If your dog is struggling to control her bladder, it can make her quality of life less than ideal. But luckily, there are things you can do to help your dog be more comfortable!

By Deb M. Eldredge, DVM
November 02, 2020
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Credit: Eric Jeon

Urinary leakage or incontinence is a fairly common problem in senior dogs, but can also be seen in young dogs. It is generally more of a nuisance than a serious problem, but it can reflect underlying health conditions and decrease quality of life for all concerned.

Types of Dog Incontinence

Young dog incontinence may be due to an anatomical defect in the way the ureters transport urine from the kidneys to the bladder. This is seen more often in female dogs. These ectopic ureters may be combined with vulvar deformities. Surgery is required to stop this type of incontinence. Luckily, it is not common. Trauma such as being hit by car and having a broken pelvis could lead to a similar scenario and also require surgery.

Older, spayed female dogs, particularly larger breeds, can also be more prone to urine leakage. This is possibly related to the loss of hormones post-spay. Male dogs with prostate problems may also leak urine, though more commonly will have trouble urinating. Dogs with neurologic problems can lose control of bladder function or tumors may interfere with normal urination.

What Causes Incontinence in Dogs?

Incontinence is a result of a loss of muscle or nerve control for urination. A puppy learns to “hold” her urine until she can be walked or let outside. For dogs with true incontinence, the dog literally can’t always control when she urinates. Some disorders lead to frequent small bursts of urine, while other causes may lead to a full emptying from bladder overflow.

Signs and Symptoms of Urinary Incontinence in Dogs

Families often first notice wet spots where their dog has been sleeping. Sometimes the amount is so small at first that you only spot wet hair around the vulva or penis. Sores from constant wetting may also appear around the vulva or on the hind legs. Occasionally, people will notice their dog actually dribbling as she walks. Or, you note her licking around her vulva more than usual. Sometimes bladder or urinary tract infections will be associated with urinary incontinence.

A dog who is well house trained may suddenly act shy or uncomfortable. She knows it is not right to pee in the house and has no idea why there is urine present when she wakes up. 

It is important to differentiate true urine incontinence from a dog who urinates due to anxiety (usually young dogs or dogs in stressful environments) or a dog engaging in marking behavior—generally male dogs. Marking is usually done on vertical surfaces like doorways or furniture. 

At a veterinary visit, a urinalysis will be done to rule out a urinary tract infection. Radiographs (X-rays) or an ultrasound may be taken to make sure your dog doesn't have crystals or stones in her bladder causing the urinary leakage.

Incontinence Medication and Treatment Options

Treating urinary incontinence requires medications that strengthen the muscles and nerves that control urination, such as phenylpropanolamine. For spayed females, adding some hormones back (generally estrogen in the form of DES or diethylstilbestrol) may be the key. Obviously if there is an infection, antibiotics will be needed.  

For dogs with damage to the urinary tract or a birth defect, surgery may be the ideal option. These are complicated surgeries, so your veterinarian may refer you to a specialist.

Many times, treatment may not totally stop the urinary leakage, but will reduce it greatly. Other dogs respond totally to medication. Be prepared to take some management steps to help your dog.

At-Home Solutions for Dog Incontinence

Things you can do to help your dog include limiting her water late at night (but only if this won’t interfere with other health conditions!) and adding extra walks to try and empty the bladder. If it is difficult to get your dog outside, consider using pee pads in the house.

Sometimes acidifying the urine through cranberry supplements or extra vitamin C can help a bit. But be sure to check with your vet before you add these, as they could make some conditions worse. 

Consider the use of doggy diapers. These can help keep rugs clean and dry (which can be especially important to pet parents who rent). Make sure you keep your dog’s skin clean and dry underneath so she doesn’t get urine scald. If she has long hair, you can trim her or ask your groomer for a “sanitary” trim to help with this issue.