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We mostly take it for granted that our dogs urinate, whether it is convenient for us or not. Anyone with a dog that frequently marks may even feel a sigh of relief when her dog decides not to spray the neighbor’s tires.

As awkward as it is when our dog chooses to lift a leg where we’d rather he not, in the back of our minds is the knowledge that regular urination is a sign of a healthy dog. Difficulty urinating, on the other hand, is a dangerous symptom that necessitates a visit to your veterinarian.

What Is Urinary Retention in Dogs?

Urinary retention, or difficulty urinating, happens when your dog is unable to pass urine normally. This can be exceptionally uncomfortable for your dog and is a medical emergency.

Dr. Jerry Klein, Chief Veterinary Officer for the AKC, urges owners to contact their veterinarian anytime they suspect that their dogs might be having difficulty urinating.

Once you have contacted your veterinarian and have set up an time to come in, understanding the possible causes can help prepare you for your visit.

Belgian Malinois peeing on the side of a path.
©Eudyptula -

As you research urinary retention, you may come across a few different terms that can be confusing, especially functional urinary retention versus mechanical.

Functional urinary retention is caused by a problem with the organ itself. This is different from a mechanical obstruction, which occurs when something is blocking the passage of urine. Both can lead to urinary retention, but the causes can differ, making this distinction important to your veterinarian.

Symptoms of Urinary Retention in Dogs

So how do you know if your dog is suffering from urinary retention?

Dogs that have difficulty urinating can present with a variety of symptoms. You may notice that your dog’s bladder is distended to the touch, and this fullness can lead to frequent urine leakage.

One of the first things owners typically notice is that their dog struggles to pee. When your dog tries to urinate, the stream may be weak, interrupted, or in some cases nonexistent. Your dog may also make frequent attempts to urinate without much success, and in severe cases, your dog could suffer from abdominal distension and pain.

If a dog is straining to urinate and he is in pain, vomits, or won’t eat, this is an emergency and this owner should seek veterinary care ASAP. If you notice any of these symptoms, call your veterinarian immediately, as the cause could be serious.

Causes of Urinary Retention in Dogs

There are several causes of urinary retention, ranging from obstructions and infections to neurological conditions and cancer. All of them are serious and require a visit to your veterinarian or veterinary emergency clinic as soon as possible.

Obstructions in your dog’s bladder or urethra can lead to urinary retention. These obstructions can be the result of bladder stones, urethral plugs, blood clots, a narrowing of the urethra (called stricture), or even cancerous tumors. Also, if minerals accumulate in the urinary tract, it can also cause an obstruction. Tumors, scar tissue, and lesions can also be culprits of obstructions.

Urinary tract infections are common in dogs. If you’ve ever had a urinary tract infection, then you have an idea of how uncomfortable they can be. Some of the same symptoms apply to dogs as humans, including the frequent need to urinate, combined with difficulty expressing urine.

Kidney failure can also lead to difficulty urinating, as can neurological conditions, and injuries or diseases that affect the nerves or spinal cord, but perhaps the most concerning possible cause for your dog’s difficulty is cancer.

Cancer of the Urinary Tract

Cancers of the bladder, ureter, and urethra are uncommon in dogs but do occur.

The most commonly found type of these cancers is transitional cell carcinoma (TCC). While other types of cancers do occur, transitional cell carcinoma seems to be the primary culprit, and certain breeds of dogs, such as the Scottish Terrier, West Highland White Terrier, and Shetland Sheepdog, appear to be predisposed to it. Transitional cell carcinoma may also be associated with exposure to certain herbicides and older generation pesticides.

Transitional cell carcinoma of the urinary tract and other types of cancers that affect the urinary tract can cause secondary bacterial urinary tract infections. These infections are hard to control and are an indicator that there could be something else going on, like cancer.

Difficulty urinating can be a result of these urinary tract infections or a tumor. Tumors can cause obstructions to the urinary flow, making it difficult for your dog to pee. You may also notice blood in your dog’s urine.

This type of cancer used to have a very poor prognosis, but recent research has made managing TCC easier for veterinarians to treat. TCC frequently metastasizes, usually to the lymph nodes and the lungs, which is why it is very important to try and catch this condition as early as possible. Currently a cure is not attainable, but the severity and speed of spread of the disease can be delayed.

Is Urinary Retention in Dogs Serious?

Imagine what would happen to your body if you could not pee. Aside from the discomfort, there is the matter of waste elimination to consider. The bladder removes toxins from the body and plays an important role in how your body functions, and a complete obstruction will lead to the dog’s death within 3-to-5 days.

Chronic partial obstructions, on the other hand, can damage your dog’s kidneys, and obstruction in a dog with a urinary tract infection (UTI) can cause sepsis.

If you suspect that your dog is having trouble peeing, get him in to see your veterinarian immediately to avoid these consequences.

Diagnosing Bladder Issues in Dogs

Trying to diagnose your dog yourself is dangerous. Bring your dog in to see your veterinarian, and discuss your dog’s symptoms with him to ensure that your dog receives the highest standard of care.

Chinese Shar-Pei relieving themself on a tree
©Carola Schubbel -

Once you have explained what is going on, your veterinarian may perform a physical examination of your dog to see if he can feel any abnormalities or areas of tenderness. Depending on any other symptoms your dog may have and your veterinarian’s findings, the next step could be running some diagnostic tests.

These tests can include blood tests, urinalysis, catheter placement, radiographs, ultrasounds, cystoscopy, biopsies, a veterinary bladder tumor antigen test, cystourethrogram, and retrograde urethrogram. These tests will help your veterinarian determine the cause of your dog’s difficulty peeing and determine the best course of treatment.

Luckily for your dog, diagnosis is now easier with the free-catch urine analysis test: CADET® BRAF Mutation Detection Assay. This test is a non-invasive, free-catch urine analysis test that can detect canine bladder cancer (TCC/UC) months before symptoms present, allowing for the earliest therapeutic intervention.

Treating Urinary Retention in Dogs

Treatment for urinary retention depends on the cause behind your dog’s difficulty.

Your veterinarian may be able to make your dog more comfortable by placing a catheter to relieve his bladder while attempting to locate the cause of the retention.

Any obstruction of the urethra is classified as a medical emergency. Your veterinarian will attempt to remove the obstruction, often with a catheter, which could save your dog’s life.

In some cases, medication may be available to help your dog’s condition. Talk to your veterinarian about any prescriptions he may recommend, and be sure to follow the protocol for best results.

If your dog has cancer of the urinary tract, your veterinarian will discuss the extent of the cancer, your dog’s prognosis, and possible treatment options that will work best for your dog. Surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy are all used to treat cancer in dogs, and your veterinarian may also prescribe a protocol to help with any secondary bacterial urinary tract infections.

This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.

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