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giving legs to hope: adapting with a paralyzed pet

  • Dr. Kim
  • Posted by Dr. Kim Smyth on
    Staff Veterinarian and Pet Health Writer of Petplan

Both cats and dogs can become handicapped by spinal disease, but rear limb paralysis is not a death sentence by any means. Major spinal damage or damage involving the part of the spinal cord in front of the front legs will cause whole body paralysis that affects the quality of life of dogs and cats. But when the damage involves only the rear limbs, several things can be done to enhance quality of life.

When spinal damage occurs somewhere between the front and rear legs, only the rear legs will be affected. The front limbs, and everything in front of the injury, should work just fine. This means that your pet will think and act as normal up front, but the hind limbs will either be partially or fully affected. Spinal damage can be temporary or permanent, depending on its underlying cause.

There are several causes for spinal damage that leads to pet paralysis, including:

  • Trauma or injury (being hit by a car, for example)
  • Intervertebral disc disease (IVDD)
  • Fibrocartilagenous embolism
  • Degenerative myelopathy
  • Tumors
  • Osteomyelitis or bone infection
  • Thromboembolism or blood clots, especially in cats

Treatment of spinal damage depends on the underlying cause, but many pets can benefit from laser therapy, acupuncture and physical therapy.

If your pet has sustained spinal trauma leading to rear limb paralysis, there are several things you will need to consider when going about your day-to-day business. First and foremost are cleanliness issues. A dog or cat who has sustained spinal injuries may not have a competent bladder and may experience leaking or dribbling through the day. Daily or twice-daily bathing may be required if this is the case. Pets who are allowed to lie in urine all day are prone to skin infections and sores. Pets who have trouble urinating or holding urine will also be more prone to urinary tract infections. Keep a close eye on your pet’s urine and notify your veterinarian of any changes.

Frequent bathing may lead to dry skin, so be sure to use a moisturizing shampoo and consider leave on conditioners. Dry shampoo is also useful for smaller accidents, as are baby wipes. Using underpads or piddle pads will help protect bedding from accidents, and some dogs will tolerate doggie diapers as well.

Pets who are immobile can easily develop bed sores (or pressure sores) from lying on the same side all day. Be sure to turn your pet from side to side to alleviate some of these troubles. Sores can also develop when your pet drags himself across the floor. If your pet develops a sore, be sure to attend to it immediately to prevent it from becoming larger.

Many pets will not tolerate the bed rest that comes with rear limb paralysis, and a life in bed can lead to a poor quality of life. Rest assured that several options are available for allowing your pet to get up and about. Harnesses can be placed at the hind quarters to allow you to carry the hind end for your pet to go outdoors and walk around. Better yet, dog and cat wheelchairs and/or carts allow your pet to roam as they wish (and can be covered by your Petplan pet insurance policy!). Though it takes some getting used to, many pets enjoy the same freedoms they did when they were fully mobile.

It is true that a paralyzed pet will be more difficult to care for, but for many owners the alternative is not an option. Many pets adapt well to paralysis and enjoy many, many happy years with their dedicated owners.
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