When Housebreaking Gets Medical

Pet care & safety
tricolored dog in wheelchair

It’s quite possible that I’m the worst canine housebreaker in the world. Given that none of my four dogs is housebroken, I wouldn’t blame you if you arrived at that conclusion.

In my defense, however, three of my four have true medical reasons for their unfavorable behavior. And the other? She’s only four months old and she lives with three dogs whose indoor elimination antics are well-documented. So can you fault her for being somewhat slow to catch on? (Maybe I should, but I don’t.)

Here’s the rundown of my “defective-in-the-downstairs-department” dogs along with their maladies:

#1 Vincent’s intervertebral disc disease, hemivertebrae, and arachnoid cyst:

He’s had two surgeries to help repair his congenitally malformed spine and still he suffers from both an inability to walk normally and a complete cluelessness when it comes to understanding that now is the time to go. (When they have no physical control of their elimination functions, we call this “incontinence.”)

Vincent just keeps on walking as if nothing’s happening. Which would be maddening if it weren’t so damnably cute (in an odd way). And it’s so not his fault, anyway. Seeing as his spinal malformations interfere with any normal communication between the brain and the structures that control his bodily functions, it’s impossible to expect anything else.

Sadly, Vincent’s team of specialists says there’s no fixing him anymore. Which is why I recently got him a K9 Cart in advance of the inevitable: complete paralysis of his hind end and all its normally consciously controllable functions.

#2 Slumdog’s hydrocephalus:

Slumdog has hydrocephalus, a disease characterized by the accumulation of cerebrospinal fluid inside the skull. While this fluid normally surrounds the brain and spinal cord, it builds up excessively inside the skull of those who suffer this disease, thereby crowding out the brain.

This inherited disease is common to breeds with short skulls (brachycephalics). MalteseChihuahuas (especially so-called “applehead” versions of the breed), Pugs, and other dogs with dome-y heads are all highly predisposed. Severe cases will initially manifest as difficulty in ambulation (walking and running), which progresses to seizures and eventually to death due to brain swelling. Meanwhile, mild cases may display scant evidence of its presence.

Slumdog has a very mild form. Which means he’s free of most symptoms of the disease. One lesser-known sign he does suffer, however, involves housebreaking. A reported 75% of hydrocephalic dogs experience severe difficulty understanding where they’re meant to eliminate. In many cases, it’s an impossible task. Unfortunately, Slumdog seems to fall into this latter category.

(So you know, Slumdog’s ability to physically control his bodily functions means this is not considered true incontinence.)

#3 Gaston’s traumatic brain injury:

Dogs with all kinds of random neurological issues seem to have trouble with housebreaking. Gaston arrived as an unconscious young adult dog after sustaining head trauma, remained in a poorly responsive state for over a week, and retained a pronounced head tilt for over a year, so it only makes sense that he might still manifest plenty of outward signs typical of traumatic brain injury –– among these, difficulty understanding where he’s supposed to eliminate. (Again, not true incontinence.)

#4 Violet’s confusion:

Though she’s only four months old this week, her delay in housebreaking deserves a mention. After all, it’s well understood that dogs who smell others’ doings in their immediate environment will display a reduced interest in learning that they should refrain from eliminating there as well. (Definitely not qualifying as incontinence.)

Which is why I work doubly hard to be sure no one ever makes a mistake.


Let’s just say it’s easier said than done –– and the subject of an entirely separate post. So for the purposes of this entry, let me simply end by offering a brief list of specific conditions that can also lead to incontinence and other housebreaking issues:

  • Hormone-related incontinence

  • Ectopic ureter

  • Urinary tract abnormalities such as stones and tumors

  • Submissive urination

One final comment: Though I might’ve made it seem like housebreaking difficulties are typically the result of medical maladies, that’s absolutely NOT the case. Housebreaking is often difficult simply because an owner is in need of some sound advice from a trainer.

Nonetheless, seeing a veterinarian is the right approach whenever housebreaking seems hopeless and definitely should troubles ensue long after housebreaking has ceased to be an issue.