There are many reasons why a dog may lose the use of its limbs. It could be due to an injury (car accident) or a disease (degenerative myelopathy or arthritis), or it could be simply from natural wear and tear (particularly the cranial cruciate ligament). There are certain breeds of dogs that appear to be prone to developing mobility problems, mainly German Shepherds and Irish setters, but mobility loss can happen to any dog under the right circumstances. In some cases such as in degenerative myelopathy, the cause is unknown and therefore difficult to prevent. It can be a depressing development for an otherwise healthy and active dog, and some owners are advised to euthanize the pet.
However, there is an option that an increasing number of pet owners are considering: getting a pet wheelchair.
Ask a vet
A pet wheelchair will be of infinite benefit when the dog suffers from mobility limitations due to degenerative myelopathy, arthritis, amputations, and idiopathic weakness in the limbs. The best judge of when a wheelchair will be needed is a qualified veterinarian, who will discuss with the pet owner the pros and cons of using a wheelchair, and what type would be most appropriate for a dog and its situation.
Pet wheelchairs are not advisable for all dogs, despite advances in technology that have reduced the pain factor in using them to practically none. This is mostly due to the dog’s temperament; not all dogs are able to adjust to being harnessed to a wheelchair, let alone to using it to help them move around. In some cases, the dog is in constant pain or discomfort which may be further exacerbated by the use of a wheelchair. Moreover, if the dog suffers from weakness in all limbs, a wheelchair will not be of any help, because it requires the dog to have relatively strong fore or rear legs to use it although there are wheelchairs built especially for quadriplegic dogs. There are also situations when a wheelchair can be an impediment to a dog’s health, such as when the affected limb/s needs to develop muscle mass and strength after surgery.
However, if the vet indicates that a wheelchair will help your pet live a longer, fuller, and happier life, you should read on to learn how to choose the right one and how to use it.
Choosing the right wheelchair
Gone are the days when the dog had to be measured and the wheelchair custom-built! It was slow and expensive, and in most cases had to be sent back for adjustments.
Pet wheelchairs now come in all sizes and configurations and are widely adjustable to fit a wide range of dogs. They come in standard sizes from extra, extra small to extra large.
It is easy to acquire one but you should choose those that are made of lightweight aluminum and stainless steel with sealed wheels appropriate for all terrains. It is easy to use, sturdy and corrosion free, and will last your pet for years. In fact, those with a big love of their dogs but a small budget can actually get perfectly serviceable refurbished wheelchairs at a significant discount, sometimes as much as half the price of a brand-new one.
To maximize your pet’s comfort, look around for a product that is designed ergonomically as determined by a K9 orthopedic surgeon and the harness is made of soft rubber such as neoprene. It is also important that you choose a wheelchair that is easy to assemble and balance properly, as this will determine the efficacy of the product.
Getting on it and training your dog to use it
Once you have acquired a wheelchair, you will have to train your dog to use it. The first thing is to get them on it. Dogs will struggle to get away from a contraption they don’t understand, so it may be necessary to distract their attention away from it at first. Once your dog is on it, then the real fun begins.
It can take time, especially if the dog is not used to leashes or harnesses, and would rather go along dragging their feet behind them if they can manage it. Many pet owners have found that the more seriously impaired dog is more motivated to learn to use a wheelchair than one that feels no pain and can still get around although they also double as a hairy mop. Dogs that feel much pain when putting weight on an affected limb or are truly unable to move are the most willing and fastest to learn.
Here are some tips to help you along:
1. If you have a fairly mobile dog, take it for a walk without strapping on the wheelchair. When your dog shows signs of tiredness or pain, try putting on the wheelchair then before starting back. The dog may be more open to having it strapped on if it will help it get home.
2. Start your dog with its paws on the ground if you see signs that it is trying to use its legs. This means that they retain some sense of weight in the legs even if they have difficulty in controlling it fully, and will feel hobbled if you cinch the wheelchair too high for them to touch the ground. This technique may also have the benefit of helping to keep some sort of muscle tone in the affected limbs when it is used for traction. Hitching the wheelchair too high will also put more pressure on the spine and the forelimbs than advisable.
3. When your dog is in the wheelchair, pay special attention to the back. When the back is curved upward (roached) it may mean that the chest strap is cinched too tightly to allow the pet to stretch its back while walking. If the back is curved inward, on the other hand, it may indicate the need for more support to the core muscles with the use of a belly strap.
4. If your pet appears to be falling on its forelimbs, the yoke may be improperly placed and is pushing down on the neck. It may also mean that the forelimbs are not strong enough to take on the job, which means you may need a load-neutral or counterbalanced wheelchair.