Caring for a Paralyzed Dog
Spinal issues or injuries, or neurological disease, are two reasons why dogs sometimes become paralyzed in their back legs. At times, dogs aren't actually experiencing full-blown hind-end paralysis but more of a hind-end weakness that makes it more difficult for them to get around. The initial shock of seeing their dog paralyzed is distressing for owners. Some dogs do recover, but even if they don't, disabled dogs can - and do! - lead happy lives.
Signs Of Potential Hind-End Problems
Sometimes it is obvious that a dog has developed hind-end issues. For example, if you come home from work one day to find your dog unable to move, then clearly there has been some sort of injury that needs attention. Not all cases of paralysis are sudden. Here are other more subtle signs that could indicate something may be wrong:
- You hear the occasional scrape of the dog's nails against the ground. At first this may be infrequent and you don't give it another thought. Over time, it may become more regular.
- The dog's nails are wearing irregularly. When you go to trim your dog's nails, you might notice that the nails are worn down unevenly. The sides or the tops of the nails might be scraped back somewhat when they never were before. This is more common on the middle two nails of the hind paws.
- You notice sores on sides or tops of the dog's paws. This can indicate that your dog is dragging his paws rather than lifting them up.
- The dog seems unsteady while walking. He might occasionally stumble or even fall.
- The dog's hind end looks like it's sagging. This can indicate weakness or muscle atrophy.
- He might start having accidents in the house, even while he's sleeping.
Spinal injuries or disease (like degenerative myelopathy), or neurological disorders, are common causes of paralysis in dogs. The first step is to take the dog in to see a veterinarian. The vet may order xrays or other tests to help determine the cause of the weakness or paralysis. Try to make note of any information that could be helpful, such as:
- The date/time when you first noticed the weakness or paralysis;
- What your dog had been doing just prior to that;
- Whether your dog was able to move at all when you first noticed;
- Whether the condition has been getting worse; and
- Whether your dog appears to be in pain or distress, ie. is he panting more? Unwilling to be touched?
Conditions that are diagnosed and treated earlier may have a better chance of recovery, so contact your vet immediately if you notice your dog struggling to move. Note that a lack of pain is not an indication that dog will be okay! Get your dog to the vet as soon as you can to get an assessment done.
Treatment and Chance of Recovery
Some conditions are treatable and some are not. Some conditions are treatable if caught early, otherwise the chances of recovery get much smaller or become nil. Treatment options can include enforced rest, surgery, medication such as steroids or anti-inflammatories, physiotherapy, acupuncture treatments, nutritional therapy, or a combination of these and more.
Even with treatment, recovery isn't guaranteed. With treatment, the recovery is likely to be a prolonged process. It can include, for example, taking the dog to regular physiotherapy or rehabilitation sessions; giving medications regularly; follow-up visits or tests; and, of course, the actual day-to-day care of the dog.
Talk to your vet about what treatments are available to your dog as well as whether they are appropriate. For instance, an old dog with other medical conditions may not be the best candidate for surgery.
Caring for a Disabled or "Downer Dog"
There is no question that disabled dogs can lead fun and fulfilling lives with help from their humans. However, caring for a paralyzed dog takes a great deal of time and commitment. This includes:
- Helping the dog get around. This can be made easier by devices like
a mobility sling or harness.
The Help 'Em Up Dog Harness
is also a great option for dogs who need front and back-end support.
Exercise is possible via a doggy mobility cart or
ID. Many, many varieties are available - do extensive research based on
your dog's specific needs (some include: Walkin' Wheels and
If you have a pet physiotherapy or rehabilitation clinic nearby, ask if they have
any that you can trial. Dogs may take more readily to one type of cart over
Providing ready access to water. Fresh drinking water should be easily
available to the dog at all times. It needs to be placed somewhere that he can
reach with little effort, while also not causing a danger to him. A
can help to provide a steady supply of water. Drinking fountains
are another option; some pets find them more interesting and are encouraged to drink more.
- Cleaning and bathing the dog. Many dogs who are paralyzed in the hind end
are also urine or fecal incontinent, or both. Cleaning them promptly and regularly
is important to prevent urine scald, help with odor, and just to help make your dog
feels good. Bathing a dog, especially a larger one, can be difficult to do every day;
in between baths, use damp towels, baby wipes or a dry shampoo.
Expect to do a more thorough wash every few days. Note, this is critically important
to the care of a paralyzed dog: odors, or sores in the skin, will attract flies which
can lay their eggs on the dog. This will result in maggots and can cause serious
illness or even death.
- Pictured here: Alpha Pet Zone Coconut Oil for Dogs
- Dog diapers can be used to help prevent messes from spreading.
Unfortunately, that means that the mess is held against the dog's skin.
Frequent cleaning & bathing should be done if using dog diapers
to keep the skin clean and healthy.
- Orthopedic beds
are important to paralyzed dogs because they
to provide support where it's needed and minimize the development of bed
sores. Be sure to purchase a bed with a washable, removable cover for
easier clean-up (if available, buy an extra cover so that you always have
one available even if the other is in the wash).
- Protecting the skin from damage is very important as well. Many dogs who are paralyzed in the back end can still move around somewhat by dragging themselves around by their more powerful front end. This can result in tears in the skin or other damage, especially if the dog has lost feeling in their hind end and don't realize what's happening. "Drag bags" are one option; these encase the dog's back end so that their skin isn't rubbing against the ground. Other types of padding, or even bandaging or wrapping, can be used as well. Make sure to promptly and consistently treat any sores or wounds to speed healing.
- Expressing the dog's bladder and bowels fully is important if he can't do it himself, or needs help to fully empty the bladder (leaking urine doesn't necessarily mean that the dog is able to express his bladder; his bladder just might be full and leaking). Your vet can show you how to do this. Paralyzed dogs are at higher risk for bladder infections. Your vet can let you know how often the dog's urine should be tested. Some times people will notice a change in odor or color when there's an infection but this isn't always the case. Bladder infections are treated with antibiotics.
- Providing enrichment. Toys, play time, grooming time, walks (or swims) in the doggy cart or wheelchair, or just quiet quality time together will add to the dog's quality of life. Dogs with mobility issues often still greatly enjoy time outdoors and getting exercise - even if that just means a short meander down the street to sniff interesting stuff.
- Being aware of the dog's needs. For example, the dog may love to hang around outside, but he shouldn't ever be left unattended while outdoors - with paralysis, he is less able to regulate his body temperature.
- Protecting your home from accidents is another part of the whole process. Lay down easily washable blankets, towels, or leak-proof canvas drop cloths (like the type used for painting, where liquids cannot seep out the bottom side) wherever your dog enjoys resting most. Have lots of extras available. When they're soiled, throw them into the wash and put fresh ones down.
- Regular physical therapy is important in helping to keep your dog's muscles flexible and strong. If there is a pet physiotherapy or rehab clinic in your area, ask for your vet for a referral to them and have them show you the types of exercises you can do at home with your dog.
Quality of Life and Euthanasia
Dogs have the amazing ability to live in the moment. Many paralyzed dogs enjoy a high quality of life and are happy and engaged with their families. But every pet owner will eventually face evaluating their dog's quality of life against euthanasia. Some issues to consider are:
- Is the dog in (unmanageable) pain? It's no fun for anyone to have to live with constant pain.
- Is his mobility still reasonable, even if he has to be assisted? It's an unfortunate cycle: a decrease in mobility can lead to weight gain, which in turn makes it harder for the dog to move. That in turn can lead to further weight gain, and so the cycle continues. It's one thing for your dog to have to rely on his family for getting him in or out of a mobility harness or wheelchair so that he can go exploring ... and something entirely different if he can't even move enough to change positions, or get a drink of water whenever he wants one.
- Is he showing signs of frustration? Some dogs do just fine with doggy carts or wheelchairs. Some have no problem at all being assisted with a mobility sling or harness. But there are also some dogs who just don't "take" to either. This leaves the issue of how to exercise the dog and give him adequate physical and mental stimulation so that he actually enjoys life, rather than simply existing.
- Does he seem distressed? Incontinence issues can be a source of distress for many dogs. Some owners report that their dogs seem "embarassed" to have an accident. Whether or not they are, dogs don't want to lay in their own waste. Even brief moments can be distressing for some dogs.
- Is he starting to physically hurt himself while moving? If he repeatedly falls or drags himself and ends up with sores or wounds, that will eventually become an issue even if the sores are promptly cared for. Dogs might not complain but that doesn't mean it's not uncomfortable or painful.
- Is the dog still interested, active, and engaged with life? Does he still enjoy interacting with his favorite people or other pets? Does he still enjoy eating and does he drink enough? Is he still happy and enthusiastic to engage in his favorite activities, whether that's playing with a toy or going for a walk or a swim? If he just seems tired, then it may be time to consider letting him go peacefully.
- How are you, the caregiver, holding up? In an ideal world, we would have unlimited physical, mental, emotional, and financial reserves to care for our loved ones. The reality is much different. Paralyzed dogs require a ton of time and commitment from their families. Although it is a rewarding job, it's also a difficult one. If we are not at our best and are starting to show frustration with the dog, he's going to sense it.
It is never easy making the decision to euthanize. It's difficult, if not impossible, to know the "perfect" time if such a thing even exists. It might be more helpful to acknowledge that there is a time frame in which euthanasia is a reasonable option. Many people are of the opinion, myself included, that it's bettter to let them go a little early and on a high note, then to wait too long. If you're in that euthanasia window, give your dog an amazing last few days, a week, or a month, and then let him go, with love.
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