Canine Mobility Assistance

We’ve all heard the old adage that a dog year is equivalent to about seven human years. That really might not mean too much to you until you begin to consider what happens to your own body as you age. One of the major symptoms of advancing age is that the joints and muscles begin to show wear and tear. In your dog, mobility may begin to slow down as early as 7 – 8 years old. Prior injuries are a big risk factor, so if your dog has had a broken leg, you may see symptoms even earlier.

To keep your older dog moving, you might be interested in orthotics, prosthetics, assistance devices and/or therapy.

To keep your older dog moving, you might be interested in orthotics, prosthetics, assistance devices and/or therapy.

Canine Orthotics

Orthotics are devices designed to either improve or protect part of the dog’s body. Orthotics can often provide enough pain relief that surgery won’t be needed. The goal is to get the dog’s gait as close to normal as possible.

For example, splints may be used to protect their legs after an injury. A dog who has a torn knee ligament might benefit from a brace to support the knee before surgery and to support the opposite leg during therapy and surgical recovery. Alternatively, wraps may be used to support a strained or sprained limb.

Orthotics are usually custom-made and can be quite expensive, particularly if they are intended for semi-permanent use. Your orthotist will cast a mold of your dog’s leg, then design the orthotic to fit snugly, providing support and in some cases, therapeutic stretching to a withering muscle.

An orthotic is typically made with three layers. The layer closest to the skin is usually made of foam to provide the least skin irritation possible. The middle layer is hard plastic or a composite to keep the dog’s leg in the desired position. The outside contains straps and Velcro closures to allow you to attach and remove the device as needed. Depending on why your dog is wearing the splint, you may be instructed to leave it on 24-hours a day, or you may be told to use it only when your dog is exercising.

Once your orthotic is made, you will probably have to spend some time getting your dog used to wearing it. You should start out with just one hour on the first day, then 2 hours on the second, and continue adding an hour each day until the dog is comfortable with the device for the recommended number of hours. Because these custom-made devices are so expensive, you will want to make sure your dog doesn’t destroy them. Praise the dog as you are putting the device on, and give positive reinforcement while he or she is getting used to wearing it. If there is any skin irritation, it means the device is not properly fitted, and you should discontinue use until the problem is fixed.


Prosthetic devices are used to replace something that is missing, usually a dog’s leg. Amputation may occur as a result of an injury or illness, or a dog may simply be born with fewer than four legs.

Depending on how much of the leg is left, a prosthetic may or may not be the solution. Dogs with only a stump will usually not be good candidates for prosthetics, but those who have some remaining limb function will do quite well. The remaining limb must be sturdy enough to provide a good point of attachment for the prosthetic limb and muscular enough to allow the dog to propel the limb forward as he or she walks.

A typical prosthesis is made of steel or plastic, and may contain a joint if it is replacing a portion of the leg that would normally contain a joint. A sleeve at the top of the prosthetic fits over the dog’s natural leg. Alternatively, the prosthetic can be surgically attached to the remaining bone, integrating it with the dog’s natural muscles and tendons to provide a more natural gait.

You’ve likely seen three-legged, or even two-legged dogs, and you may be wondering why people would throw away money on prosthetics when the dogs appear to be doing just fine without all four legs. It’s true that dogs can often function very well without prosthetics, but they are at an increased risk for strain injuries because hopping is not a natural gait for dogs. The musculature of the remaining legs must be carefully nurtured to prevent further injury.

Assistance Devices

Doggie wheelchairs can be custom made to provide your dog the necessary support.

For dogs who are not good candidates for prosthetics, assistance devices can provide an option for greater mobility. In other cases, dogs may have all four limbs but may need an assistance device because of arthritis or paralysis.

The easiest assistance device to use is the sling. Made of heavy-duty fabric, the sling is wrapped under the dog’s belly, with straps protruding from the top ends. When the dog needs to walk, the human simply tugs up on the straps and walks beside the dog, with most of the dog’s body weight being supported by the sling rather than by the dog’s legs. Doing this allows the dog to exercise any remaining muscles he or she has, while not straining them to the point of further injury.

Ambulation carts, also known as doggie wheelchairs, can be custom made to provide your dog the necessary support required when he or she has totally lost the use of one or more limbs. Two-wheeled carts are commonly seen in dogs who have lost the use of their hind paws. The dog walks on his or her front paws, but the back end is supported by a cart. Four-wheeled carts allow even a quadriplegic dog to be moved from place to place.

Just as with slings, ambulation carts are made to allow the dog to exercise whatever muscles he has left after an injury or illness. They may also be a temporary solution used while a dog is recovering from an injury or surgery.

Orthotics, prosthetics, and assistance devices can be ordered by your vet or online through companies like Animal Ortho Care and K-9 Orthotics and Prosthetics.

What if my dog isn’t that bad off?

If your dog is recovering from surgery, physical therapy can be an important component of his rehabilitation.

Dogs who are merely slowing down with age but are not yet crippled may benefit from a variety of assistance devices designed to make their lives a little easier. Large dogs may enjoy having their water and food dishes raised up, while dogs who travel frequently might appreciate a ramp to help them get into the back of your vehicle. Steps that help them get on the bed or couch to snuggle with you can be a big help.

If your dog has trouble with stairs, it may be because they are too slippery for his or her feet to feel secure. You might want to put down carpet treads to stop the slip. Also, dogs may feel more secure going down an open staircase if you mount lattice work along the side or behind each open step to make the steps not so scary.

If your dog is getting older, you may want to give some thought to the type of bed you are providing for him or her. Sore, arthritic joints can be made to feel a whole lot better by providing a warm, supportive dog bed.

Doctors Foster and Smith carry a number of assistance devices on their web site.

Other treatment modalities

Dogs who are having joint problems related to age and dogs who are recovering from surgery can get a lot of pain relief from physical therapy and massage therapy. Physical therapy may be done in a pool or on land.

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 injury/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.

Because physical therapy can be expensive, make sure you and your therapist agree on realistic goals for therapy. You may or may not be able to get your dog back into shape for competitive agility. You may or may not be able to totally relieve the pain the dog is feeling.

If your dog is recovering from surgery, physical therapy can be an important component of his rehabilitation. In this case, therapy may be recommended for six to eight weeks. However, if your dog suffers from a debilitating, chronic condition, you might expect to keep going to physical therapy for the rest of his or her life.

Massage can also be important after surgery to break up scar tissue and preserve range of motion.

Pool therapy can be a great way to work your dog’s muscles without placing stress on the joints. The water provides buoyancy, which keeps the weight off of the joints, and water provides resistance to allow your dog to build muscle mass.

Pool safety

Make sure there is a sloped entrance ramp to allow your dog to get out of the pool when he or she needs to. Ladders are generally a little difficult for dogs to navigate. Also, make sure your dog knows how to get out of the pool before he or she starts exercising.

Don’t let your dog go in the water to exercise without a competent watcher. When your dog begins to tire, he or she may not be able to make it to the ramp to get out and might need to be carried.

If you are worried about your dog’s ability to swim, you can purchase a flotation device. Make sure the device fits well and doesn’t restrict the dog’s shoulder movement. You can check out various models at Ruff Wear and Outward Hound.


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