When Is It Time to Get a Wheelchair for your Pet?

This is a common question for owners of pets who are becoming increasing challenged due to degenerative myelopathy.

We hear this question alot, “When is the right time to order a cart for my pet?” This is a common question for owners of pets who are becoming increasing challenged due to degenerative myelopathy. Typically, dogs with DM  start scraping their toenails on the pavement  6 – 9 months before they are so unstable on their feet that they require a cart to go for a walk. At this point, they’ve become weak on one side, causing their legs to scissor under them, and are knuckling  their toes. Muscle atrophy will have started to show on the weak side.

Lately, we’ve been seeing alot more dogs who are still able to walk pretty well on their own. After measuring them, we usually try them out in one of our stock carts that we keep for just this purpose:  to confirm our measurements, and to see what the dog’s reaction is going to be to the wheelchair.  It’s always a moment of suspense... and 98% of the time the dogs take off in the wheelchair, grateful for the support that restores them to independence and dignity.

And what the 2% who resist the cart? It may be that the dog is still too mobile on his own to accept a cart.  These dogs will actually try to get themselves out of the wheelchair.   Then there are  those stubborn, independent ones who were never  terribly active before their disability….and who are thinking that they are managing to drag themselves well enough on their front legs.  Some of these characters have trained their owners to carry them, manually assist them or push them around in a pet stroller.    For those dogs, finding the right motivation – be it tough love – or healthy treats – is what owners will have to resort to to train their dogs to use a cart.

When we hear of a dog who refuses to use a cart, our first question is, “How well does he walk without one?”  When we hear that he can still walk half a mile and hold himself up to defecate, we advise owners to wait until the dog is weaker.  Very few dogs will tolerate being “trained” to use a device that they see no advantage or need to use.  And the last thing we want a dog to feel is that a cart is a hindrance, punishment or burden to them……we want dogs to love their wheels.  For those dogs, the solution is simply to wait for the day that going for a walk becomes too challenging to manage without one.

For the vast majority of dogs, training is a non-issue.  Dogs who think they need assistance will gratefully accept a well-balanced wheelchair.  Since most of these dogs are older and have been overworking their front legs to compensate for their weak rears, we recommend neutral-balanced or variable axle carts, which are weightless on the shoulders or can be adjusted to take weight off overstressed front legs.   Here’s a video showing how dogs use carts in various stages of DM:

Amputees who are managing well on three-legs are also sometimes difficult to get to accept a cart.  It’s always good to have one hand for the day that the dog has overworked or injured itself running on three legs.  Once they see the advantage to the cart – that they no longer need to hop on three legs – they love their wheels.  This can take time and training, but is well worth the effort.