5 Common Causes of Incontinence in Senior Pets

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Causes of incontinence

Your senior dog was housetrained long ago, or your older cat has used the litterbox without issue for their whole life. But now that your pet is getting on in age, you might be noticing signs of incontinence.
While loss of bladder control is not uncommon in senior pets, it’s usually a symptom of an underlying, often treatable health issue. Learn five reasons why your senior pet can become incontinent and what you can do to help them gain back control.

Is My Senior Pet Incontinent?

Incontinence refers to when a pet loses all or partial control over their bladder or bowels. They may have accidents in the house that are not the result of a behavioral issue, but a medical one.
Incontinence can result in leakage of small amounts of urine or feces, especially at night when the pet is sleeping, or when they get up from a lying position. Or, they may experience accidents in which they release a full volume of urine or feces.

1. Spay Incontinence
One of the leading causes of incontinence in middle-aged to senior female dogs is spay incontinence. When a dog is spayed, her ovaries are removed. The ovaries are the primary producer of the hormone estrogen. Low estrogen can cause weakened bladder sphincters, the muscles that control the bladder.
Spay incontinence occurs in every 1 in 5 female dogs that have been spayed. It’s more common in large breed dogs, and it’s more likely if the dog has been spayed before her third birthday. Symptoms tend to appear around three years after spaying. Symptoms include bladder leakage, especially at night, and needed to urinate more frequently.
While bladder leakage is an undesired side-effect of spay surgery, it does not negate the many benefits of spaying, which include reduced risk of certain cancers and no unwanted litters.
Fortunately, there are effective prescription medications and homeopathic remedies for spay incontinence that help strengthen the bladder sphincter and prevent leakage.

2. Urinary Tract Issues
Another common cause of incontinence in senior pets is a urinary tract issue.
Urinary tract infections (UTIs) affect the urethra or bladder, and they’re most often caused by an overgrowth of e. coli bacteria. Female cats and dogs are more likely to get UTIs than their male counterparts because bacteria can more easily travel up their wider, shorter urethra.

Symptoms of a UTI include:

  • Cloudy urine, which indicates presence of white blood cells
  • Discolored urine, which indicates bleeding
  • Increased frequency of urination
  • May pass small amounts of urine
  • Straining or pain during urination
  • A hunched over posture, abdominal pain
  • Licking of genitals in response to pain or irritation
  • Leaking urine or accidents

A cat or dog that may have a UTI needs urgent veterinary care, as without antibiotics, the infection is unlikely to resolve on its own, and may worsen, resulting in a more serious condition like a kidney infection, sepsis (blood poisoning) and permanent damage to the urinary tract.
Recurring urinary tract infections can be due to inadequate hydration, or something more serious like an issue with their urinary tract. A blockage, scarring, tumor, or urinary stones can prevent the bladder from emptying completely, and the leftover urine can accumulate bacterial overgrowth.
A urinary tract blockage, most commonly seen in male cats, is a life-threatening condition. Always seek urgent veterinary care for suspected urinary tract issues.

1. Arthritis or Chronic Pain
The majority of cats and dogs over age 10 develop arthritis in one or more joint. Stiff, painful hips, knees, and shoulders can make it more difficult for your pet to get up to go outside or use their litterbox.
Pain management is essential for cats and dogs with arthritis and other chronic pain conditions. Ask your veterinarian about what supplements, over-the-counter options, homeopathic remedies, and prescription medications might be helpful for your pet.
For senior cats, ensure that their litterbox has low sides so they do not need to climb or jump to enter. It can also help to add more litterboxes so your cat doesn’t need to make a long journey across your home or up or down stairs to use their bathroom.
For senior dogs, it can help to take them outside more frequently, use steps or ramps to make it easier for them to climb furniture, or provide an indoor potty space lined with puppy pads, if your dog will use them.

2. Dementia or anxiety
Cats and dogs, just like humans, can suffer from cognitive dysfunction as they get older. Feline and canine cognitive dysfunction is a neurological condition that can affect your pet’s memory, their mood, and their motor function.
Symptoms of dementia in pets includes seeming disoriented, excessive vocalizing, and appearing lost or confused. They may have accidents when they struggle to remember where they are or where to relieve themselves. Anxiety in senior pets, which is sometimes a symptom of cognitive dysfunction, can also result in changes in behavior, particularly accidents when left alone.
Unfortunately, feline and canine cognitive dysfunction is not curable and will worsen over time, though there are treatment options that can help control symptoms and lessen anxiety.

3. Nervous system disorders
Loss of bladder and/or bowel control can sometimes be attributed to an injury or congenital disorder that affects the brain, spinal cord, or nerves throughout the body. Along with accidents, you would generally notice other symptoms.
Symptoms of a nervous system disorder may include:

  • Seizures
  • Tremors
  • Paralysis or weakness
  • Numbness
  • Licking of limbs, which can indicate pain, tingling, or a burning sensation
  • Loss of balance
  • Head pressing
  • Head tilt
  • Unusual eye movements

It’s not common for incontinence to be a sole symptom of an underlying nervous system disorder or injury. However, if your pet has been diagnosed with a condition such as IVDD (Intervertebral Disk Disease) or Degenerative myelopathy (DM), having accidents could be a sign that their condition is affecting their ability to control their bladder or bowels.

Caring for A Senior Pet With Incontinence

If your senior pet suddenly starts having accidents, make a trip to your veterinarian as soon as possible. Time is of the essence for urgent health issues like a neurological disorder or a urinary tract infection.
Depending on the diagnosis, many pets improve with treatment, but others will continue to have accidents and will need extra support. It helps to keep your pet in a part of your home that’s free of carpeting and lined with potty pads and/or use disposable diapers or male wraps.
Adapting to the changing needs of a senior pet with incontinence is challenging, but you’re never alone. Reach out to your veterinarian, other pet parents, and of course our Pet Health Advice resources whenever you’re in need of knowledge, advice, or support.