These lucky, doomed pets are reclaiming active, happy lives

Analysis by Dr. Karen Shaw Becker

assistive devices for pets

Story at-a-glance -

  • Today, thanks to the increasing availability of assistive devices, dogs and cats with physical disabilities can lead happy, healthy lives
  • There are wheelchairs for pets with missing or nonworking limbs, as well as standard and advanced prosthetics and orthotics
  • Rehabilitation therapy is also invaluable for these animals and should be the standard of care for any pet with a physical disability
  • Behavioral therapy can be extremely beneficial for blind and deaf cats and dogs to help them adjust to their disability

One of countless wonderful outcomes of the pets-are-family awakening is that many dogs and cats who were once automatically euthanized for being too old, too sick, too small, too shy, too badly behaved and so on, are now getting the help they need to remain with their families or find new forever homes.

Among these groups of lucky animal companions are dogs and cats with physical disabilities. Thanks to the expanding availability of assistive devices for pets (and the brilliant creators and fabricators of those devices), along with physical and behavioral rehabilitation therapy services, more and more previously doomed disabled pets are enjoying active, happy lives.

Wheelchairs for pets

Nowadays, when an animal companion must undergo a limb amputation as the result of an accident or osteosarcoma (bone cancer) or is immobilized by a disease such as degenerative myelopathy, his or her veterinarian can recommend rehabilitation therapy and a wheelchair, or even a prosthetic device.

Walkin’ Pets by HandicappedPets.com makes lightweight aluminum wheelchairs for dogs with adjustable components that snap together and can be modified to add a front wheel or even skis. As of September 2018, approximately 75,000 dogs in 32 countries were using Walkin’ Pet wheelchairs.

“We have dogs on the beach, and we even had a dog get a duck hunting certificate,” founder Mark C. Robinson said proudly in an interview with Veterinary Practice News.1

There’s also a herd of disabled goats in Vermont with wheelchairs! Additional wheelchair resources:

Prosthetics and orthotics

OrthoPets of Westminster, Colorado is a pioneer in the field of animal prosthetics and orthotics. Creation of an orthotic or prosthetic device begins with the referring veterinarian, who must send a fiberglass impression, measurements, photos and videos to OrthoPets, who then uses CAD and 3D models to fabricate a custom device for the pet.

The company makes around 2,000 devices a year, mostly for dogs, but has also fabricated devices for “Cats, llamas, goats, sheep, horses, cows” and even a baby mouse, according to OrthoPets founders Martin and Amy Kaufmann. In order for a standard prosthetic device to work, the animal must have a functioning elbow joint and at least 30% of the forelimb radium intact. Pets need about eight weeks of rehab therapy to strengthen their muscles and learn to walk with the device.

The world of advanced prosthetics for pets is also evolving. This kitty’s prosthetic legs attach directly to the skeleton:

Additional prosthetics and orthotics fabricators:

Rehabilitation therapy should be the standard of care for all disabled pets

Every animal with a physical disability will benefit from appropriate rehabilitation therapy and in my professional opinion, it should be a central feature of their care. Rehab therapy strengthens muscles, prevents injuries caused by muscle strain and reduces pain in pets missing a limb or who have mobility problems as the result of an injury or illness.

“You want to focus on core strength and monitoring them for pain because of what we call compensatory changes,” Dr. Kara Amstutz tells Veterinary Practice News. “When their gait changes, it can put extra stress on the remaining limbs.”2

Beneficial treatment modalities such as daily stretching exercises, maintenance chiropractic, hydrotherapy (e.g., an underwater treadmill), massage, acupuncture, the Assisi loop and laser therapy. It’s also important for pet parents to exercise and massage their animals at home between therapy sessions.

Veterinarian Dr. Alice Baker Meuten, owner of a practice specializing in veterinary sports medicine, chiropractic treatments and integrative therapies, tells Veterinary Practice News that acupuncture for these patients seems especially effective. Many of her clients report that their pets have improved functioning and appear to have relief from pain after several weeks of acupuncture therapy.

In addition, when the patients are assessed at Baker Meuten’s office, they often show clinical signs of improvement as well, such as better range of joint motion. Rehabilitation therapy resources:

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Behavioral therapy for blind and deaf animals

A consideration for owners of deaf or blind pets is behavioral therapy to help them adjust to their disability. According to Amstutz, behavioral therapists can show you how to make your homes safer and easier to navigate for blind pets with things like nonslip runners to guide them to their bed and food bowl, and scents and sounds to help a blind dog or cat move around confidently.

Another option is a halo collar, which is a thin metal tube that surrounds the collar and acts sort of like a cane a vision-impaired person might use. People with a dog or cat with hearing impairment can learn how to use lights or hand signals to communicate with their pet. Resources for vision- or hearing-impaired dogs:

+ Sources and References