By Dr. Robin Downing
When Frankie was hit by a car on the streets of Denver, two vertebrae in his midback were shattered, and his spinal cord was crushed. At that moment he became a permanent paraplegic, never to walk normally again. In times past, he would have been euthanized.
Fortunately for Frankie -- and for other pets with special needs -- times have changed. No longer are mobility issues an impediment to an excellent quality of life. In fact, dogs and cats -- and even unusual pets such as rabbits and ferrets -- can be fitted for assistive devices that allow them to sustain the activities they've become accustomed to. Pet owners can be taught how to manage their pets' bodily functions. And the pets themselves can easily be taught to accept the use of the various assistive devices that are currently available.
Mobility challenges come in many guises:
-- The pet may be too weak to walk. It is critical to get as complete a diagnosis as possible from the pet's veterinarian because some pets are weak from pain. Once the pain is managed appropriately, the pet may be restored to normal mobility. It is also possible to have pain AND weakness coexisting in the same body. In this case, relieving pain remains a priority, which will allow the use of assistive devices with maximum pet comfort.
-- The pet may be paralyzed rather than simply weak. Paralysis can occur from trauma to the spinal cord or from a progressive disease like degenerative myelopathy.
-- The pet may have an issue, such as a torn cranial cruciate ligament in the knee (rear leg), causing instability in that joint. If surgery to stabilize the knee is not affordable or not an option for some other reason, the pet will be incapable of walking comfortably without an assistive device.
-- Amputation of a limb (or part of a limb) may render the pet incapable of normal mobility.
-- The mobility challenge may result from a nervous system issue, such as a stroke to the brain or spinal cord.
So, what is a loving pet owner to do?
Any pet facing a mobility challenge, no matter how slight or severe, deserves to have a thorough veterinary evaluation to ensure that if pain is present, it is treated appropriately. Next, examine the pet's lifestyle and activities up to the time of the mobility issue. This is where creative thinking becomes important.
If, for instance, a dog is used to walking or running every day with his owner and then develops the progressive weakness of degenerative myelopathy, a "walking wheelchair" is a great choice. The walking wheelchair design allows a dog to continue to use his rear legs without having to support his full weight, thus delaying the progression of the weakness. Once the weakness has progressed to paralysis of the rear limbs, the walking/running activity can be maintained simply by suspending the feet so they do not drag on the ground. Wheelchairs that support all four legs are also available, as are wheelchairs custom-built for animals that have lost limbs or were born without limbs.
Slings allow pets to be supported in a simple fashion that also allows the pet owner to maintain good ergonomics. This decreases the risk of a back injury to an owner from lifting the pet inappropriately. And a sling allows the pet to move himself rather than simply being carried around, thus sustaining part of his personal independence. There are now custom braces and prosthetic devices available for pets. If a limb has a joint injury that cannot be repaired, a brace may replace the action of the damaged joint, thus restoring mobility. Likewise, if part of a foot or leg has been amputated, removable prosthetics can be manufactured to serve in their stead.
Fortunately, when four legs aren't enough, pets have many options for sustaining and maintaining their active lifestyles. Adaptation to a mobility-limiting condition is restricted only by our imaginations as pet owners. Times have changed for the better, and our beloved animal companions are the beneficiaries.
Dr. Robin Downing is an internationally recognized expert on the management of pain in companion animals. She is the owner of The Downing Center for Animal Pain Management in Windsor, Colo.
Cats can adapt
to vision loss
Q: I just adopted a stray kitten who has a bad eye infection. The veterinarian says her eye is so damaged that it will need to be removed. Will she be able to get around OK with only one eye? -- via email
A: Animals are truly amazing in their ability to adjust to disabilities that people would find devastating. For one thing, cats rely less on vision than people do, so a loss of vision is not as disturbing to them. After all, cats don't read or drive or do some of the other things that people can't do without their sight. They don't feel sorry for themselves or think about how much better life would be if they could see.
And a kitten, in particular, has a brain that is still very plastic, meaning that it adapts rapidly to changes. When a kitten loses an eye, the brain simply switches developmental pathways, from binocular vision to monocular vision. You would think that a cat who is missing one eye would have less depth perception and less reliable vision overall, but that's not the case. Cats with only one eye are just as mobile and acrobatic as their siblings with two eyes, so much so that you would never know they had only a single eye.
Even kittens or older cats who lose vision in both eyes are capable of getting around nimbly and fearlessly. They ramp up their other senses -- especially those of scent and hearing -- and make use of their wide, sensitive whiskers to find their way through their homes just as if they could see. Cats are very good at sensing touch, vibrations and changes in air movement. Those environmental cues replace the lack of visual information.
An adult cat who loses his vision may take a bit longer than a kitten to get a feel for getting around his environment because he is more used to using his eyes, but he'll quickly adjust to his new status. Some people don't even realize that their aging cats have lost their vision because the cats adapt so well. -- Kim Campbell Thornton
needn't be a mess
-- Cats play with their prey before delivering a spine-breaking bite to the neck as a method of self-preservation. A study used cats who were extremely hungry, a little hungry and those who had just eaten. Cats who were extremely hungry were the most likely to play with a rat. The study's author suggested the cats were most likely to play with the rat as a way to tire out their prey in order to safely make the killing bite and protect from a defensive bite from a capable opponent. Conversely, cats played with the mice less often when they were extremely hungry, and played with the mice for longer periods when they were not as hungry. This suggests hungry cats played less with the mice because they were more willing to risk a smaller chance of injury in order to get their meal sooner.
-- About 5.5 million people are bitten by snakes annually, resulting in 400,000 amputations and between 20,000 and 125,000 human deaths. As if that weren't alarming enough, there is evidence that snake venom is becoming more poisonous. A study published in Toxicon found the genes in the eastern diamondback rattlesnake are undergoing "positive selection" for more dangerous venom. The cause for the evolution is not known, but may stem from new defenses evolved by the snakes' prey. In North America, California ground squirrels and rock squirrels have developed blood that's resistant to certain toxins found in rattlesnake venom. -- Dr. Marty Becker and Mikkel Becker
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "Good Morning America" and "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Gina Spadafori. The two are also the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Dr. Becker can also be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker.