Published on
Last updated on
3 min read

Key takeaways

Canine bowel incontinence is the inability to control defecation.

  • Incontinence is distinct from inappropriate elimination or house-soiling, in that the bowel movements occur without the dog’s awareness
  • It is also different from straining to defecate, which is an intentional act
  • With bowel incontinence, feces can just fall or leak out of the rectum spontaneously
  • Bowel incontinence has two basic underlying causes: an abnormality in the anal sphincter causing leakage, or an inability to store feces
  • There are many potential causes, ranging from injury to viruses
  • Diagnosis involves physical exam, blood work, fecal testing for specific parasites, viruses, or bacteria, urinalysis, diagnostic imaging, and biopsy of the gastrointestinal tract
  • Treatment depends on the underlying cause and can be surgical or medication; prognosis is self-limiting to incurable
Are you concerned?

Connect with a vet to get more information about your pet’s health.

Book an online vet

A closer look: Bowel Incontinence in Dogs

The symptom of bowel incontinence alone is not an emergency, but does warrant prompt veterinary care. It is a significant problem for most pet owners, since it is messy and often not easily treated. Many incontinent dogs show signs of distress, knowing that they are “breaking the rules” of housetraining.

Some of the underlying causes are emergencies, such as parvovirus, injuries, and poisoning. Concurrent symptoms may increase the urgency of investigating incontinence, such as severe diarrhea.

Connect with a vet to get more information

With DVM, ICH certifications and great reviews by pet parents like you for this symptom

Possible causes

Most causes of bowel incontinence are related either to dysfunction of the anal sphincter, or an inability to store feces. Causes may also be related to neurological function or a condition affecting the gastrointestinal tract itself.

In some cases, no cause can be identified.

Risk factors

In the case of concurrent diarrhea, bowel incontinence may be more severe, but is likely of shorter duration (acute and temporary). The presence or absence of other symptoms is the main indicator of severity, and the associated symptoms may provide information about what underlying condition is occuring.

Testing and diagnosis

To investigate bowel incontinence, diagnostics include:

  • Physical Exam
  • Blood work
  • Fecal testing, including testing for specific parasites, viruses, or bacteria
  • Urinalysis
  • Diagnostic imaging such as X-rays, ultrasound, or MRI
  • Biopsy of the gastrointestinal tract

Treatment depends on the underlying cause. If the underlying cause is treatable, bowel incontinence can resolve. Sometimes it may be self-limiting, with resolution being a matter of time only. Bowel incontinence can also be incurable. For example, if the underlying cause is a progressive neurological disease like degenerative myelopathy, no specific treatment is available and is supportive only. Sometimes a diet change may help cure or lessen the severity of bowel incontinence. Certain medications can also help, such as intestinal motility modifiers or antibiotics. Surgery may cure certain cases, such as injuries, fistulas, and hernias.

Similar symptoms

Bowel incontinence is similar to inappropriate elimination or house-soiling. The difference between incontinence and inappropriate elimination is an incontinent dog is passing feces without awareness of doing so as it is happening.

Associated symptoms


Catherine Barnette, DVM - Writing for VCA Animal Hospitals
Rhiannon Koehler, DVM - Writing for PetMD

Our editorial committee

Our medical review team is responsible for validating and maintaining the quality of our medical information.