Ask any pet owner – there are few surprises as unpleasant as finding a pile of Rover’s doggie-doo on the living room carpet. The resultant mess and odours are off-putting enough, but the most important potential consequence of housesoiling is the havoc it wreaks on the relationship between dog and master. Understandably, defecation in the house is poorly tolerated by owners – much more so than urination – and may lead them to seriously consider relinquishing the pet. This is an unfortunate scenario that owners and veterinarians must strive to avoid, especially since the prognosis for resolution of the behaviour is often quite good, depending on the underlying cause.
Elimination is defined as ‘inappropriate’ whenever a pet has had ample opportunity to relieve itself in a designated area, yet continues to do so indoors.
Although the net result is the same – poo on your new beige carpet – the causes are numerous, and diverse. Furthermore, the nature of the problem, be it medical or behavioural, has a direct bearing on the likelihood of successful treatment. For this reason, the first task in working up any dog that has started to defecate indoors is differentiating between medical versus behavioural causes.
When an otherwise housebroken and well-behaved mature dog is found to be leaving ‘number two’s’ around the home, it may be the result of an increased urgency and / or frequency of needing to relieve itself. Conditions such as colitis (inflammation and irritation of the large intestine) may manifest in this way. Organisms causing diarrhea, such as parasitic worms, bacteria, and viruses, may also be responsible for increasing the fluid volume of stool and the urgency to defecate in between walking times. Puppies, as well as immunocompromised and debilitated dogs, are particularly vulnerable to some of these diarrhea-causing pathogens. This last point underscores the importance of regular preventative deworming and timely vaccination of puppies (and adults), according to your veterinarian’s advice.
Your vet is able to easily check stool samples for microscopic evidence of parasites and their eggs, or ‘ova’. Multiple samples may be needed though, since many parasites’ ova are shed in feces inconsistently, and as such, may not appear in every successive sample even though they are cause of the infection. Feces may also be tested to rule out other infectious causes of diarrhea. Treatment usually consists of supportive care (such as fluids for dehydration associated with diarrhea) and antibiotics or antiparasitic medications. Colitis is managed according to its cause, be it allergic, infectious, or otherwise.
Dogs suffering from constipation or otherwise difficult or painful defecation (“dyschezia”) for a variety of causes may not make full use of their bathroom time outside, and may therefore find themselves having to defecate at inappropriate times and locations. Conditions affecting the hind end are often to blame, ranging from inflammation or infection of the anal sacs to orthopedic problems such as arthritis and hip dysplasia, which make it uncomfortable to squat down to defecate. A thorough history, including questions about the appearance and consistency of your dog’s stool, physical exam, and fecal testing by your vet will aid in sorting out gastrointestinal from orthopedic causes. Again, treatment will be determined by the underlying cause of the difficulty in defecating.
Another medical cause for inappropriate elimination in dogs is incontinence, a condition in which the dog simply cannot control its bowel movements, and may not even be aware that it is defecating at all. Incontinence is a neurological problem, and as such can be more complex and carry a less favourable prognosis for cure, especially in older pets with a chronic history or in spinal injury patients. Your veterinarian will perform a thorough neurological exam of your dog to rule in or out nervous system involvement. Another neurological basis for housesoiling is cognitive dysfunction (CD), akin to dementia in people. This is often seen in the geriatric dog population, as mental function declines and awareness of their surroundings decreases, such that the dog loses any concept of the inappropriateness of its behaviour. Cognitive dysfunction is the result of a degenerative process occurring in the brain, so it is slowly progressive. However, your vet is still able to offer some therapeutic options that may slow these often inevitable changes. Ask your vet about the latest medications available to manage CD.
When the results of your dog’s physical exam, lab tests, and fecal analysis yield no evidence of physiological causes of inappropriate defecation, the root of the problem is often times found to be a behavioural one. A common cause of housesoiling is inadequate housebreaking training. This topic is discussed in more detail in the Pets.ca bulletin board here.
Changes in feeding or walking schedule can sometimes account for a recent onset of indoor defecation by a usually well-behaved dog. Dogs, like people, will often relieve themselves at more or less predictable intervals following meals. Take some time to observe these intervals and ensure that your dog is afforded the opportunity to relieve himself outside at the times he is most likely to have to go. Feeding two or three small meals a day is more likely to allow owners to predict, and therefore accommodate, their dogs’ defecation habits than leaving out a bowl of food all day long for occasional, unpredictable grazing.
If changes in your shifts at work mean you will be away from the house for longer periods of time than usual, ensure that any feces that will inevitably be passed over that time will end up in a location of your choice. Laying newspapers or ‘pee-pads’ down in a tiled room in the house makes clean-up of the unavoidable accidents easier, and provides an appropriate outlet for your pet’s bathroom urges. Crating your dog may also be a good option, as it takes advantage of dogs’ natural aversion to soiling where they sleep. Leaving any dog in a crate for too long, however, will eventually lead to it soiling its living quarters, which is upsetting for the dog. It should therefore be emphasized that crates are in no way a replacement for conscientious care and walking of a dog.
The Bottom Line
While nobody wants to return home from a long day to find their home ‘redecorated’ by their dog’s poo, owners should take heart that housesoiling can often be a treatable, transient problem. Working with your vet to pin the cause down as either medical or behavioural is key. Only then can treatments can be devised accordingly and a reasonable prognosis given for success. The problem can initially be a frustrating one but remember…with some patience and dedication, a dog leaving number two’s in the house may well return to being your number one pet.