I told animal behaviorist Alexis Toriello that my 15-year-old dog, Mosby, suddenly started peeing indoors again, which he hadn't done in years. As I explained to her, because he's elderly, I was concerned about incontinence, but I also wondered if he wasn't just refusing to go out because it was snowing. My boyfriend and I live in Texas, where it rarely snows, and even rainy days aren't really Mosby's jam, so you can imagine him being reticent to relieve himself in minus-30-degree F weather when he has to slide all over our iced patio first. He also did it right in front of us twice! I had to know what the deal was.
According to Toriello, the first stop is the vet. You have to eliminate any potential medical issues. Even if your vet doesn't find anything specifically related to incontinence, that doesn't mean there isn't an issue, so it's important to tell your vet everything. There could be an indirect medical cause. Dogs suffering from joint pain may not be able to move around as well. Dogs with reduced eyesight might not be able to get around as well. Even the stress of a medical disorder could cause a behavior change.
If your dog is elderly, it may also be time for a hard truth. "In senior dogs it is most likely a symptom of cognitive decline. Older dogs frequently get confused about where they are, so naturally that would cause them to be confused about where to eliminate — or think they're eliminating in an appropriate place when they're not," Toriello explains.
If your vet signs off on your pooch's health, it may be a behavioral issue. Changes in your behavior (work schedule, feeding schedule, bedtime, etc.) could stress your dog out. But most people already know that (it would stress us out, too).
If you can't think of anything that's changed, there are potential explanations. It's possible something has changed that you aren't aware of. Toriello notes that your dog could easily be stressed out by the noise from construction during the day (when you're at work and don't know it's going on). Maybe a dog has moved into another apartment or home near you and your dog is uncomfortable.
It's also possible your vet missed something. Your vet would likely catch it if it's an issue due to old age or actual incontinence, but did you really tell your vet everything? Even subtle things like the fact that it's going downstairs more slowly than previously or not eating quite as much as it used to? This is the time to think about what you might have missed because it happened slowly over time.
If your dog suddenly starts peeing or pooping indoors and there's no medical reason, we all tend to think it's "out of spite" or "they're mad at us." Toriello says that's not true. (Dogs are unsurprisingly way less passive-aggro than humans.)
It's true that eliminating in the house or in front of owners can be intended as communication. She explains that "it is not because dogs are feeling anything like guilt or vindictiveness. If it is in fact intended to communicate something, it's probably a call for help — something is up, and an owner's next move should be to try to figure out what's stressing out their dog. Could be a medical problem, could be a new member of the household, could be the inability or unwillingness to go outside in the cold or stand on slippery ice."
She continues, saying, "Sometimes dogs may just eliminate inside... without any intention of communicating to you that something's wrong, or at other times, it seems like they are essentially writing in big bold letters, 'HELLO, THERE'S SOMETHING WRONG HERE!' Either way, dogs don't do things just to be jerks, so responding to your dog as though they're trying to get back at you for something is not going to solve the problem for either of you."
For those who are wondering, Mosby has no new medical issues, despite his age. He still struggles with joint pain (nothing new), which may be a contributing factor, but now that Texas weather is back to normal (no snow or ice), so are his bathroom habits.
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