Urinary incontinence, or ‘urinary sphincter mechanism incompetence’,is the involuntary passage of urine and is most commonly seen in bitches.   There are many reasons for incontinence, and these are most simply grouped under two headings - ‘congenital incontinence’ affecting juvenile dogs and bitches and ‘acquired incontinence’ affecting the more mature animal.

Incontinence following spaying comes within the ‘acquired’ group, as the surgical removal of the reproductive tract in the bitch (uterus and ovaries) reduces the hormone levels present (importantly oestrogen) and it is this oestrogen reduction that is thought to be the main cause of incontinence in the spayed bitch.    However, it should be said that it is believed that the problem is most likely to be seen in bitches that have a predisposition towards incontinence in later life rather than the act of spaying being the primary culprit.   There is also secondary opinion that in some rare cases the mechanical effects of removing the uterus may be the cause of ‘urethral sphincter mechanism incompetence’ in some bitches– a vet who does not perform his or her surgery quite as gently as another could cause physical damage and thus potentially cause incontinence.  

It would be natural to think that the simple prescription of replacement oestrogen would be the answer to the distressed bitches problem but, of course, the removal of oestrogen through spaying also reduces the chances of developing other potentially life-threatening problems such as mammary tumours or pyometra. 

Regrettably, there does seem to be a predisposition to incontinence in the larger/medium breeds suggesting that the Spinone is more prone.   And, just to increase the chances, recent work suggests a link between docking and urethral sphincter mechanism incompetence in the bitch.   Though the reason is unclear, the suggestion is that it may reflect differences in pelvic musculature or urethral nerve supply between docked and undocked breeds.     

Take, for example, docked Spinone Emilia Rosa.   She had her first season around nine months and it had always been planned by her owners that following this she would be spayed.*   The onset of an acute ‘phantom pregnancy’ presented a young bitch heavy with milk and a pathetic urgency to nurture every toy and canine acquaintance as if they were one of her litter.   Her owners discussed the situation with their veterinary practice – the younger vet advised against spaying until Emilia ‘returned to normal’, while the older vet said he would operate and that everything would be fine.   The decision was made to proceed and following her operation the bitch returned home, seemingly fine.   In hindsight, her owners wonder whether her swollen condition may have made precision difficult during surgery.   [Our own Club vet, Cristiana, has commented that it is not recommended to spay a bitch showing signs of ‘psuedopregnancy’ and it would have been advisable to bring Emilia back to normal hormone levels before spaying with a treatment such as Galastop.]      

* The debate about spaying before a first season or not trundles on, and I do not intend to make any personal comment on this here.   Suffice it to say that some veterinary practices, mine included, say that it is better to spay before the first season, so in the case of both of my bitches this would have been before six months.   However, only last week I read an article that stated “Under no circumstances should a bitch be spayed prior to her first season”.   

For the next month or more Emilia continued all the activities every 1 year old Spinone enjoys – playing, walking, hunting, eating and sleeping.   Then one evening, last November, as she was lying down she produced, involuntarily, a huge puddle of urine.   Emilia was, to quote her owners “beside herself”.       Emilia was consoled, the puddle removed and she retired to her bed upstairs for the night, the incident being put down to an unfortunate mishap.   Alas, later that evening the same thing happened, Emilia’s bed was sodden and she was once again extremely distressed.   (It is most common for incontinence to occur while the animal is recumbent).

Obviously, a visit to the vets followed next day.   On examination it was discovered that Emilia had a bad infection, put down to continual dripping of urine into her vagina.  Her owners had been unaware that she had been ‘leaking’ because she had always been the most fastidious dog with her personal hygiene, constantly cleaning and licking.   However, the ‘leaking’ suggestion did seem plausible as her owners had been aware for a while that Emilia had become rather ‘smelly’– what they had rather humorously decided to call ‘granny pants’!!   Enough said.   Antibiotics were prescribed and once these kicked-in the incontinence improved dramatically, but Emilia continued to clean and lick herself rather excessively. 

Regrettably for both Emilia and her owners, the cause was not simply an infection but was confirmed as urinary incontinence.   The option offered was of oestrogen treatment or Propalin, the latter being the most usual medicine for this disorder and in Emilia’s case is administered as syrup.  Her owners felt the oestrogen option was not advisable due to her tendency towards ‘phantom pregnancy’ and the risk of other problems.   Emilia continues to take Propalin to this day and will potentially need to continue the medication long-term.   Her owners have been able to reduce her Propalin intake to 0.5mg per day to keep the incontinence at bay and this also prevents her constantly licking and smelling!   It would be possible for Emilia to take up to 1mg per 10kg of her weight 3 times a day with potentially no adverse side effects.   [One of the Propalin side effects of most concern is aggression, but if a bitch has not shown aggressive signs and has been on Propalin for some while it is very unlikely to develop.  Cristiana’s bitch, Aggie, lived on Propalin for the last six years of her life with no problems.]

Of course, there are very logical reasons for spaying as Emilia’s owners were aware and which had encouraged their decision to have the operation done in the first place, however, this outcome has understandably left them with regrets.   Firstly, that they did not ask if there could be any side effects from spaying, and more importantly, that their vet did not advise them of any; and secondly, as Emilia still continues to want to nurture every toy and puppy and dog she meets that just maybe they should have let her have a litter.   [Having a litter does not necessarily prevent a bitch from having a ‘pseudopreganancy’ as this is due to hormonal imbalance.]    In spite of all this Emilia is making sure she enjoys her life to the full – still playing, walking, hunting and demanding loads of love – being a typical Spinone!   

If your bitch has suffered similarly or you have any thoughts and comments on this topic we would be interested to hear from you.  Or is there a health topic you would like explored or explained in the newsletter?   If so, please contact the ISCGB via me, Gillie Gomarsall, on 01284 735222 or e-mail - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.     For immediate health advice, please telephone Elaine Kirkham on 0121 444 5478.