Ask the Vet

Pup’s incontinence could be caused by a physical problem


Dear Dr. Thompson: I have a 5-month-old English bulldog with a problem with her bowels. She does not have complete control of her bowels and poops in her cage at night and during the day, even after being let outside. I have tried everything, but nothing works. The veterinarian I go to says this is caused by either her tail being bobbed too short or her muscles not getting strong enough. She said there is an operation but it is not foolproof. What can I do?

Unfortunately, with limited information I can only offer some general ideas as to what may be going on with your little bulldog puppy. An essential part of determining the source of the problem would require differentiating between incontinence and a house training concern. Your veterinarian would need to determine if the neurologic function to the sphincter is normal. If there is evidence of loss of normal control, then you may be dealing with a developmental defect in the lower part of the spinal column called sacrocaudal dysgenesis.

That mouthful of a disease is a broad term for congenital malformations of the bottom bones of the vertebrae. These deformities can also be accompanied by problems with the spinal cord, which may be leading to a lack of neurologic control to the sphincter. Without adequate control, feces may be falling out without her being aware.

A more specific condition called spina bifida is a result of abnormal fetal development of the tube that eventually becomes the spinal cord and vertebrae. This is a relatively common disease in bulldog puppies and she should be evaluated to make sure there aren’t other neurologic problems. For some puppies, urinary and fecal incontinence may be the only symptoms.

You mentioned the possibility of a complication from tail surgery and the only option would be if a corkscrew tail was removed and there was damage to the muscles surrounding the rectum. That is a pretty invasive procedure and I would suspect that you would have had more details about the procedure.

If this truly is incontinence and one of the congenital problems is suspected, your options are limited. A low residue diet may help with smaller stools and frequency. If one of the cysts from spina bifida does communicate with the skin, surgically closing the defect would prevent infections. My hope is that this is purely a house training problem that will take some work and time to resolve.

Questions for Dr. Gary Thompson can be emailed to or mailed to The Blade, Attn. Ask the Vet, 541 North Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660. Dr. Thompson regrets that he cannot answer individual letters.