Caring for handicapped pets

September 11th, 2008

With a few lifestyle changes and special care, handicapped pets can still live a happy and healthy life. Eliza Tickle learns about treatments, therapies and equipment that help to improve disabled dogs’ quality of life.

The number of canines with disabilities and conditions that require special care is constantly rising. While some people are kind enough to take a disabled animal into their homes, others have to cope when an unlucky pooch is injured in an accident. But with advances in veterinary medicine, devices and professional treatments can help make the lives of disabled canines easier and more enjoyable.

You can really make a difference to the life of a dog with a disability by offering a caring, supportive environment, but it takes a special person to want to do this, says Michelle Monk, chief physiotherapist at the Dogs in Motion Canine Rehabilitation Centre in Victoria.

Monk told Dogs Life that her main goals when treating disabled canines are to improve mobility and quality of life. We help spinally injured dogs to walk again, she says. We help ease mobility in older dogs with arthritis through pain-relief techniques, soft-tissue techniques, strengthening and weight loss, and we help dogs with poor recovery from orthopedic surgery to use their limbs again.

Leslie Grinnell, owner of Eddies Wheels for Pets (carts for handicapped pets that are supplied by Dogs in Motion), has lived with disabled dogs of her own. She urges pet owners to seek any measures that will allow them to keep their disabled pet for as long as possible. Disability should not be a death sentence, Grinnell said. Special-needs dogs are no different in their spirits to any other dog. Its delightful and inspiring to see a disabled dog enjoying the life it has.

Monk says the most common disabilities treated at Dogs in Motion are chronic lameness or poor use of a limb following joint surgery, back pain and immobility following spinal surgery, and difficulty walking due to degenerative muscle conditions, such as arthritis. Other common physical disabilities facing canines include blindness, deafness, paralysis, amputations and breathing disabilities.

Some animals are amazing in their ability to recover or adapt to life with a disability, and taking the time to help these dogs in need can bring wonderful results, Monk says.

Canine carts

A device that is significantly changing the lives of disabled dogs across the world is the canine cart, a type of wheelchair for dogs. Made from durable materials, canine carts are designed to provide mobility to pets that can no longer walk.

Grinnell explains how the carts are assembled and how they can provide movement for disabled canines. Our basic cart is made of a special aluminum alloy that can be formed to make the saddles, she says. The cart can be used as a walker, allowing the dog to use its legs as much as its able to.

Dogs that are paralysed have their feet elevated in stirrups. Those dogs with weak front legs can have carts engineered to compensate for their weakness with special axles that take weight off the front legs, Grinnell says.

Front-wheel carts can be made for dogs with missing or disabled front legs, and full-quad carts can be specially designed for dogs in a hospice or recovering from surgery, she adds.

These wheelchairs are particularly useful for dogs suffering from degenerative myelopathy, a neurological condition similar to multiple sclerosis in humans, Grinnell says. Exercise is critical in managing this disease and the carts make exercise possible.

Dogs with intervertebral disc disease also respond well when using the carts. They love their wheels and live the normal life of a dog, usually gaining strength and rehabilitating from their paralysis over time, Grinnell says.

The cart is also used to assist elderly or arthritic dogs to walk, as well as accident victims, amputees and cancer patients.

However, Monk suggests that while the carts do allow movement, disabled pets must otherwise be in good health to manage in a cart, due to the extra pulling load. Dogs can only use them for short periods of exercise, she warns. They cannot be left in a cart unsupervised in case they tip over; or for long periods of time, as they can’t sit or lie down to rest.

Canines all react differently when using the carts for the first time. While some dogs take time to adjust, most get in and start moving straight away, Grinnell said. One dog would not move in its cart until it saw the neighbours cat, then it was off in the cart barking at the fence, she said. When we put other dogs in their carts, they invariably brighten up, realise they are standing well and immediately take off.

Other equipment

There is a range of equipment and specialty products that can provide mobility and make life easier for handicapped pets.

Monk described the benefits of the Motion Support Harness, a neoprene and Velcro device with handles, which is used to assist mobility in disabled dogs. Harnesses are used to take the weight off dogs that can’t use their limbs, she said. They are most commonly used after orthopedic or spinal surgery, when the dog does not want to use a limb or is having trouble walking.

A dog’s back legs are placed through two holes and the harness is then fastened over its back, Monk explained. Harnesses can be used to assist standing, walking and toileting, or to help the animal up and down steps or in and out of the car, she added.

Monk suggested portable ramps are another good option for assisting a disabled dog in and out of the car when they can’t jump. She also recommended the orthopedic pet bed, which provides disabled dogs with adequate support while they are recumbent or resting.

Treatments and therapies

A range of veterinary and natural therapies is available to help dogs face their disabled lifestyle. Grinnell said she has seen positive results in rehabilitation when combining the use of equipment with suitable therapies and treatments. There is a growing availability of canine rehabilitation centres in Australia, Europe, Canada and the United States, she said. We work with these professionals, who offer hydrotherapy and physical therapy for disabled dogs.

Physiotherapy can be used to treat a selection of canine disabilities in a similar way that it is used to treat humans, Monk tells Dogs Life. Physiotherapy is used to reduce pain and inflammation, increase strength and muscle length, increase joint range of motion, re-educate walking and for long-term maintenance, she says.

Owners play an important role in their dogs physiotherapy regime, as each canine patient receives a customised home-exercise program, Monk adds. We rely on the owners to continue our treatment plan on a daily basis at home, and encourage them to be as involved as possible, she says.

Professor Rick Read, who specialises in small-animal surgery at Murdoch Universitys School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences in Perth, agrees that active physiotherapy regimes can be beneficial for dogs facing physical disabilities. He said physiotherapy is important in the overall recovery from spinal conditions, such as spinal disc prolapse.

This (condition) can occur in any breed, but mostly in breeds such as the Dachshund and a number of the toy breeds, he says. Massage, swimming, passive manipulation, assisted walking and other strengthening exercises are very helpful to dogs needing to regain their walking ability.

However, Read continues, the damage caused by spinal disc prolapse can vary between individual dogs and some may require surgery to relieve pressure on the spine.

Hydrotherapy forms a crucial part in the treatment and rehabilitation of some canine disabilities, Monk explains.

Almost every dog would have hydrotherapy paired with physiotherapy, she says. Swimming can be used to encourage limb use, increase joint range of motion or allow exercise in a weightless environment.

Underwater treadmill therapy can be useful for some disabled dogs to re-educate gait and strengthen weak muscles after injury or surgery.

Hydrotherapy is often recommended to clients long-term, as the benefits to be had for mobility are enormous, she says.

Staying safe at home

Since animals give so much to us, its a fantastic feeling when we can give something back, such as a supportive home with modifications to suit their disability, Monk says.

She shares some tips with Dogs Life on adjusting the home environment to make it more user-friendly for dogs with disabilities:

  • Place ramps over stairs. Also position small steps or a ramp up to your dog’s favourite bed or couch to prevent it from jumping on and off.
  • Most ramps are portable and lightweight, but robust enough to take heavy dogs.
  • Use non-slip mats in main traffic areas, such as under food bowls, inside doors and alongside couches.
  • Elevate food and water bowls for older pets, large dogs or those with spinal injuries.
  • Position childproof gates at the top and bottom of all stairs.
  • Choose dog doors that open to the floor, so the dog does not have to step over them.
  • If the doorbell excites your dog, have it disconnected or place a sign on the door asking visitors not to ring the bell. This will prevent the dog from running and slipping.
  • Reduce the size of exercise yards using collapsible gates or fences when increased exercise is making your dog sore or excessively tired.
  • Provide a supportive, orthopedic bed to ensure a comfortable nights sleep for your dog. These cushioned beds provide a massaging effect while resting.
  • Heat packs are useful, especially during winter, to provide relief from muscle and joint aches, pains and stiffness, and for pets with arthritis, older pets or those who feel the cold. Doggie coats are also available for dogs with arthritis and spinal conditions.

Monk assures Dogs Life that by making these small changes to the lifestyle and environment of your disabled pet, you can change its life for the better. For her, caring for a disabled pet is a very rewarding experience and an admirable gesture.  Its nice to think some owners will provide unconditional love to a pet with special needs, she says.

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