Behavioral causes of house soiling can usually be resolved
If your indoor dog is among the one in five that leaves unpleasant surprises for you to find, don’t despair. Your veterinarian can help you determine the cause and a solution for house soiling—urinating, defecating, or both, in inappropriate locations.
According to Dr. Kelly Ballantyne, a veterinary behaviorist at the University of Illinois Chicago Center for Veterinary Medicine, this problem could arise from either a behavioral or a medical problem.
Get the Facts
A thorough history is key in sorting out the cause. Your veterinarian will ask where and when the soiling occurs, what the dog does when given the chance to eliminate outside, the dog’s posture when eliminating, what the dog eats and drinks, and current medical conditions and medications, among other questions.
In addition, your veterinarian will complete a physical examination and may want to perform further tests, such as a complete blood count, chemistry panel, urinalysis, fecal evaluation, and other diagnostics related to specific suspected conditions. If a medical condition is found to be the reason for the house soiling, treatment of the condition should resolve the soiling.
Among the behavioral reasons for a pet’s accidents are incomplete house training, urinating when excited, submissive urination, marking, anxiety disorders, and cognitive dysfunction syndrome (similar to Alzheimer’s disease in people). Breed can also play a role in house soiling. Small breed dogs, in addition to beagles and basset hounds, are more likely to display this behavior.
“Dogs are not considered to be house trained until they have gone four to eight consecutive weeks without house soiling,” says Dr. Ballantyne. For dogs that are soiling in the home due to incomplete house training, managing the pet’s environment, and relationship building are two ways to address the behavior.
Keep It Clean
“Management techniques include confining the pet away from soiled areas using crates, baby gates, or pens; active supervision; blocking access to the pet’s preferred spot in the house; and cleaning soiled areas thoroughly and properly,” she says.
Dr. Ballantyne recommends using an enzymatic cleaner, which works by breaking down the scent of the urine and feces so that the pet cannot detect it and will not be encouraged to soil in that area in the future. She advises soaking a larger area with the enzymatic cleaner than you think is soiled to be sure to clean the area entirely. Dr. Ballantyne states that without using these enzymatic cleaners, house soiling may persist even if it is from a medical cause.
Keep It Positive
Building a good relationship with the pet is key to working with a dog that is not yet house trained. “Avoid any kind of punishment, which only serves to put more stress on the dog,” she advises. “Instead, use positive reinforcement.” This can be as simple as giving the dog a small treat after he or she urinates or defecates outside to reinforce the desired behavior and teach the pet where it is acceptable for them to eliminate.
“Dogs develop their sense of substrate preference—that is, whether they should eliminate on grass, gravel, soil, and so on—at around eight weeks of age,” says Dr. Ballantyne. “Not having access to this preferred substrate may contribute to a pet having accidents in the home.”
On Your Mark
“Marking,” when a small volume of urine is voided, usually on a vertical surface, is a behavior most common among intact male dogs, although marking is also seen in neutered male or female dogs and in dogs that are anxious. Castration is the treatment of choice for intact dogs; this can reduce the frequency of marking in up to 80 percent of male dogs, regardless of their age.
For dogs that mark in the home, building a positive relationship, modifying behavior using positive reinforcement, and eliminating odors with enzymatic cleaners are also effective approaches. If a dog is marking due to an anxiety disorder, your veterinarian may prescribe anti-anxiety medications.
The good news is, behavioral causes of house soiling tend to have a good outcome and can usually be resolved by working with a veterinarian. According to Dr. Ballantyne, house soiling due to an underlying medical issue has a more varied outcome, as the prognosis will be dependent on the physiology causing the soiling.
For more help if your dog soils the house, speak with a veterinarian who specializes in behavior.
By Sarah Netherton