A few years ago, my dog Prunella was diagnosed with degenerative myelopathy, a disease of the nervous system that results in paralysis. At that time, my vet said that except for not being able to walk, Prunella would be just fine. And for a while, that was true. Eventually, she needed a wheelchair, but she was still the same happy dog—ask anyone who saw her rolling around San Francisco.
The vet also hinted that how long Prunella lived might not be determined by her health, but by how long I could stand the incontinence that accompanied her rear-end paralysis.
I soon learned what she meant. The incontinence became the most stressful aspect of my dog’s disease. Although I saw how some people could be driven to make the difficult decision to euthanize, I couldn’t consider that while she was still such a vibrant dog. My fiancé and I struggled with her incontinence, and taught ourselves how to deal with it.
I searched online for tips, but didn’t find a lot. I discovered several forums where people asked for advice, and the discussion turned into a debate over whether or not to put the dog down. Ugh. I read several pages where people simply accepted the mess that came with caring for their aged, beloved, yet incontinent dogs. Ugh. Just because I didn’t want to give up my dog did not mean I would accept living in squalor.
Since there doesn’t seem to be a lot of available information, I want to share some things we found to be helpful.
Many online pet stores have lists of gear for incontinent dogs. Here are the things we found most useful.
Supportive bed with a waterproof cover. Ours was from Drs. Foster and Smith. It was key because most of Prunella’s accidents happened on her bed at night. To clean up, I simply wiped off the liner.
Puppy training pads. We started out with diapers and disposable liners, but found that the diapers leaked, spread the mess everywhere she went, and pressed it into her fur. We switched to puppy training pads. The mess stayed in one place—on the pad—and not on our dog, who was smart enough to move away. Cleaning up became as easy as throwing away the pad.
Medications. Take your dog to the vet, and make sure there isn’t a medical problem that is causing incontinence. Prunella’s vet prescribed Phenylpropanolamine (PPA), which helped a lot.
Floor protection. Some people recommend covering floors with plastic sheeting or the plastic mats that go under computer chairs, but I think those look depressing. I bought a bunch of carpets from the Crate and Barrel Outlet Store. They look okay, can be cleaned, and are cheap enough to be semi-disposable.
Gearing up is only the first step. Here’s the really hard-won knowledge.
Don't freak out! Prunella knew she was not supposed to relieve herself inside. However, she could not control herself, and in the end, did not even know when it was happening. When she had accidents, I could tell she was afraid I’d be mad, so I tried not to make her feel worse by punishing her or raising my voice. Staying calm will keep you from being stressed, sad, and looking at your dog like maybe she’s had a good, full life after all.
Learn to express the urine from your dog’s bladder. Prunella could not generate enough pressure to empty her bladder. She would have accidents, even after a long walk. Helping her urinate prevented accidents and reduced the risk of urinary tract infections. It takes a little practice, but I promise that she only peed on my shoes once. Ask your vet for a lesson, and check YouTube.com for instructional videos.
Consider supplementing your dog’s diet with high-fiber foods. We fed Prunella lots of brown rice and vegetables. I won’t specify the reasons why this is helpful, but let me just say that I cannot be more firm about this recommendation. The diet also made it easy for her to move her bowels and kept her regular. It was a relief to know she had taken care of business before I left for work.
Establish a quick and easy clean-up system. We relied on the following tools and strategies so our response to a mess was simple and decisive.
We created a cleaning station for gear and dog. Ours was in the backyard, near the hose. It consisted of a bucket, detergent, dog shampoo and brush, a place to air-dry everything, and towels. Having everything right there made cleaning so easy. The bucket neatly held everything when not in use.
Invested in a carpet-cleaning machine. Prunella could no longer walk on slick surfaces like wood or tile, so we needed to have carpet everywhere. Owning my own carpet cleaner was the difference between thinking, “Boo hoo, I have a semi-continent crippled dog and I live in a dump” and being too embarrassed by dog hair and weird smells to have guests over. Sure, we may have served tea and homemade lemon bars to my future in-laws while our dog took a big pee in the middle of the room, but at least it didn’t look or smell like that happened all the time. Even if it did.
Stocked up on stain and odor remover. Since her behavior was involuntary, we didn’t bother with formulas with enzymes that keep pets from peeing indoors. We pulled out the big guns—our choice was Resolve.
Repurposed bar towels, lots of them, for drying Prunella, wiping floors and blotting the carpet.
Isolated the laundry. It’s depressing if smelly dog stuff is scattered all over the house. It’s much nicer to have one small bin to hold gear and towels until it’s time to do laundry, which we did often, with lots of hot water and bleach.
To anyone who is just beginning to deal with this, please know that it gets better. Once you have developed your own system, your stress level will go way down. You will remember why you love your dog again. You will wonder how anyone could even consider putting their dog down, merely for being incontinent. It is a lot of work but it can be done.
Almost two years after she first started exhibiting signs of degenerative myelopathy, Prunella became unable to walk in her wheelchair, or even move a few inches for a bowl of steak. When she no longer seemed happy, we felt it was time to let her go. We still miss her terribly.