By Tammy Wolfe, DPT, PT, CCRP, GCFP
For dog owners, there is little so heart wrenching as watching helplessly as your canine friend struggles to walk or becomes unable to walk at all. The barrage of thoughts and emotions flooding one’s soul can become overwhelming with the questions about quality of life, pain levels, medical management and end-of-life issues. It’s a difficult time for owners and their faithful companions alike, as one chapter of the dog’s life appears to be over, and what appears to be the final chapter may be beginning.
One of the options, along with medical management and physical therapy, which more and more dog owners are pursuing, is the option of a canine wheelchair, also referred to as a cart. I have participated in multiple teary-eyed conversations with loving owners who are wrestling with the decision of putting their beloved companion in a cart. For many, it is the admission of defeat when everything else has been tried to keep their friend on his feet. For some, it’s looking at the overwhelming variety and complexity of straps, booties, harnesses and contraptions placed upon and around their once free-to-run best friend. Granted, there are a few things to learn about the new device, and there are a few inconveniences. However, in the 10 years I have been practicing canine physical therapy, I have never experienced a disappointed owner or pet, once they received their wheel-chair and became comfortable with its operation. The mobility and freedom it provides far outweighs the inconveniences.
First, I want to dispel some myths about canine wheelchairs. A common belief is that if a dog is using a wheelchair, he will lose the little muscle strength that he has left and become deconditioned even faster. In actuality, if the wheelchair is used properly, it can assist in building more muscles in the weak legs. Some dogs are no longer able to walk long distances because of spinal cord compression, degenerative myelopathy, spinal surgery, fibrocartilaginous emboli, or for many other reasons. They are limited to house walking, or just going out to the yard to relieve themselves with or without assistance from their owner for balance and support. These dogs do wonderfully with a wheelchair and are able to enjoy longer walks or hikes again with the family. Most wheelchairs have optional straps so that the legs can be completely up off of the ground to protect against dragging paws. But they also can be used with the legs in the usual standing position and paws on the ground. Many dogs can walk independently if they have some assistance for balance and if some of the weight bearing on the weak legs is removed. In these cases, the wheelchair provides support and balance, and the dog can walk for quite long distances using their legs for propulsion. In these cases, the dog is able to build strength and endurance in the legs and enjoy one of the most rewarding activities a dog has in life…a walk with his family. As the dog’s health changes, the wheelchair saddle can be adjusted to optimum height to allow for maximum stability combined with maximum exertion by the dog. It provides the dog the freedom to move and romp around, without the quick fatigue that occurs from having to fully support his own body weight and navigate balance.
A second myth is that dogs can’t relieve themselves while in the wheelchair. Although all cart brands allow for dogs to relieve themselves, some brands, due to their design, achieve this better than others. Another myth is that the dog can be left in the wheelchair for long periods of time. A dog actually should be continually supervised while in the cart. They can’t lie down while they are in the cart and they will fatigue quickly in the standing position with legs that are already compromised. Another reason that they need supervision is that dogs don’t realize where they can and can’t go with the cart. They will attempt to go everywhere in the wheelchair that they went before, unless you stop them. That includes going down steep ravines and hills that can make getting back up the incline very difficult, especially if the dog is large. Hiking off-road is encouraged and many people venture with their dogs and carts on hiking trails. However, be aware that dogs do not know that they are any more limited in the cart than they were without it and will still want to run off trail, between trees and over logs to catch that ground squirrel.
Every brand of cart is different with respect to the construction materials, weight, balance points and ability to be adjusted to fit your dog. Most are custom-made to fit your dog’s specific con-formation and some companies offer pre-owned carts that may fit your dog exactly. There are a few brands that are not custom made and they are a little less expensive. However, many times they can cause chafing under the straps and harnesses, and may offer less than optimum stability and balance because of the dog being “between sizes.” I recommend paying a little more and having a wheelchair that is designed specifically for your dog. For custom-made wheelchairs, the company will ask for a series of measurements to be made on your dog. You can do that yourself or have a canine physical therapist or other rehabilitation practitioner take those measurements for you. Regardless of who does the measurements, it is much easier and more accurate if you have help from another person because it is nearly impossible to hold the dog in an upright position and take the measurements at the same time. I recommend having an experienced professional take them to insure accuracy. I also recommend having a professional fit your dog in the cart when it arrives to ensure that the balance points allow for ease of movement while offering optimal balance and comfort.
Once the wheelchair is ordered, it may take one to three weeks to arrive. There are an assortment of harnesses and straps that come with the cart. Again, I recommend that you have an experienced professional make sure the fit is optimized and to provide you with proper instructions for adjusting and ensuring that your dog is comfortable and safe while in the cart. If your dog “knuckles” or walks on the top side of his paws, you will want to make sure that he either wears booties or is always on a grassy surface to protect against tearing his skin. Booties wear thin very quickly on concrete and asphalt, so I recommend covering the toes with a few layers of duct tape to protect them. Replacing duct tape is less expensive than frequently replacing booties.
When all adjustments have been made and the dog is safely placed in the cart, it’s time for a test drive. Hook on the leash and lead your dog at first. Because of the weight of the cart, many dogs who must have their legs up completely off the ground, begin walking backwards. However, once they realize how they can walk forward, this isn’t a problem. Treats can be a good motivator for the dog who is timid about using his new accessory. I’ve found that most dogs, once they start going forward, take off quickly in excitement about their new-found mobility and freedom. Tails wagging, tongues hanging out, off they go—over the curbs, through the trees, around the corners—many times leaving their owners running behind to catch up. And, thus, a new chapter has begun…the golden years where the walks that used to be impossible are now a joy for the whole family again.
Tammy Wolfe is the owner of The K9 Body Shop, a canine rehabilitation facility in Arvada. She holds a doctorate in physical therapy for humans and canines. For more information, please call 720-447-7268 or visit www.thek9bodyshop.com.