Sympathy For Soiling Senior Pets

By Teresa Garden, DVM

As some of us already know too well, it’s not easy getting older. One of the common problems I encounter every day in practice is complaints that older pets are soiling in the house. Dogs are no longer making it outside to defecate and cats are leaving little nuggets of feces outside the litter box. I try to assure my clients their pets are not being spiteful or lazy. There is an underlying reason why this is happening. The cause may be physical or behavioral or a combination thereof. If we can figure out the underlying cause of the fecal house soiling we can then formulate a treatment plan to help. Most problems can be managed if not cured.

Osteoarthritis afflicts most of our senior and geriatric pets in some degree. Dogs will often have arthritis in their lumbar spine, hips, and stifles. The pain from this disease makes it difficult to get into the proper position for defecation and to maintain the proper posture to complete the process. Hence, the bowels are not completely evacuated and then feces may be expelled out in the house. Navigating steps to go outside can also be extremely challenging for our geriatric dogs. This can act as a detriment in their willingness to go outside to potty. They then try to “hold it” only to end up later with an urgency to defecate which does not allow for ample time to get outside. Our older feline friends also suffer from degenerative joint disease in the spine and hips although they do it quietly and with more subtlety. Your veterinarian can perform a physical and orthopedic exam followed by possible radiographs to confirm osteoarthritis. Pain management is a key component of treatment. Nutracueticals such as Phycox, Dasuquin, or fish oil may be employed. NSAIDS (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are a mainstay of treatment for dogs and can be used in certain cases for cats as well. Weight loss will help our pudgy pets move better. Supplying litter boxes with shorter entry points and sides will make it easier for old kitties to access them. Make sure there is a box on each floor of the home for easy use. A thorough multi-modal treatment approach to arthritis includes acupuncture and therapeutic laser. These modalities have been used very successfully at our practice.

A wide variety of neurological disorders can lead to house soiling in senior pets. Degenerative myelopathy, lumbosacral disease, intervertebral disk disease, infectious diseases, and neoplasia are all potential causes. A thorough neurological examination is imperative to localize the lesion. Radiographs and more advanced imaging studies such as MRI may be needed to fully evaluate the situation and reach a diagnosis. Many conditions can be treated with neuropathic medications such as gabapentin, anti-inflammatory drugs such as prednisone or NSAIDS, and sometimes surgery. Clinical symptoms often will improve or even resolve with proper therapy once a specific diagnosis has been made. Again, acupuncture and laser therapy can help to improve some neurological conditions.

Our senior and geriatric dogs and cats can be afflicted with diseases of the colon, rectum, or anus that can lead to fecal house soiling. Clinical signs of these diseases are diarrhea, constipation, bloody stools, or mucoid stools. Some of the more common diseases that contribute to this problem are IBD (inflammatory bowel disease), perianal fistulas, cancer, and pancreatitis. Our goal is to identify the specific cause and to treat the problem accordingly. IBD can be managed with hypoallergenic diets, probiotics, digestive enzymes, and omega-3 fatty acids. More severe cases may require the use of western drugs such as metronidazole, budesonide, or prednisone. Pancreatitis can often be minimized by feeding low-fat diets and supplementing with digestive enzymes. Perianal fistulas may respond to surgery, cryosurgery, or laser therapy. Prednisone pills or tacrolimus ointment may be used to treat the fistulas as well. Cancers may be amenable to surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or a combination thereof.
Behavioral disorders are being more commonly recognized as a cause of fecal house soiling. It is not a training issue in these older pets. Canine cognitive dysfunction is a varied syndrome which may present with multiple clinical signs in addition to house soiling. These dogs may experience anxiety, excessive vocalization, and irritability. Other symptoms include changes in their sleep-wake cycle, forgetfulness of familiar places and people, confusion in the home, and reduced cognitive function.

Aged cats can also suffer from cognitive dysfunction. Symptoms to watch for are vocalization, wandering from familiar territory, changes in appetite and drinking habits and inappropriate elimination. Cognitive dysfunction can be treated in dogs and cats. Pheromone collars and diffusers can help ease anxiety, irritability, and vocalization. Calming herbs (nervines) may be employed. Nutraceuticals such as Senilife and Neutricks can play a role in treatment protocols. Western drugs such as selegiline and behavioral modification techniques may be needed. Decreasing stress in the household can be beneficial for these pets suffering from dementia.

Fecal house soiling by our senior and geriatric pets can be very frustrating for both the pet owner and their veterinarian. Each pet is an individual with a specific underlying issue(s). The differential diagnoses are many and varied. Therapy can be just as varied and must be targeted to help that particular pet’s problem. At all times we must keep in mind there is an underlying medical problem causing the fecal house soiling. Our pets may be old and feeble, but they are not being spiteful or lazy. Sympathy, understanding, and patience are needed from us in abundance when dealing with this issue.

Dr. Teresa Garden is chief veterinarian/owner of Animal Health & Healing, a full-service holistic and conventional veterinary practice in the Maplewood/Richmond Heights area. 314-781-1738. www.AnimalHealthandHealing.com.