the term encompasses both of these problems. But "incontinence" on its own tends to refer to urinary incontinence specifically. Veterinary professionals typically refer to involuntary bowel movements as "bowel incontinence" or "fecal incontinence." For the purposes of this article, incontinence refers to urinary incontinence only.

It's crucial to understand what old dog incontinence is, what causes it, and how you can manage the condition as your dog ages. That way, you and your beloved canine companion can live in harmony as time goes on, even with something like incontinence making things a little more complicated. 

What Is Incontinence? 

Incontinence is the involuntary leaking of urine from your dog's bladder. "Involuntary" is the key word here — urinary incontinence is uncontrollable, meaning that your dog isn't likely aware of their own urination or urine leakage. That's why you'll often find urine in a place where your dog typically rests, like their bed. 

Other common scenarios for old dog incontinence include urination while sleeping, dribbling urine while walking or standing, and finding urine spots on areas of rest, like a piece of furniture. You'll probably be able to see or smell urine on your dog's body, most likely on their underside. It’s also worth noting that dogs with incontinence tend to lick the vulva or penis area frequently. 

Urinary incontinence is more common in older female dogs than male dogs, although it can affect dogs of either gender. It also seems that, for unknown reasons, certain breeds are more prone to incontinence than others, including Old English Sheepdogs, Cocker Spaniels, Springer Spaniels, and Doberman Pinschers. That said, any dog breed is susceptible to the problem. 

Causes of Urinary Incontinence

Old dog incontinence: Beautiful white and brown dog

There are various health issues that can lead to old dog incontinence. Below are some common causes, but be aware that many medical issues can cause incontinence. As such, it's essential to speak with your veterinarian as soon as you suspect your dog is urinating in a way that isn't normal. 

Weak Urethral Sphincter

One of the most common causes of incontinence in dogs is a weak urethral sphincter, otherwise known as the bladder sphincter. A weak bladder sphincter occurs when muscles in this area degrade, leading to reduced bladder control and urine leakage. 

Diminished muscle control stems from a hormonal imbalance (estrogen deficiency in females and testosterone deficiency in males), as these hormones are vital for maintaining muscle tone in the urethral sphincter. 

Urinary Tract Infections

Urinary tract infections (UTIs) are another leading cause of incontinence in our canine friends. This type of infection is usually a bacterial one that occurs in a part of the urinary system. Usually, the infection occurs in the urethra itself, but it's possible for a urinary tract infection to occur in the urethra, bladder, or kidneys. 

Kidney Disease

Kidney disease and urinary tract infections are often closely related in older dogs. UTIs that are left untreated can lead to kidney disease as the infection reaches the kidneys. The resulting inflammation and irritation causes incontinence. Plus, dogs with kidney disease tend to drink more water. That extra water intake leads to more frequent urination, often inside the home. 

Urinary Bladder S​​​​tones (Uroliths)

Uroliths, or urinary bladder stones, are another possible cause of incontinence in dogs. These stones are hard mineral deposits that form in some part of the urinary tract — the ureter, kidneys, bladder, or urethra — and interfere with the flow of urine while causing irritation. 

Spinal Cord Disease or Damage

It's possible for spinal cord disease or damage to the spinal cord — physical trauma or a protruding disc, for instance — to cause incontinence in older dogs. Since the nerves that control most of your dog's muscle movements run through the spine, spinal injuries can result in reduced muscle control, including the muscles of the urinary system. 

Brain Disease

While much rarer than other causes of old dog incontinence, brain disease or other brain-related issues could lead to this problem. Canine cognitive dysfunction (a dog's version of dementia), a brain infection, or a brain tumor may interfere with the brain's ability to send the right signals to the bladder and urinary system, leading to accidents. 

Other Potential Causes

There are plenty of other potential underlying causes of incontinence in dogs. Cushing's disease, bladder infections, prostate disease in male dogs, tumors in the urinary tract, and other medical conditions could be to blame.

But don't fear the worst right away — most older dogs who develop incontinence don't have these serious health problems. It's usually just a side effect of getting older and losing muscle tone in the urinary sphincter, or it's a UTI that hasn't been treated. 

Treating Urinary Incontinence

Man walking his dog

Treating incontinence in older dogs isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. It depends on the underlying cause of the problem. Some of the most common treatments for old dog incontinence include: 

  • Hormone therapy: Since hormonal imbalances are often at the root of incontinence, hormone therapy is a common method to manage the condition. Pets undergoing hormone therapy will usually need blood work performed on a regular basis to make sure the hormones aren't causing any negative side effects. 
  • Phenylpropanolamine: Also known as PPA, phenylpropanolamine is a medication widely used in veterinary medicine to manage incontinence. It's well-tolerated by most pets and helps combat poor muscle tone in the urethral sphincter. 
  • Surgery: In some cases, surgical treatments can treat incontinence. A procedure known as colposuspension involves injecting a bulking agent like collagen into the urethra to help urine flow more smoothly. In the case of spinal injury or a bulging disc, surgical intervention can solve the problem. 
  • Diet adjustments or supplementation: Some dogs can benefit from dietary modifications that make things like bladder stones and UTIs less likely. Adding supplements can also help. For example, PetHonesty's Senior Dog Health Booster 3-pack can help your dog stay in peak health longer and avoid problems like incontinence in many cases. 

Most dogs respond well to therapy and medication. These steps, coupled with proper management at home and a great senior diet, can help your dog continue to enjoy a good quality of life as they age. 

Non-Medical Methods for Managing Old Dog Incontinence 

There are a few things you can do at home to help your incontinent dog stay comfortable. 

  • Frequent walks: Take your pet outdoors for bathroom breaks or quick walks more frequently, especially after they've had water. 
  • Pads, towels, or diapers: Place puppy pads or old towels around the house to give your older dog a place to go in an emergency. You might try using doggie diapers or belly bands for dogs with severe or frequent incontinence. 
  • Keep it clean: Always keep your dog's genital area clean and sanitized, especially if you're using dog diapers. You don't want to leave urine against your dog's skin and fur for long periods of time, as this can lead to odor, irritation, and skin infections. Clean soiled areas frequently with a pet-safe cleaning wipe. 

Incontinence Doesn’t Have to Ruin Your Dog’s Life

Old dog incontinence is no fun for the canines who experience it or for the pet parents who have to clean up the mess. But it doesn't have to be something that causes great disruption to your daily life. 

From UTIs to bladder stones, there are many potential causes for this common problem. As such, working closely with your veterinarian and developing a treatment plan — usually one that involves medication or therapy combined with adjustments around the home — is the right way to tackle it. 

To learn more about your dog's healthcare needs, visit the PetHonesty blog today.