Practical Matters: Make sure to differentiate incontinence from behavioral elimination problems


Practical Matters: Make sure to differentiate incontinence from behavioral elimination problems

May 01, 2004

Katherine Houpt
Owners, veterinary students, and sometimes even veterinarians will state that an animal is incontinent when, in fact, the pet is in perfect control of its bladder and rectal sphincters but chooses to eliminate in the house or, in the case of cats, outside the litter box. Because this is inconvenient or expensive for the owner, this behavior problem may be termed inappropriate elimination, though it is perfectly appropriate for the animal.

If a cat is housesoiling and the owner is finding large pools of urine in a discreet area or small amounts on vertical surfaces, the animal is not incontinent. Urine spraying or marking by a cat is usually a response to too many cats or aggression between the cats in the home. And because reducing the number of cats is often not an option, psychotropic medication is usually necessary.

The common causes of feline housesoiling include a litter box that is dirty, too small, covered, or positioned in a place distant from the cat's usual center of activity. Housesoiling usually ends once the owner addresses the litter box problems and cleans the soiled areas. In some cases, stress, most commonly social stress, can cause housesoiling even in a single-cat household, but these cases are unusual.

For dogs, especially females, with housesoiling problems be sure to ask the owners whether there is urine in the animal's rest area when it gets up or whether the animal dribbles urine as it walks—two signs of incontinence. Dogs that urinate when they are excited are displaying another type of incontinence; the urination plays a role in what is essentially a behavior problem. Strengthening sphincters pharmacologically may help as well as teaching the dogs to sit and stay away from exciting stimuli. Remember though, most canine housesoiling is simply a lack of housebreaking or is secondary to separation anxiety.

Katherine Houpt, VMD, PhD, DACVB
Animal Behavior Clinic
Department of Clinical Sciences
College of Veterinary Medicine
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853