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Senior Dog Health: How Do I Care for an Older Dog With Fecal or Urinary Incontinence?

Donna partners with Dr. Cathy Alinovi, a retired veterinarian, to create informative pet health articles.

Doggy diapers can help owners cope with the issue of canine incontinence.

Doggy diapers can help owners cope with the issue of canine incontinence.

Aging can be as problematic for dogs as it is for their pet parents. In addition to developing lots of graying hair as well as decreasing vision and hearing, many pets also lose their ability to control their bowel moments. In clinical terminology, they develop fecal and/or urinary incontinence.

Senior dogs with bowel incontinence problems are a common part of Dr. Cathy Alinovi's clientele, and she shares her expertise on how to diagnose, treat and care for the two types of incontinence: fecal and urinary.

Question 1: In general, what causes either type of incontinence in dogs?

Dr. Cathy: In general, it is an inability to feel when the feces or the urine are ready to come out. Not being able to feel often relates to arthritis as the stiff joints and little information going through the nerves from the back end means the waste product just comes out.

As a pet parent, Dr. Alinovi understands how challenging dog health issues such as incontinence can be.

As a pet parent, Dr. Alinovi understands how challenging dog health issues such as incontinence can be.

Q3: What is the prognosis for dogs with incontinence issues?

Dr. Cathy: Once the issues start, they are harder to reverse than to prevent. Some pet owners don’t mind using diapers, or confine their dog to smaller spaces so there is less mess to clean up.

Q2: What roles do diet and exercise play in treating incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: Arthritis is inflammation. Great food (real food) is anti-inflammatory. Exercise and movement blocks pain directly at the spinal cord, before the information gets to the brain. So together, diet and exercise are extremely important in addressing inflammation and the pain of arthritis.

If dogs eat great food and have reasonable exercise their whole lives, they will be less likely to have incontinence issues. Also, talking your dog for a walk stimulates elimination behavior naturally; so, a good long walk before bed should get the poop and the pee out for a cleaner night.

Q4: How can pet parents know if behavior problems or medical problems are causing the incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: It is incredibly common for older dogs to have bladder infections and no one to know – their immune system is weaker and doesn’t feel the infection/irritation. So, first thing is to bring a urine sample to the vet; second thing is to take x-rays of the back end.

Q5. Let's get specific: what is fecal incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: Fecal incontinence is the Inability to hold feces inside the rectum. A strong, healthy anal region has strong muscles to hold feces in place and will only evacuate the bowels when the dog says the time is right.

Dogs with urinary incontinence have accidents; they are not misbehaving. Keep on loving them while seeking professional help for their problem.

Dogs with urinary incontinence have accidents; they are not misbehaving. Keep on loving them while seeking professional help for their problem.

Q6: What symptoms would alert the owners?

Dr. Cathy: Typically, they would observe the presence of feces in the bed or “walking poops", where the fecal matter just plunks out while your dog is walking.

Q7: How would you diagnose fecal incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: Mostly by observation: does the dog hunch to poop?

Also, a finger probe in the rectal region should lead to increased anal tone (butt pucker,) so no pucker means your dog can’t feel well. A limp tail that just hangs down also suggests fecal incontinence.

Q8: What are the Western medical treatment options?

Dr. Cathy: The usual treatment is laxatives so the feces do not build up and become constipation.

What Foods Aren't Good for Your Dog?

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Why shouldn't you feed your dog raisins or grapes?
    • These foods can cause kidney failure
    • Eating too many raisins or grapes might give them an upset stomach
  2. Is it okay to feed your dog some of your avocado dip?
    • Yes, avocados contain heart-healthy fats
    • No, avocados contain persin, which is a fungicidal toxin, and could cause GI distress.
  3. Are chocolate and caffeine good choices for dogs?
    • No! Both contain theobromine, which is toxic for dogs.
    • Sure, a little coffee or chocolate never hurt anyone
  4. What can happen when dogs drink alcohol?
    • They might get a little drunk.
    • They can get alcohol poisoning because the alcohol absorbs faster in their smaller bodies.

Answer Key

  1. These foods can cause kidney failure
  2. No, avocados contain persin, which is a fungicidal toxin, and could cause GI distress.
  3. No! Both contain theobromine, which is toxic for dogs.
  4. They can get alcohol poisoning because the alcohol absorbs faster in their smaller bodies.

Q9: What types of alternative medical treatments are there?

Dr. Cathy: Because fecal incontinence is often related to weak peri-rectal (around the rectum) muscles – specifically the levator (lifter) ani (anus) muscle, therapy to strengthen these muscles can help.

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Acupuncture in the tail region directly stimulates muscles and nerves, to help with sensation in the back end. Chiropractic, which is veterinary spinal manipulation therapy (VSMT), restores motion and blood flow so the brain has a better idea there is a back end, and can really help with overall arthritis, as well as the sensation to lift the tail, hunch, and poop.

Q10: What tips do you have for caring for dogs with fecal incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: Homework type options include tickling your dog’s rear end, even pinching it – whatever creates a pucker helps the reflex to keep the poop in until the time is right for it to come out. Additionally, I recommend exercise because that movement helps waste products to move, outside, where they belong.

Your veterinary chiropractor can also show you how to do safe, gentle tail pulls/traction, to help stimulate the back end. If the feces are well formed, and you don’t step in it in the middle of the night, it really is a minor inconvenience to clean up.

Q11. Next, what is urinary incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: This is the inability to feel urine when it needs to come out. These dogs seem just like puppies/babies – when the bladder is full, it will empty by reflex, just as babies of many species do.

Q12: What signs would alert pet parents of this problem?

Dr. Cathy: In the morning, there will be a puddle on your dog’s bed, or in the afternoon, or any time your dog is relaxed and half-asleep. It can also happen when the dog is walking and the urine comes out involuntarily.

Incontinence in Dogs

Q13: How do vets diagnose urinary incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: A few things have to be figured out, as there are other conditions that seem like incontinence but are other health problems.

Diseases such as anal gland disease, gastrointestinal dysfunction, Cushings disease, or injuries can also cause bowel incontinence, so if an elderly dog that is otherwise well house-broken starts having unexplained accidents, it's time to get him to the vet for a check-up.

Q14: What are the common treatments for it?

Dr. Cathy: A hormone meant to help with sphincter control (the valve that is supposed to keep the urine in). The drug most commonly used is called Proin; it’s made with phenylpropanolamine.

Q15: Are there nontraditional or alternative treatments for urinary incontinence?

Dr. Cathy: Very similar to fecal incontinence, acupuncture and VSMT can help with urinary incontinence. Because the muscles are a bit different for urination than defecation, the exact things treated will be a bit different, but the principles are the same: stimulate the muscles and nerves to have better feeling for the back end.

Q16: What are the best coping techniques for owners with incontinent dogs?

Dr. Cathy: Use diapers or potty pads on the dog’s bed at night.

You do have to watch for diaper rash if you leave diapers on a dog all the time because they get wet, which breeds yeast and bacteria, and your dog may develop a rash.

© 2014 Donna Cosmato

Share your experiences with canine incontinence

Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on November 17, 2014:

Hi Jaye,

Thank you for reading this hub and sharing your experiences with your precious fur baby! Using the disposable diapers seems to have solved your problem neatly and was a thrifty, clever idea!

Jaye Denman from Deep South, USA on November 16, 2014:

My older dog who went blind two years ago isn't incontinent according to the formal definition, but occasionally she has an 'accident' upon awakening from a nap somewhat disoriented. (I've written two hubs about her blindness and adaptation to it.)

Although she normally 'tells' me when she needs to go out and potty, I keep a comfy slip-on diaper on my sweet girl all the time. Huggies Pull-Ups, size 2T-3T, fit her perfectly and have lightly elasticized waist and leg openings plus a Velcro-type closing on the sides for easy removal. She doesn't mind wearing them and even lifts each back foot in turn to step into her diaper. What a good girl she is!

These Huggies are much cheaper than doggie diapers, especially since I buy them from Amazon through their Subscribe & Save program. I never leave a 'used' diaper on her for more than the minute or two it takes for me to realize it needs to be changed, and I clean her bottom thoroughly with hypoallergenic baby wipes and pat her dry with a soft towel.

Sometimes (such as today, when it's cold and began raining heavily early in the morning, continuing through the day) I'd PREFER that she use the diaper exclusively rather than for us to trudge out in the storm. Instead, she stands at the back door and barks incessantly until I put raincoats on both of us and use an umbrella to venture outdoors. Ha Ha! I always praise her when she 'goes' out to potty--even on a stormy day.

Voted Up++


Donna Cosmato (author) from USA on August 28, 2014:


Thank you for your inquiry. Dr. Cathy and I are working on a dog health book and this interview as well as all the other articles featuring her interviews will be included. We hope to publish the book later this year. Look for it on Amazon.

Carol on August 27, 2014:

Where can I get a printed copy of this for my neighbor that doesn't use social media beyond email ... and even that is rare?

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