Urinary Incontinence in Bitches

Holly, a Golden Retriever, age 13

Holly, a Golden Retriever, age 13

Holly, a 13 year old Golden Retriever bitch, is a regular boarder at my kennels. Recently she developed urinary incontinence, and her owner feared she might have to be put down. The problem can be difficult to live with because of the smell, increased washing, damage to carpets etc. Just as importantly, it is distressing for the bitch herself who would like to keep herself clean but is unable to stop the leakage of urine.

Fortunately Holly’s owners discussed the problem with their vet who prescribed some treatment which now has the problem under control.

We all dread our pets growing old, and one of the problems we tend to associate with ageing is urinary incontinence, or leakage. Although this happens mainly in older bitches, it is not a problem that has to be just lived with. In many cases there are treatments which can help control this, and can greatly improve quality of life.

Urinary incontinence can happen in both dogs and bitches, but is much more common in bitches. It can also be related to being overweight, and being spayed. In younger animals it can be due to a congenital abnormality (present since birth).

Although incontinence is more common in spayed bitches, this does not mean that spaying is a bad thing. There are many benefits which together outweigh the disadvantages (Please see our Pet Care Advice section, Neutering, for further information about this)

Urine is produced continuously by the kidneys, and is stored in the urinary bladder. When the dog or bitch urinates, the urine is expelled along a tube called the urethra. The rest of the time, urine is prevented from leaking out by the urethral sphincter muscle. Usually, control of this sphincter muscle is under the voluntary control of the dog, so once they have been trained when and where to urinate, they go in the right place and at the right time.

The most common cause of incontinence, especially in older bitches, is urethral sphincter incompetence. If the sphincter muscle loses tone, it can allow urine to leak out. The bitch will still be able to urinate voluntarily when she wants to, but there will also be leakage, often without her even realising it. She will of course clean herself up if there is leakage, but she will be unable to stop it from happening.

The signs of incontinence are wet patches where the bitch has been lying down, wet legs, infections of the skin and excessive licking at the vulva. There is not necessarily an increase in the amount that is being drunk or being urinated, but if these are increased as well then that also needs investigation.

As always, your vet will first need a full medical history and will need to make a full examination of your dog, probably including blood tests and urine tests. It can also be helpful to examine the urinary tract by ultrasound scan, or by x-rays using special contrast medium to help show up the size, shape and position of the bladder and the urethra. It is important to check for problems other than incontinence, and for other causes of incontinence, such as urinary infection, bladder stones, liver and kidney disease and diabetes. Any of these would require quite different treatment. Once these have been either ruled out or treated, if incontinence is still a problem then it can be treated.

A number of drugs are available which help by acting on the muscle of the urethral sphincter. The drugs may be given either in the form of a syrup which is given on food, or as tablets. As with all drugs, there can occasionally be side effects which your vet will ask you to watch out for. Very often the problem is greatly improved and the treatment can be successfully continued long term at a maintenance level.

In a few cases there is no improvement, and then other causes need to be investigated further. In a small number of dogs there is a physical abnormality which could benefit from surgery (such as repositioning of the bladder neck). These cases involve quite specialised treatment and might need a referral to a specialist veterinary centre.

Incontinence is a distressing problem for both dog and owner, but it is well worth seeking advice from your vet on the treatments available.

If you are worried about urinary incontinence or any other problem with your pet, please talk to your vet or use our Interactive Symptom Guide to help decide what to do next.

  • Kate Semple says:

    Great article. I’ve seen so many clients who think there’s nothing that can be done to help with incontinence and are so delighted to find out there are excellent treatment options.

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