There are many reasons why a dog might become a paraplegic – and just as many ways to help him overcome his disability.
Paraplegia in dogs is more common than you might think. In this article, we’ll look at why it happens, and what can be done to help a paralyzed dog live a normal life.
First, let’s look at the spinal cord
The primary factor in an animal’s ability to walk is his spinal cord. If it becomes injured or has a genetic propensity toward malformation, a dog may end up paralyzed. The canine spinal cord has a set of nerve tracts that are very sensitive to injury and pressure. Three spinal functions contribute to this sensitivity.
1. The most sensitive tract in the spinal cord has to do with what we call proprioception, which tells the body where it is in space. A deficiency of this function is evident when the paw turns under and the dog walks on top of his feet. The first symptom you may notice is bloody nails, or claws scraping against the floor.
2. The second most sensitive spinal function involves motor capability, the ability of the muscles to contract, produce movement or maintain position. The muscles need input from the central nervous system in order to contract and relax. Symptoms of decreased motor function are flaccid muscles and an inability to stand and/or move the limb. Without proper motor function, the dog cannot support weight and is unable to walk.
3. The last function is sensatory, and enables the body to feel heat, pressure, pain, etc. The classic test for sensatory function is to pinch the dog’s foot; in a normal situation, the foot automatically withdraws from the pinch.
Back problems that can cause paralysis
• Breeds such as the dachshund are prone to certain back problems that may lead to paraplegia. These breeds are usually chrondrodystrophic, which means they have congenital dwarfism. They have long bodies, and their long bones grow curved rather than straight. The discs in their backs are also much more brittle and have the propensity to hernia upward and hurt the spinal cord. Once the spinal cord is hit with disc material, it causes swelling in the cord. It may actually even occlude the spinal cord, resulting in paralysis. Again, the breed most famous for this is the dachshund; in fact, they are the poster children for paraplegic dogs. Many afflicted dachshunds are from four to seven years old, and paralysis can occur quite suddenly.
• Other types of back problem lead to a more progressive paralysis and are caused by discs that start to slowly herniate and push on the spinal cord. This issue is seen in older animals and may be observed on only one side, or both.
• Additional causes of paralysis include spinal tumors, trauma, neurological diseases like degenerative myelopathy, and congenital abnormalities.
Four red flags
If your dog is developing issues with his spinal cord, you’ll see a few warning signs.
1. His nails scrape against the floor when he walks – you’ll be able to hear it.
2. The dog’s rear end starts to wobble or fall from side to side. It is harder for the animal to walk slowly than to walk fast. This condition is called ataxia and occurs because the muscles are not strong enough or lack sufficient neurological input to contract the muscles correctly.
3. He is becoming incontinent. The bladder and intestines need nerve input to contract and hold urine in the bladder and feces in the colon.
4. The dog drags his legs and is not able to stand. Sometimes one side is more affected than the other, although all legs can be involved if the lesion or disc is in the cervical area (neck). If only the back legs are affected, the problem is in the dog’s back.
If your dog become paralyzed, or you notice any of the above signs, try to keep him quiet and limit his movement to prevent damage to the spinal cord, and see your veterinarian as soon as possible.
The veterinarian will taken radiographs to see where your dog is injured and rule out other problems in the spinal cord. Depending on the issue, there are several options for treatment.
Conventional treatment includes medication to bring the swelling down in the disc and reduce inflammation in the area. Some veterinarians will use steroid and others anti-inflammatory medications.
In some cases, surgery to remove disc material is necessary. It should be done as soon as possible; the spinal cord is very sensitive to pressure and will start to die quickly if the material isn’t removed.
Various alternative therapies can help with disc inflammation and herniation. Acupuncture is the go-to approach for disc and spinal problems. It has been shown to help nerve regrowth after injury and reduce the inflammation of disc herniation.
Nutritional therapy with glucosamine and chondroitin sulfate is good for disc inflammation. Physical therapy, dog wheelchairs and specially designed harnesses are further aids for paraplegic dogs.
It used to be that any injury or health issue that left a dog unable to walk meant euthanasia. But thanks to wheelchairs designed especially for canines, those days are past. A properly-designed and fitted wheelchair can help a disabled or paraplegic dog achieve mobility and enjoy a happy, pain-free and relatively normal life.
Quality canine wheelchairs are designed to accommodate and adjust to the needs of individual dogs and their health and mobility issues. “There are wheelchairs for amputees, old dogs with weak rear legs due to arthritis and hip dysplasia, and those who are paralyzed due to stroke (FCE) and more obscure neurologic ailments such as cerebellar hypoplasia,” says Leslie Grinnell of Eddie’s Wheels, which designs and manufactures wheelchairs for animals. “Variable axle wheelchairs allow caregivers of dogs with DM to adjust the balance of the cart to compensate for increasing weakness as the disease progresses.”
Canine wheelchairs can be designed with front or rear wheels, depending on the dog’s problem, and may even be transformed into four-wheelers. “In our rear wheel carts, the dog’s pelvic floor is supported with a padded welded saddle,” says Leslie. “In the front wheel carts, a mesh harness supports the entire ribcage and goes between the front legs to put the dog in a comfortable standing position. There are also full quad carts for dogs who might be down in all four legs due to a stroke, wobblers or a terminal illness.”
Weighing the benefits
A dog who is unable to walk, or even one with moderate mobility difficulties, can suffer from pain, discomfort and balance issues, and become depressed and dependent. By nature, dogs love to run, play and explore, and an inability to do these things profoundly affects their quality and enjoyment of life. In addition, a lack of exercise caused by immobility can lead to weight gain, increasing weakness and even muscle atrophy, which will only make it even harder for him to move.
“A dog wheelchair gives dogs the ability to go for walks, go to the bathroom without falling into their waste, and regain their independence and joy in life,” says Leslie. “Being able to stand independently, sniff the air, and visit familiar and unfamiliar places keeps them happy and engaged in life. They quickly forget about their carts and go back to their normal favorite activities.”
A wheelchair can even help with the healing process, depending on the dog’s issue. “Using a wheelchair for a recumbent dog will preserve the overall strength and function of his body,” Leslie explains. “In many cases, being supported in a healthy normal stance allows the body to heal on its own. I’ve seen numerous dogs with IVDD start walking again after a period of using a wheelchair. Our carts allow dogs to stretch and lengthen their spines; this puts the spine in traction and many dogs will rehabilitate over time. Using a wheelchair will also prevent the pressure sores that develop when a dog lies in one position for a long time.”
• When considering a wheelchair for your dog, be sure to work with a company that can custom design a high quality product to meet his particular needs. The company should ask for the dog’s measurements as well as how much strength and comfort he has in all his limbs, to help ensure a wheelchair that’s properly balanced for the individual animal. They should also follow up with you to make sure the wheelchair is working for your dog, and be able and willing to answer your questions and make adjustments as needed.
• A dog wheelchair should be made from a lightweight and durable material such as aluminum, and be easy to use, maintain and keep clean.
• Don’t leave your dog alone when he’s in his wheelchair, especially for long periods. Keep in mind that he can’t lie down while he’s in it. “Wheelchairs are for exercise,” says Leslie. “Some breeds, like dachshunds and Corgis, can roll over to their dog beds and lie down while still in their carts, but they shouldn’t be left in that position for hours at a time.”
You’d be amazed at how well a dog can maneuver when using a properly designed and fitted wheelchair. “The only limitations are his strength and energy,” Leslie says. “We have dogs in front wheel carts leaping over obstacles in the woods or carousing on the beach. Some even swim in their wheelchairs.” Large wheels provide extra stability and help navigate uneven terrain, so there’s no need to stick to city sidewalks.
If your dog is suffering from paralysis or other mobility issues, a canine wheelchair can really open up his world again, and bring joy back into both your lives.
Veterinarian Dr. Michelle Tilghman has been practicing since 1982 and is a graduate of the University of Georgia. She focuses on complementary modalities, is certified as an acupuncturist through IVAS, and received certification as a canine rehabilitation practitioner at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Tilghman was past president of the AHVMA and is an adjunct professor at Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine.