It is a truism that when you've gotta go, you've gotta go. And it is just as true for your dog as it is for you. Any dog owner knows the signs their dog gives when he's got to have a relief break outside; circling, herding you toward the door, pawing at the door, whining and even fixing you with his gaze as he squats or lifts his leg in an 'I've gotta go RIGHT NOW' demonstration. And all that is well and good; your dog should communicate his needs to you and you should be responsive to them. But what do you do when your dog just can't hold it in? Are you not catching the signs in time? Or could there be something else going on; some medical cause for your dog having 'accidents?'
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The Root of the Behavior
Incontinence in dogs is a widely recognized medical issue, just as human incontinence is. And some of the reasons for canine incontinence mirror some of the reasons for human incontinence. For example, one of the more common medical causes of canine incontinence is age, just as in humans. Dogs can begin to exhibit age-related incontinence at the onset of middle age, with some variation that's possibly related to their breed. While age-related canine incontinence can affect any breed of dog, some studies indicate that Cocker and Springer Spaniels, Dobermans, and Old English Sheepdogs might possibly be more prone to develop it.
Incontinence in younger dogs, particularly those under 12 months old, can be due to anatomical irregularities like vaginal strictures, ectopic ureters, or problems with the urethral sphincter. All of these issues require veterinary diagnosis, but all can be treated; sometimes with medication and sometimes, in more serious cases, by means of surgery. That said, incontinence in any dog (young dogs included) can also be due to injury or infection. Dogs with long bodies and/or short legs are prone to develop spinal issues that can lead to incontinence. A dog with an infection of the bladder or urinary tract can also become incontinent. But again, there are treatments available to your vet for many of these issues.
While dogs of either gender can develop incontinence, it is more commonly seen among female dogs. One of the most common types of female canine incontinence is 'spay incontinence,' which appears in about one-fifth of female dogs within the first three years after spaying. Surgery is sometimes required to treat the problem, but the first treatment is often oral medication, which is effective in most cases.
There are a number of causes of canine incontinence, some more urgent than others. If your dog suddenly has problems with his potty training, be sure to talk to your vet to determine the cause.
Encouraging the Behavior
There are many signs and indications for canine incontinence. Obviously, repeated 'accidents' in the house are the most apparent, but there are other signals that an attentive dog owner will look for. Involuntary urination, particularly during sleep, is a classic sign; check your dog's bedding for dampness and urine odor after he gets up from a nap. Are either of these present? Another sign is excessive licking of the dog's genital area. Has your dog begun licking himself more frequently and aggressively? It could be a sign of incontinence, so be watchful for additional signs. Also, if your dog appears to indicate pain when licking his genital area, it could indicate skin injury due to long-term exposure to urine. Urine (and feces, to some extent) can actually cause skin burns if left in contact with the skin too long. As a dog's fur can catch urine and keep it in contact with the skin, incontinence that isn't noticed can lead to painful skin injury for your dog. Such skin injuries, if left untreated for too long, can even lead to painful skin infections.
A dog suffering from spinal injury may lose partial or complete use of his back legs. Such a dog should be frequently checked for signs of incontinence, as the spinal injury could also affect the nerves that signal a full bladder, or which control urination. If your dog displays signs of rear leg weakness, you should definitely be watchful for other signals that could indicate incontinence.
Other Solutions and Considerations
In many cases, canine incontinence isn't something that can be cured overnight. That means that you, as a pet owner, are going to need to make allowances for accidents, to minimize them if possible and to mitigate any damage to your home and property while the problem is dealt with. Fortunately, many supportive products are available to help you with these tasks. Canine diapers (not unlike the human variety) are available in many stores and online, as are washable bedding and pee pads (which are commonly used to housetrain puppies). A UV flashlight (black light) is indispensable, as it will cause urine spots to light up, even after they've dried. There are also enzyme-based cleaners and deodorizing agents that can largely eliminate urine odor. This is highly important in multi-dog households, as you don't want all your dogs deciding that an accident spot is an appropriate location for a relief break.
Incontinence is a family problem, whether it happens to a human or a dog. While it can be embarrassing, it doesn't have to be. With patience and determination, a family can work through it together. Since your dog can't tell you it is happening, you'll need to be informed and watchful for this common but treatable problem, and give your vet all the details so you can make a wise and effective choice about treatment.