What are the Mobility Issues and how can they be Solved
“I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do…”
Over the course of my career, the saddest thing I’ve ever had to tell a pet owner is that there is nothing else we could do to help their dog. In the not -so -distant past of veterinary medicine, pets that couldn’t walk had few options outside of euthanasia.
But we refused to believe there wasn’t a better solution.
So dog wheelchairs and dog mobility devices have become the new normal. Today, we have many options for helping disabled pets continue to live active, healthy and fulfilling lives.
Examples of Conditions needing mobility devices
There’s many reasons why a dog may have mobility issues.
Some conditions are permanent:
- Limb amputations
- Spinal fractures
- Birth defects
- Degenerative diseases
Other conditions are temporary:
- Ligament tears
- Broken bones
- Healing from corrective surgeries
Regardless of the reason, there’s a type of dog mobility device that can help.
Cancer patients and dogs with complicated fractures will frequently wind up needing to have a limb amputated. Most dog owners I have known agonize over making this choice. They worry that their dog is going to suffer, that he or she won’t be able to play, travel or participate in family activities anymore.
In reality, most of these dogs do great. Once healed from surgery, they adapt without conscious thought. They’ll walk, run and sometimes even jump just as eagerly as they did when they had four legs. Rehabilitation therapy concentrates on building muscle on the opposite side of where the missing limb was.
When they lose a leg, dogs naturally shift their body weight to the healthy side. This will cause added strain and fatigue until the muscles become conditioned. Daily leash walking is the best way to accomplish this and should be increased gradually over several weeks.
Maintaining activity over long distances can sometimes cause dogs to run into trouble. Wheelchairs are helpful for this, especially for large, heavy breeds that enjoy going on long walks. You can also find manual slings to assist with climbing long flights of stairs. Many models will have an insert that cradles the stump for added support.
Degenerative disease normally refers to skeletal conditions that worsen over time. It may be as simple as arthritis in the older dog or hip dysplasia in bigger dogs. Some of these cases merely need assistance with getting up or climbing steps. Slings and ramps are perfect for this use.
In other conditions, the ability to walk is noticeably impaired. These dogs may have severe arthritic lesions around the spine, bulging vertebral discs, or myelopathy that cause partial paralysis. Physical therapy does not usually help them recover full function of their legs, so full-time use of a dog wheelchair is often the best option.
Some types of impact can cause traumatic injuries affecting mobility. Dogs can be hit by a car, fall from a great height, or have various other types of accidents. Of all these types of injuries, spinal trauma is the most unpredictable.
Depending on the extent of the injury, some of the spinal nerves can regenerate over time. However, most of these cases will not regain full mobility. In addition, the nerves that control the ability to urinate and defecate can be affected, meaning they can’t control when they use the bathroom.
These dogs will need four-wheeled mobility devices capable of supporting their full body weight. The rear end design should also be free of straps and suspension webbing so that it doesn’t interfere with their ability to use the bathroom.
Birth Defects – Elsa’s story
Occasionally, puppies are born with deformed limbs or paws. There isn’t a lot of formal research on how common this is or patterns in congenital abnormalities. We do know that for whatever reason, birth defects begin during embryonic development.
From my personal experience over the years, I can tell you I have seen a handful of dogs with limb defects. The most dramatic case was a young, mixed-breed dog named Elsa. She was born with her right front leg, from the elbow joint to paw, facing backward.
When she walked, her paw was in front of her, with the pads facing up. She put her carpus (the equivalent to a human wrist) against the ground and used it as a paw to walk. This led to her developing large open sores that wouldn’t heal.
Her mobility became limited because of pain and infection. After a lot of trial and error, Elsa ended up being fitted with a limb splint that protected her deformed leg while walking. It added enough support to correct her hobbled gait and for the first time in her life, she was able to run in her own awkward way.
The Need for Speed: Types of Devices
You’ll find a big selection of dog wheelchairs and dog mobility devices on the market. Each one has a specific use. In cases where a dog’s needs are unusual, many manufacturers offer custom builds.
Two-wheeled carts look similar to traditional wheelchairs. They have a frame, body harness and two large tires on either side. The wheels are located at either the front or rear, depending on which limb is impaired. You can also get two-wheeled dog carts with mountain bike tires suitable for very active dogs and hiking.
These are best for dogs that have at least two functional legs. The rear-wheel versions are good for dogs:
- Suffering from hip dysplasia
- Partial hind end paralysis
- Rear limb amputations
It’s also helpful as temporary support for dogs recovering from orthopedic surgeries. The front-wheel style is suitable for:
- Shoulder injuries
- Front leg amputees
- Cervical vertebrae injuries etc
For dogs with paraplegia or those with more than one affected limb, four-wheeled carts offer full-body support. This can also be a great option for healing from back surgery. When adjusted properly, it will decompress the spine and allow for correct vertebral alignment.
These dog mobility devices are usually adjusted based on how much support is needed. The frames tend to be heavier overall than two-wheeled versions. Tires are normally pneumatic puncture-resistant rubber. The front wheels are typically smaller than the back wheels to allow for greater maneuverability.
Limb splints, Anti-Knuckling Devices and Slings
Splints offer leg and joint support for dogs with:
- Birth defects
- Malformed joints
- Long bones
- Soft tissue injuries
- Carpal abnormalities
The exact type of splint will depend on which exact area needs protection and support. They’re available for front and rear legs. They are normally made of lightweight, water-proof plastic with velcro attachments. Some designs extend underneath the paw.
Knuckling occurs when a dog’s foot folds underneath them and they don’t seem to be able to correct it.
This lack of awareness of the foot’s position is called a deficit in proprioception. No, we didn’t know that either…!
It’s caused by some type of injury to the central nervous system, such as a spinal cord lesion or intervertebral disc disease.
It is difficult for dogs with this condition to walk. They may stagger or drag the knuckled-over paw against the ground. Without intervention, serious wounds can develop and infection can spread to nearby bones.
Anti-knuckling mobility devices
These keep the affected paw in the correct position during movement:
- It works by utilizing a double loop system that encircles the paw and lower leg bones
- An adjustable shock cord attaches the loops to a chest harness that the dog wears
- When the dog takes a step, the device simultaneously helps bring the leg forward and lift the toes to prevent them from folding over.
Slings require you to manually assist your dog
- You’ll need to have decent upper body strength sufficient to support at least part of your dog’s weight
- Slings use a body harness outfitted with a leash on top
- The positioning of both the harness and the leash will depend on what body area is in need of support
- You can find designs for lifting the front, middle, rear or whole body.
Size Them Up
Improper sizing and poorly adjusted dog mobility devices are not just uncomfortable; they can cause wounds from rubbing and chafing. Proper sizing by body weight and shape can prevent this. Here’s what you need to know:
- Leg length: With your dog lying on its side, measure the distance from the top of the stomach to the bottom of the longest toe. Don’t stretch the leg out, just allow it to relax and bend naturally.
- Body length: With your dog in the same position as before, measure from the inside of the front armpit to the end of his rump. Don’t include the tail.
- Weight: The most accurate weight will be from your veterinarian’s scales. If your dog has been in recently, you can ask. If not, most clinics won’t mind you dropping by for a quick weigh-in.
- The specific mobility issue: Since mobility devices are fairly specific to certain goals, you need to know exactly how much support your dog needs and where.
Adjusting the Fit
Dog wheelchairs usually come with adjustable rails that can be extended or shortened to achieve the proper width.
- The width should allow for the frame to sit one half of an inch away from the widest part of the body
- Some models have width extensions available to fit heavier body types.
You’ll also want to adjust the length and this will vary by design.
- A general rule for two-wheeled devices is to position the front of the side rail in the center of the dog’s shoulder blade
- You’ll need to consult the manufacturer for adjusting four-wheeled carts since some have front wheels that extend further in front than others
- Splints made of plastic can be trimmed to size
- They normally come in small, medium and large sizes for front or rear limbs
- They aren’t normally marked left or right
- Slings will be sized by your dog’s weight but it’s a good idea to know your dog’s height and length to ensure proper fit
- Anti-knuckling devices are also adjustable by trimming the length of the shock cord that runs between the toe brace and chest harness. You’ll also need your dog’s weight, as well as body and leg length.
Get Them Moving
Most pets readily accept using mobility devices, especially once they figure out they have the freedom to move. Slings are only worn when your dog needs to be lifted or for providing assistance on short walks. They can also be great for physical therapy. The remaining devices require time to allow your dog to build muscle strength. You should also:
- Start by introducing your dog slowly to the device
- Short, frequent training sessions over a period of days is ideal
- Use the device frequently but offer substantial breaks for rest and recovery
- Watch for signs of chafing or skin irritation
- Never leave your dog unattended in a wheelchair.
Choose the Best
The best devices will be:
- Have plenty of cushion between the harness and your dog’s body
- Be specifically designed for your dog’s condition.
Full body wheelchairs should have optional slings for holding your dog’s paws off the ground to prevent rubbing. Further, quality manufacturers will have a knowledgeable support team able to assist you with any uncertainties about a product.
Disabled dogs are amazing, inspiring and resilient. They still want to do all the things normal dogs do, such as explore the world around them, walk, play and be an active part of the family. Whether it’s with a wheelchair, sling or limb splint, mobility devices can help them to do just that. Game on!
By Heather CVPM for pouncingpup.com
Author Bio: Heather CVPM is a qualified veterinarian and writer for Pouncing Pup. With 27 years in the industry, Heather earned her certification as a Veterinary Practice Manager from St. Petersburg College in Florida. She has two children, one human and the other an outgoing mixed-breed dog named Caramel.