What Is Bowel Incontinence in Dogs?
Bowel incontinence in dogs is when a dog loses control of their bowels, resulting in the inability to retain fecal matter. In some cases, the pet is aware that they need to defecate but cannot control the act of defecating. This typically happens with diseases of the colon, rectum, or anus.
In other cases, the dog may not be aware of the need to defecate at all. This is more common with incontinence caused by a neurological disease or a spinal injury.
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Symptoms of Bowel Incontinence in Dogs
If a dog is aware of the need to defecate but unable to control their defecation, signs can include:
Straining to defecate
Blood in stool
Small or frequent bowel movements
Abnormally foul odor to feces
Excessive licking of the perianal region
Dogs with neurological causes for their bowel incontinence may appear to defecate at random or while at rest, often without awareness. This form of bowel incontinence is often accompanied by other neurological signs such as:
Changes in gait, such as dragging the hind paws, wobbling, or unsteadiness
Pain when pressure is applied along the spine, which may result in flinching and/or vocalizing
Causes of Bowel Incontinence in Dogs
Conditions of the colon, rectum, or anus that could cause bowel incontinence include:
Perianal surgery, such as removal of the anal sacs
Perianal fistulas (draining tracts around the anus)
Inflammatory or infectious colorectal disease
Dietary indiscretion or intolerance, leading to severe diarrhea
Neurologic conditions that cause bowel incontinence could include:
Lumbosacral stenosis (narrowing of spinal canal near where spinal column meets pelvis)
Infection in the spinal cord or between vertebral discs
Tumors in the spinal cord
Fibrocartilaginous embolism (spinal stroke)
Dysautonomia (a malfunctioning of the autonomic nervous system)
Some of these conditions are more common in certain breeds. For example, large- and giant-breed dogs are more likely to experience fibrocartilaginous embolism; Bulldogs are more likely to have congenital spinal malformations; and Dachshunds are predisposed to intervertebral disc disease.
Age alone does not cause bowel incontinence. Some older dogs with cognitive dysfunction may seem to have incontinence. However, this is considered a conscious defecation in an abnormal location.
How Veterinarians Diagnose Bowel Incontinence in Dogs
Your veterinarian will perform a physical exam, including a rectal exam, to determine if the fecal incontinence is due to neurologic issues or due to disease of the colon, rectum, or anus.
If the veterinarian suspects that there is disease, additional testing is likely to start with imaging of the abdomen (X-rays and/or ultrasound) and a fecal exam to look for parasites.
If no obvious cause is noted and your pet doesn’t improve with supportive care, your veterinarian may recommend dietary trials to determine if your pet’s food is contributing to their clinical signs.
Your pet may need either surgery or a colonoscopy to take samples of their intestinal walls for a more definitive diagnosis. If a neurologic cause is suspected, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and extraction and analysis of cerebral spinal fluid are effective procedures that require anesthesia.
In some cases, your veterinarian may also want to rule out specific infectious diseases that can cause neurologic signs including bowel incontinence, such as distemper.
Treatment of Bowel Incontinence in Dogs
Some causes of bowel incontinence in dogs are curable, while others must be managed long-term.
Surgical management is an option for some conditions, such as intravertebral disc disease. However, other causes of incontinence, such as a tumor within the spinal canal, are unlikely to respond to treatment. In these cases, the condition must be managed.
If the pet is having bowel incontinence due to an infection like parvovirus, getting over the infection should resolve the issue. When specific infectious causes are found, your veterinarian may recommend medications like antibiotics or antifungals to treat the cause. If inflammation is playing a role, anti-inflammatory medications like NSAIDs (carprofen) or steroids (prednisone) may be prescribed.
In scenarios in which a dietary intolerance is suspected, your veterinarian may recommend trying a novel protein diet or hydrolyzed protein diet. Most dietary intolerances occur due to the proteins in the diet. Novel protein diets include proteins that your pet is unlikely to have consumed before. Hydrolyzed protein diets break the proteins down into smaller, more tolerable nutrients for your pet.
You are unlikely to completely resolve your pet’s bowel incontinence naturally. However, you may choose a highly digestible, low-fiber diet to reduce the volume of stool. If incontinence worsens with this change, speak with your veterinarian about adding an insoluble fiber supplement to improve stool consistency.
Recovery and Management of Bowel Incontinence in Dogs
A very important part of managing bowel incontinence in dogs is keeping their perineal area clean and dry. Accumulation of moisture in the area can lead to infection of the skin (dermatitis) or urinary tract infections, especially in females. To clean your pet’s perineal area, you can use gentle, scentless wipes that are made for dogs. If your pet is prone to infections in the area, your veterinarian may recommend specific medicated wipes.
We typically do not recommend keeping a diaper on your dog, as this increases the risk of dermatitis or urinary tract infection. Lining their usual resting areas with puppy pads can make clean-up time easier.
For dogs that feel the urge to defecate but have difficulty controlling defecation, more frequent bathroom breaks may be beneficial. Eating food also stimulates colonic movement, so taking your pet outside immediately after meals can help reduce accidents.
Bowel Incontinence in Dogs FAQs
Can bowel incontinence in dogs be cured?
Some causes of bowel incontinence, such as severe diarrhea or mild intervertebral disc disease, can be cured or significantly improved. Other conditions, like dysautonomia, do not have a cure at this time.
What are the first signs of bowel incontinence in dogs?
You may notice small amounts of stool in seemingly random areas of your home or in your pet’s sleeping areas. Alternatively, you may see stool coming out of your pet’s backside seemingly without them knowing.
Why do older dogs lose control of their bowels?
Older dogs do not inherently lose control of their bowels. Dogs with canine cognitive dysfunction consciously defecate in abnormal areas due to changes to their mental status, not due to loss of bowel control. Canine cognitive dysfunction has been compared to dementia in humans. Older dogs are also more likely to develop certain conditions, such as tumors of the spinal cord, which may also cause bowel incontinence.
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