Bladder problems are not generally life-threatening in dogs, though they can be. Much more commonly, bladder infections and inflammation can be a hassle for the dog and handler.
The most common cause of cystitis in dogs is a bacterial infection. Other common causes include crystals and stones in the bladder as well as tumors. Abnormal anatomy (normally caught in a young pup, especially bitches) can predispose a dog to bladder infections.
For a dog out campaigning and showing, bladder infections are primarily a nuisance. An infection generally causes frequent urination and possibly painful urination as well. You don’t want to be remembered as the handler of the dog that peed on the Westminster TV coverage. Yes, that has happened, but you don’t want it to be you!
The need for frequent extra stops to let a dog out to urinate is generally not worked into travel schedules. The extra work involved in cleaning up a dog that has peed in the crate could mean the difference between that dog being able to show on that day or not.
So how can you help to prevent a bladder infection in your dog? First, encourage drinking. A dog that is well hydrated and drinks frequently will flush out bacteria that might otherwise set up housekeeping in the bladder. Make sure fresh, clean water is available pretty much 24/7. Second, make sure your dogs get frequent walks — at least three times during the day. Urine that sits in the bladder for many hours provides an attractive environment for bacterial growth.
Most male dogs will pee on almost any vertical surface — especially if another dog has also urinated there. They are the easy ones. Bitches can be much trickier. Many bitches want to urinate on grass, preferably fresh, green grass untouched by another canine’s urine. This can be difficult to find in some show environments like Westminster. Try to accustom your bitches to urinating on other surfaces while traveling. Many city-dwelling dogs learn to crouch and pee over the curb — a handy skill for the modern show dog. Start your puppies out peeing on shavings — this can help your dog associate shavings with elimination. Then travel with a bag of shavings if need be. Some shavings in a parking lot should be a sign to your finicky bitch that there is a special place just for her.
If your dog tends to form crystals or stones in her urine or bladder, look into dietary assistance. There are special diets that help to reduce stone formation; some can even dissolve certain types of stones.
Unfortunately, it has become trendy to put dogs on cranberry supplements. This is a great supplement for dogs that need it — but could cause problems in a dog that does not. Cranberry acidifies urine. Acid urine dissolves some crystals and bladder stones such as struvite. Cranberries also contain proanthocyanidins that act to block bacteria trying to attach to the bladder wall. For dogs prone to developing bladder infections or forming alkaline-loving crystals and stones, cranberry supplements can be a safe and natural additive that helps to keep them healthy.
Besides struvite (which generally responds to acidification), oxalate crystals and stones are another common cause of infection. Cranberry contains some added oxalates, and oxalate stones form within an acidic environment. A dog that does not need urinary acidification could be tipped over to forming oxalate stones from unnecessary cranberry supplements.
Carl Osborne, DVM, PhD, DACVIM, has been a major force in studying crystals and bladder stones in dogs. Bladder stones are submitted for analysis at the University of Minnesota. Over the years Dr. Osborne has been able to track trends in bladder stones. Back in 1981, 78 percent of all stones submitted were struvite. Calcium oxalate made up 5 percent of the submissions. By 2011, percentages had changed dramatically. At that time, about 39 percent of the stones were struvite and 42 percent were calcium oxalate. Many factors undoubtedly have contributed to the shift, but the use of urinary acidifiers by owners with dogs who did not need them may be part of the problem. Different breeds have predispositions to different types of stones.
Calcium oxalate stones do not usually respond to dietary therapy and require surgery for their removal. Once existing stones are removed, many dogs benefit from dietary changes to prevent the formation of new stones. Adding potassium citrate is one way to help. With this additive, excess calcium binds to the citrate instead of forming up with oxalates.
A third type of stone is the uric acid or urate stone. Dalmatian fanciers can talk for hours about these stones, which form in Dalmatians that eat a high purine diet and lack the ability to handle the extra uric acid produced. For these dogs, extra care with diet and avoiding urinary acidifiers is important.
Signs that your dog has a bladder infection include: frequent need to urinate, passing small amounts of urine, obvious blood in the urine, sometimes fever and lack of appetite, and, if a stone is involved, possibly straining but not passing any urine. If you see any of these signs, you should schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. If your dog is straining but not passing any urine, that is a medical emergency, and you need to go to your veterinarian or an emergency clinic immediately.
For regular bladder infections, try to get a free catch urine sample. A paper cup taped to a dowel works well for male dogs. For female dogs, a small paper plate slipped under them as they urinate can sometimes work. Alternatively, your veterinarian may ask you to bring your dog in first thing in the morning without letting him urinate. That way a sterile sample can be retrieved via cystocentesis (a needle directly into the bladder via the body wall). While that sounds painful and dramatic, most dogs barely blink an eye.
The urine sample will be checked for pH, specific gravity to see if the dog has concentrated urine, bacteria, crystals, white blood cells, blood and any cancer cells. A sterile sample (via cystocentesis, not a free catch) may be submitted for a culture to determine the best antibiotic to use.
Dogs with bacterial infections need to go on antibiotics and have their urine rechecked when the antibiotics are done. Depending on the pH of the urine sample and if any crystals are found, your dog may be put on a urinary acidifier or alkalinizer. Diet changes may also be suggested. You will be encouraged to get extra fluids into your dog (either subcutaneously or through drinking more water) to flush out the bladder.
Most bladder infections are a nuisance, not a danger, but a little care can prevent even that.
From the February 2014 issue of Dogs in Review magazine. Purchase the February 2014 digital back issue with the DIR app or subscribe to receive 12 months of Dogs in Review magazine (print and digital versions).