Testing the Bond: Incontinence and your senior


There’s no doubt that dealing with chronic incontinence can challenge even the most patient and dedicated pet owner. The smell you can’t quite get rid of, the endless shampooing, the squish of stepping into a puddle or pile you didn’t see.

Just like humans, aging dogs and cats often suffer physical and sometimes cognitive changes that can weaken bladders, bowels and the systems that control their function. Incontinence can be so trying that it plays a role in why many pets find themselves homeless in their golden years.

“I don’t have statistics, but in my experience it’s quite often that dogs are surrendered because of incontinence issues,” says Susan Brugato, founder of St. Martin’s Animal Rescue. Established in 2012, the foster-based rescue’s mission is to save senior dogs from high-kill shelters.

Sadly, some of those dogs might have been able to stay in their homes had owners known that many incontinence issues can be treated — or at least managed.

“The biggest mistake people make regarding incontinence is assuming it’s behavioral and not taking the dog to the vet,” says Brugato.

Diagnose before you decide

Incontinence can happen at any time and for many reasons. However, some pets are more prone to these types of problems.

“We tend to see incontinence much more in females than males, and much more in dogs than cats,” says Dr. Alicia Zambelli of Murrayhill Animal Hospital.

The most common urinary incontinence is seen in older spayed female dogs, which can be remedied with medication or hormone supplements. Still, the issue may not be age-related.

“Anytime you see the dog is leaking, the first thing you want to check is that they don’t have a urinary tract infection, bladder stones, or other medical problem,” advises Zambelli. Most of those issues can be treated effectively.

Fecal incontinence can be much harder to manage. In older dogs, cognitive dysfunction can be a cause, but other reasons not related to age such as spinal injuries and disease may be addressed with acupuncture and medication.

Luckily for cat owners, true incontinence of any kind is much less common. In senior felines, constipation and kidney disease are more common, and both can have the same root cause.

“Kidneys are the Achilles heel of cats,” says Zambelli. “Over time if kidney function deteriorates — renal insufficiency — in order to compensate they drink more and urinate more. Sometimes that expands into urinating inappropriately.”

This lack of fluid can also create poor bowel function, and if your cat has an unusually poop-free litterbox, you should note that.

There may be another less direct cause if your kitty starts to have accidents. “One thing that’s easy to miss in older cats is arthritis, degenerative joint disease, and pain,” Zambelli says. “They no longer want to jump up into the cat box, so they start peeing on the floor. It’s a solvable problem if we troubleshoot and put a real low pan down, like a baking sheet, and improve accessibility and address pain.”


Oops! I did it again

Taking care of an incontinent senior takes effort, but there are many ways to make this labor of love manageable.

“First of all, no carpet!” laughs Brugato. “Also, make any bedding easy to clean. I take the filling or pad from dog beds, put it inside a plastic garbage bag, tape it up, then put the cover over that. You only have to wash the cover and the filling stays fresh and dry.”

Barrier pads, such as belly bands for incontinent male dogs, work well. With any method, however, pets need to be kept clean so that secondary issues don’t arise. 

“It’s important to make sure there’s no perineal scald [skin burns from urine], skin irritation, or dampness that can lead to secondary itch, infection, and discomfort,” says Zambelli. “Animals can suffer silently and don’t always tell us when they’re uncomfortable.”

But sometimes they do. Constant licking can be the first sign of a problem. “Some dogs just get moist and there aren’t puddles around the house,” says the doctor. “That can be emerging incontinence. It’s probably not just a habit.”

As for clean-up, Brugato says there are many great solutions on the market, including the one she uses with the superhero-worthy name: Airx Rx 101 All-Purpose Odor Counteractant Cleaner. You can also opt for something simpler that’s nearly as effective: hydrogen peroxide mixed with baking soda and vinegar.

“You have to really soak the carpet or fabric and rub,” she says. “Just spraying with a spray bottle does nothing.”

For pet owners, the hardest part of dealing with incontinence may be the realization that your loved one is aging and that your time with them is growing shorter. But Zambelli says it doesn’t need to be a sad time for you or your pet.

 “There’s so much I think we can do for older cats and dogs.” 


Michele Coppola is a veteran Portland radio personality, copywriter and freelance writer who shares couch space with her dogs Ginny and Bailey, Roxy the a cat, as well as Bryon, the stray man she married eight years ago.