Canine Mobility

If you are over the age of 40, you know that your joints begin to show signs of wear and tear as you age, making it difficult to do all of the things you enjoy doing. Your dog will begin to have similar difficulty, often as early as 7 - 8 years of age. Dogs who suffer from various diseases or who have been injured in accidents may begin to have trouble at an even younger age.

What can you do to help him enjoy life as fully as he did when he was a pup? Orthotics, prosthetics, assistive devices, and / or therapy may be exactly what he needs.

What are canine orthotics?

Orthotics are used to improve or protect a part of the animal's body that has become disabled. In humans, examples of orthotics are gel inserts in shoes to protect the feet, and braces used on a person who has suffered a stroke or another neurological injury that makes it difficult to use one or both of the legs.

dog with bandage

In dogs, the most common orthotic is a splint which may be used to support or protect one or more of the dog's legs. In addition, splints may have a therapeutic purpose, such as stretching out tissues that would otherwise wither away.

The goal of orthotic veterinary medicine is to make your dog's movements as close to normal as possible, allowing him to participate fully in whatever activities he did before his accident or injury. Orthotics should be custom-designed specifically for each animal to allow optimal fit and to meet the ergonomic requirements of the dog. The last thing you want is for the orthotic to correct one problem but cause another.

When your dog is fitted with an orthotic device, it may take him awhile to get used to it, and it may have to be re-fitted several times as the dog's gate returns to something resembling normalcy. Your orthotist should be either doing or prescribing physical therapy with your dog to help him learn to walk normally again. This may also require some training for you, as you will be doing exercises with your dog at home to help him maintain steady progress toward his goal.

Your dog's splint will likely have three layers. The inner layer that rests against his leg is made of foam to prevent the splint from scratching or piercing his skin. The middle layer is hard, made of either plastic or a composite material that is designed to hold the dog's leg in the correct position. The outer layer is made of straps and Velcro to allow you to attach the splint to the leg.

Be sure you understand how to properly apply and remove the splint and when you are supposed to do so. For example, some splints will be designed to be worn 24 hours a day, with the dog only getting a break when he is being bathed. Others, such as those worn for stretching therapy, may have to be removed and re-applied several times a day or may have to be gradually worn for a longer time each day as the dog gets used to the stretching. It is vital that the splint be worn for the correct amount of time and that it be placed correctly on the dog to achieve the maximum benefit of treatment.

What are canine prosthetics?

In contrast to orthotics, which help an existing limb function normally, prosthetics are used to replace a missing limb. In humans, we often see prosthetics used on war veterans where high-tech legs are attached to the stump that remains after a natural leg is lost in battle.

The process is similar in dogs, although not entirely as complex. A prosthesis works best when the dog has retained some of his original limb, allowing for a sturdy point of attachment for the prosthetic device. A dog who has lost the majority of his leg, leaving only a stump is not a good candidate for a prosthesis.

3 legged dog
smaller dogs may benefit from a prosthetic device

In most cases, the prosthetic device is a jointed piece of either steel or plastic, topped by a sleeve that slips over the dog's remaining stump. With practice, the dog can learn to use the muscles of the stump to propel the prosthesis forward, allowing him to walk in a somewhat normal gait.

For a more natural gait, the prosthetic system may be surgically inserted into the existing bone, allowing the prosthesis to be more integrated with the dog's own muscles, tendons, nerves, and bone structure. Obviously, this is a much more expensive option.

Although many dogs are able to live quite full lives with only three legs, a prosthetic device may help them to prevent further injury to the remaining three legs by reducing the strain induced by hopping. Dogs with only two legs have been known to get around, but prosthetic devices can make ambulation much easier and allow them to live a life much closer to normal.

Canine Assistive Devices

Some dogs, particularly those suffering from arthritis or those who have lost the use of one or more of their legs for whatever reason, may benefit from some extra support when they are walking. Support may come in the form of slings or ambulation carts, also known as doggie wheelchairs.

Slings are designed to wrap under the dog's belly and are held by the person who is assisting the dog to walk. Pulling up on the sling allows the device to bear the majority of the dog's weight, allowing him to walk naturally using his legs without the pain associated with bearing his full weight.

Ambulation carts are specifically designed to support a dog who cannot move around due to injury or infirmity of both hind legs or even all four legs. A cart is custom-designed for each dog based on his own support and ambulation requirements.

ambulation cart
ambulation carts are custom designed for each dog

Dogs with paraplegia of the hind legs often are fitted with a two-wheeled cart which supports the hind end of the body, allowing the dog to move around on his front legs without dragging his tail end along behind. Dogs who are quadriplegic may have a four-wheeled cart to support the entire body. In this case, the guardian would wheel the cart, allowing the dog to travel from place to place.

In some cases, carts are designed for permanent use, such as after an injury has left the dog unable to use his legs. In other cases, a cart may be used therapeutically to reduce pain while the dog recovers after surgery or during treatment for a disease. For example, a dog who has experienced a crushed nerve may use a cart while waiting for the nerve to regrow. Use of the cart keeps the dog active rather than having him simply lie around the house and become obese or lose the will to play.

Keeping the dog active will allow him to have a much more fulfilling life and will make him more able to participate in whatever physical therapy is required because he can move without as much pain when a cart supports all or part of his body weight.

Assistive devices can be purchased online at any of the following sites:,, and

All of these sites offer information that may be of use to you as you try to assist your dog through his recovery or for the remainder of his life. Be sure to check with your vet to assure that your assistive device fits properly and is doing the job you expected it to.

Other assistive devices

You may also want to look into more general assistive devices for your dog such as raised food and water dishes, orthopedic beds, and ramps to help him get up stairs or walk into the cargo portion of your SUV or even up onto your bed. These products do not require specialty fitting and can be purchased online from sites such as Drs. Foster and Smith.

Physical Therapy for your dog

tired dog

According to the Animal Rehabilitation and Wellness Hospital in Raleigh, NC, there are several benefits to providing your dog with physical rehabilitation therapy:

    • Patients become mobile after a severe orthopedic or neurologic injury
    • Patients safely use a painful limb after an injury or surgery
    • Improve and prolong the quality of life of geriatric and arthritic patients
    • Achieve weight loss in overweight and obese animals
    • Manage acute and chronic pain
    • Increase the fitness of athletic animals and working dogs
    • Provide ambulatory assistance to patients who need ambulation carts, orthotic devices, or prostheses.

ARWI states that puppies, older animals, miniature breeds, giant breeds, obese animals, and those with multiple injuries or those who suffer from metabolic diseases like diabetes are most likely to benefit from physical therapy. These animals are at a higher risk of having complications after an injury or after reparative surgery because they heal more slowly, increasing the dog's tendency to want to just lie around rather than using his limbs to promote healing.

Before beginning a physical therapy program, you as the pet's guardian should understand exactly what the goals of therapy are. In some cases, you may want to get your dog back to competition level for agility or another sport, while in other cases you may simply want him to live out the remaining months of his life without pain. Physical therapy may cost anywhere from $450 to well over $1000, so it is important to be clear on what you can expect your pet to gain if you choose to spend the money.

In most cases, physical therapy is continued for six to eight weeks after surgery, although dogs who suffer from debilitating injuries or infirmities may be placed on a life-long program of exercises. With the proper training and equipment, you may be able to exercise your dog at home. Be sure to discuss this with your therapist if you anticipate a long course of therapy that you may or may not be able to afford.

Pool therapy for your dog

If your dog has suffered a loss of his range of motion or is losing strength, you may even want to consider aquatic therapy for him. Your dog may be able to participate with or without a flotation device, but close attention must be paid by a licensed therapist to assure your dog is able to get out of the pool before he is too exhausted to do so.

dog pool
pool therapy can be less painful than walking on dry land

If a flotation device is used, be sure it fits properly and does not restrict the shoulder movement that your dog uses to swim. In addition, the device should not bunch up in the back. Ruff Wear and Outward Hound are two designs recommended by canine aquatic therapists.

The pool should be fitted with steps or a sloping entrance/exit (not ladders), and your dog should be shown how to get out of the pool as his first exercise, not as his last.

Pool therapy can be important to a dog who is in too much pain to exercise on dry land. The water provides buoyancy, taking the dog's weight off of his sore legs while he moves his legs against water resistance to gain strength. Simply being able to use his legs again may provide your dog with the confidence he needs to begin training in earnest to regain even more strength and mobility.

Canine massage

Massage can also be an important part of your dog's physical therapy, particularly following surgery. It is not uncommon for scar tissue to build up around the surgical site, causing pain when the dog tries to use those muscles. Massage, properly done by a professional, can break up the scar tissue, allowing the dog to move much more comfortably.


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Go to about a white Akita dog wearing a beautiful proshtesis. He can run, jump and lift his leg.
Beware of the owner of that site is a scam artist who preys upon hard working people and try's to get information from you and then use it for his own gain. this person John Weaver is a very twisted individual
What a no-brainer. And here I was causing unsrcesnaey stress to myself and my dog by trying to squirt the fluid into her ear. Thank you for this common sense approach.
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