CARE OF THE PARALYZED ANIMAL
Unfortunately, spinal damage leading to rear leg paralysis is not an uncommon problem in pets. The animal will be normal from the point of the spinal injury upward and paralyzed from the point of the injury downward. These animals are colloquially called "downer" animals and have special management needs. Rarely is rear paralysis temporary so long term management will require commitment. It is not for everyone and it is important to understand what one is getting into; though, for the right owner and patient, management of the "downer" can be rewarding and the human/animal bond can continue.
The "downer" animal is frequently also a victim of urinary and fecal incontinence and, of course, he/she will have limited ability to groom. It is important that the animal be bathed frequently for the sake of your household as well as the animal’s sense of cleanliness. This is obviously more practical for the smaller pet. Expect to have to bathe the animal every few days at least to prevent urine scald on the skin and odor issues.
Do not use zinc oxide based cremes (commonly used for diaper rash) on pets. Zinc oxide is toxic if licked.
When it comes to protecting underlying carpeting or flooring upon which a downer dog is bedded, nothing beats an office chair / floor protector (or two, side by side, if need be). Towels, blankets, dog bed, food that may spill, etc. can all safely be placed on the protector.
Diapers for dogs are available through some of the companies that also make mobility carts. Please view the accessories section at www.k9carts.com, or the many items at www.carealotpets.com (diapers, wraps and piddle pants pictured here).
Another important concern regards the pet outdoors. Urine or fecal odors or damaged skin will attract flies readily. The animal will not be able to shoo flies properly. It only takes an hour on a hot day for fly eggs to turn into tissue eating maggots (a condition called "myiasis"). If the tissues are deeply invaded, death may result. Be sure your pet is not allowed to attract flies.
A special harness can be a great help in your ability to move or carry your dog around, letting you keep the front or hind quarters raised when your dog can’t. One company making such harnesses is Animal Suspension Technology at www.petsupportsuit.com. Another popular choice is the Help 'Em Up Harness at Helpemup.com. See more of these products below, under Physical Therapy.
TIP: When buying an orthopedic bed, be sure it is machine washable.
BLADDER CARE AND INFECTION PREVENTION
The "downer" pet is often inefficient at keeping the bladder empty. This strongly predisposes the pet to the development of bladder infection which can ascend to the kidney and cause very big problems. Your pet may need periodic urine cultures to monitor for infection. Check with your vet to see what the recommendation is for your particular pet. Bladder infections are easily eradicated with a simple antibiotic prescription. Some people are able to tell when an infection is present by a change in the odor or coloration of the urine. If you notice any changes, notify your vet at once.
Animals with spinal lesions at the level of the waist or higher will have excessive bladder tone (the so-called “upper motor neuron bladder”). This means that the bladder will require manual expression by pressing or squeezing. Your vet’s staff will show you how to do this. Emptying the bladder should be done a minimum of 3 times daily. If the bladder is allowed to remain over-filled, it will stretch out and become flaccid. After a couple of weeks, the upper motor neuron bladder develops into an “automatic” bladder which means that when it fills, it will empty on its own. If the bladder has over-stretched in the first 2 weeks after the spinal injury it will not be able to empty itself when it develops the neurologic capability to empty later on.
Spinal injuries of the lower back produce a “lower motor neuron bladder” which simply leaks and never has enough tone to fill. It is important not to assume that an animal can empty its own bladder simply because there is urine present in the bedding. The full bladder may simply be over-flowing. Regular emptying of the bladder is one of the best ways to prevent bladder infection.
Muscles are more comfortable when kept flexible. As long as there are no dislocations or healing fractures, passive flexion and extension and light massage are very good for the paralyzed limbs. The joints of the leg are moved through the full range of natural motion and relaxed. This is repeated for about 5-10 minutes 2-3 times daily.
Towel walking is also helpful physical therapy in keeping muscles flexible and strong. To accomplish towel walking, an appropriately sized towel is slipped under the belly and used as a sling. The dog is lifted so as to walk relatively normally in the front with the towel as support in back. As an alternative to the towel, several gadgets are marketed, some of which are pictured here. For more information on these products and their manufacturers, visit our Products for Arthritic Dogs page.
Keep in mind that a dog supported from the rear may be difficult to lead. A second person “steering” in front may be helpful.
Care of the downer dog requires commitment and dedication. If the dog is too big for one person to move, the effort is that much more. Still, for the right dog and human family, paralysis need not interrupt the bond. We hope this page is helpful in organizing care. If you have suggestions or other equipment or services you think might contribute to this subject, we would appreciate an eMail to facilitate possible future additions to this page.
To find a physical therapist for your pet, please use this link:
SUPPORT ON THE INTERNET
Here is the link to a Listserv Group for the owners of disabled dogs to discuss the care and love of their disabled dogs. This is a free Yahoo group that is designed to help answer questions and share stories of your disabled dogs.
Another useful web resource is:
Page last updated: 10/12/2021