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October 03, 2010

When pet soiling isn't just an accident

By Brian J. Lowney – Contributing Writer

Have you noticed that your pet is suddenly having accidents in the house?

If this is abnormal behavior for your usually fastidious dog or cat, incontinence is the likely reason.

According to Dr. Thomas Burns of Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth, there are many medical causes of incontinence in pets.

Among the culprits are anatomical abnormalities, neurologic conditions, bladder storage and urinary tract disorders, hormonal problems and infection.

"Incontinence is diagnosed by discussing the clinical signs with the owner, physical exam findings and often urine and blood tests," Burns says. "Sometimes additional testing is needed, like radiographs or ultrasound to screen for bladder stones."

The primary treatment is to increase muscle tone with medication or, in other cases, with hormonal replacement treatment. Blood and urine tests may be performed, as treatment progresses, to ensure there are no unintended side-effects.

"Incontinence (due to medical problems) is much more prevalent in dogs," Burns says, adding that the prognosis for most canines is good, with many cases managed successfully on medication.

"It is very important to make sure older dogs do not have conditions that make them drink more water, which can lead to incontinence," Burns says. "Many diseases such as diabetes, kidney disorders or even infections can cause increased water consumption. Increasingly, we are finding more and more dogs with endocrine disorders such as Cushing's disease that cause increased water intake and urine output."

Finding these diseases early is key for successful treatment.

Author and certified animal behaviorist Amy Shojai says that occasional accidents should not be confused with medically related incontinence, which she adds may also be caused by a cognitive disorder — kitty or doggie Alzheimer's — often diagnosed in elderly pets.

"Hit-or-miss bathroom behavior can be due to poor training, arise from urine 'marking' behavior of leg-lifting dogs and spraying cats, or be stress related," she says.

Shojai says cats are more likely than dogs to soil in the house due to behavioral issues.

"There are as many reasons for this as there are cats," she adds, laughing, listing dirty facilities, having to share litter boxes with other cats, seeing stray felines roaming outside the window and "commenting" with urine, and feeling stressed because of a new baby or furniture.

"Any change in routine potentially can prompt the kitty to get her tail in a twist and use urine to comfort herself," Shojai says, adding that pets use such behavior to communicate and not as an act of spite.

"Sadly, humans rarely understand or appreciate the message," the writer notes. "For cats, spreading their scent around can be immensely comforting and calming."

For example, if an owner returns from vacation to discover a surprise on her bed or favorite chair, it's most likely because the furniture bears the scent of the pet's beloved owner, and the feline wants to feel comforted.

"Consider that a back-handed compliment," Shojai says, laughing.

One way to reduce annoying bathroom behavior in cats is to reduce stress.

"Figure out what's causing the issue and try to eliminate that," she advises. "The biggest stress for cats is other cats – so increase territory and property by offering more resources.

Shojai recommends one way to keep cats happy and behaving properly is to adhere to the "one plus one" rule (one litter box per cat, plus one extra), placed in different locations around the house so felines won't argue over which one gets to use the facilities.

"Aging, arthritic cats maybe can't climb into the litter box so they wet elsewhere," Shojai adds. "Provide a box with lower sides to help them out."

The award-winning writer advises owners whose pets eliminate in inappropriate places not to punish the offender.

"In most cases, pets can't help themselves and punishment simply ramps up stress and makes the problem worse," Shojai says.

She advises owners to manage incontinence issues by providing more bathroom breaks, coming home from work at lunchtime, installing a pet door and picking up the water bowl an hour before bedtime.

"It's important to keep pets clean," Shojai says. "Urine scald can be an issue for pets with leaky bladders that sleep or lay in the mess."

One way to keep pets clean and eliminate accidents is to use pet diapers.

"It's something that more and more pet owners are embracing," reports Lisa-Marie Mulkern, director of marketing and communications for, a Nashua, N.H.-based company that makes products for elderly, disabled and handicapped pets.

Pet diapers are designed to prevent leakage, with non-sticky adjustable fasteners that don't pull hair.

"Pet diapers work very well," Shojai and Mulkern agree.

For more information on pet diapers and other products for physically challenged pets, visit the

To learn more about caring for elderly pets or for information about Shojai's books, visit

Swansea resident Brian J. Lowney has been writing about pets for more than a decade. He is a past president of the Wampanoag Kennel Club, an active dog show judge and shares his home with two shelter-adopted cats. All of Brian's columns are available online in our new pet section. Visit