My husband's dog is incontinent and I can't stand it

His dog lost bladder control when our first child was born; I don't know how I can live with the odor.

By Cary Tennis

Published December 21, 2005 1:59PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I've been married for five years and have a relatively happy marriage. There is one problem: my husband's dog. When we first got married, the dog was not too much of a problem -- the long walks in the evening didn't interfere with any responsibilities my husband had, and the dog was housebroken. Unfortunately, about two years later, the dog became incontinent, probably due to old age (she was 12 at the time), and at the same time we had our first baby. Ever since then, the dog has been an enormous source of tension. I can't bear the smell of the dog's urine, which, even though she is now confined to a small part of the house, and even though my husband tries (though not hard enough I think) to keep her area clean, continues to pervade that part of the house. Because she is so old (15 and a half by now), the walks take a long time and always seem to occur at the most inconvenient times, such as when I need help with our kids in the morning, or right after work when we need to make them dinner.

My husband and I have had many, many talks about this, and things have improved to some degree. But every time there is some improvement, there is back-slippage too, and I am tired of constantly having to bring this up. I thought, of course, that nature would resolve the problem for us, but with each year I am beginning to wonder just how long I will have to put up with this. What if this dog lives to be 17 or 18? I don't feel it is ethical to put a dog to sleep just because you're tired of having it around, but at the same time, I find myself being mildly annoyed at the dog's needs several times a week. The other problem is, I feel guilty about how I feel. This is, after all, another living being, and it isn't her fault that she creates so much work. I have realized, belatedly, that I am not a good person to have an animal, because I'm basically not comfortable with having another living being in the house who is treated so unequally, yet I am not one of those "dog people" who is willing to sacrifice everything (and most especially olfactory comfort) for their pet.

How can I survive these next few years?

Dogged by Problems

Dear Dogged,

Seen in a certain light, it makes a beautiful picture: you, your husband, the two kids and an old dog who won't be around much longer. The dog took care of your husband before you arrived. But she's getting ready to give up her place in the family and move on.

It's a story of transition and continuity.

The first thing to do, if you have not done so already, is to take the dog to the vet for a full physical exam. Get a complete account of possible causes and remedies. You may find that there is much you can do to combat the dog's incontinence and, should you not be able to completely eliminate it, to mitigate its effects. And take a look at this Web site. There are many practical steps you can take.

But there are also these scenes in J.M. Coetzee's novel "Disgrace" where a professor who's lost his position in life sees all the village's unwanted dogs off to their final destination every Sunday. He is troubled by the exquisite kindnesses shown to them by their executioner, the reassurances whispered to them lovingly as the needle goes in. On the question of euthanasia, there's no way you can feel comfortable that you're doing the right thing. You can't feel sure about it either way. You can't console yourself. Nor can you avoid making a decision. It's on your hands. Blood, urine, continued suffering: It's on your hands.

That is the way it is.

Age in our loved ones often takes us by surprise. Someone can no longer see very well, can't hear what we're saying, can't walk so well, can't remember anything. At first we don't get what it means. It's just an annoyance. Then slowly it comes to us: She's going away. This is the sound of her departure.

The dog is losing control, one of the signs of impending death, one of the messy, stinky, unpleasant things that happen as life nears its end.

Let's tell the story again from the dog's point of view -- a little doggy flashback told with a handheld camera. Before you came along, she had her master -- your husband -- all to herself. He took her on long walks. They had many fine times together, just the two of them. Then you came along. But though you were a rival and superseded her in the pack, she welcomed your arrival, because she is such a social animal.

Then you became pregnant. You became the center. You acquired a heightened sense of smell. Your concern with cleanliness increased. You battled doggy odors. You erased the olfactory narratives that the dog was used to reading. She began to feel physically lost in the house. She needed, more than ever, a room of her own. She needed a purpose. She tried to claim one, but was punished and shunned. When the first child was born, the dog sensed her rightful role would be to protect and nurture the infant. But she was shunned.

Dogs complain in bold, graphic, bodily ways. Is it merely coincidence that the incontinence began when the first child was born?

Nonetheless, the situation is untenable. There is that intolerable odor.

So take the dog to the vet and see if you can get some of those pills that help with incontinence. See if you all can't live together happily. Maybe you can have a peaceful last few years. She won't live much longer in any case.

And if not, why prolong the suffering? Can the dog can be happy if she displeases everyone, if she's weak and humiliated? If not, perhaps it's time.

Is euthanasia right? Ask yourself: Is it for you, or for the dog? While it might not be ethical to put the dog to sleep merely for your own convenience, it might be ethical to release the dog from an increasingly difficult and painful life.

If you choose euthanasia, you might want to first try to bring some happiness to the dog's life. Maybe she could have a week or two where nobody scolds her for things she can't control. That would make a nice ending to the story. At the end, you could say, she was happy.

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