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Understanding Paralysis in Dogs

Dogs are able to move, react, and control their motions due to how their spine, nerves, brain and muscles all work together. Paralysis in dogs occurs when there is a disruption in these nerves. When a dog’s brain, spine, and nerves aren’t communicating properly this greatly impacts a dog’s ability to walk, stand, and coordinate their movements. This is when a dog experiences mobility problems and even paralysis. 

Canine Paralysis

Disabled dog runs in wheelchair

Sudden change in a dog’s leg strength, their ability to walk, or motor function needs to be addressed immediately. In order to properly diagnose your dog’s mobility loss the veterinarian will ask you about your dog’s symptoms, when they started, and what activities lead up to the injury. Your dog’s examination will include your dog’s responses to reflex testing, a mobility assessment, and pain response in your dog’s legs, head, and spine. This will help the vet to determine the location of the damage in your dog’s spinal cord or nerves. Additional testing may be ordered to rule out infection along with x-rays to determine the severity of the damage. 

Depending on what caused the dog’s mobility issues, paralysis can be either permanent or temporary. Your veterinarian will work with you to determine the best treatment plan and level of care needed by your dog. 

The Difference Between Paresis and Paralysis 

There is a difference between a dog with paresis and a dog who is paralyzed. The term paresis is used when there is reduced mobility in a specific body part. Meaning that the dog is partially paralyzed. The dog may still be mobile and maintain some functionality in the limb, but the dog can not move it easily. 

A dog that is paralyzed is completely immobile in that limb or body part, meaning they have no motor function or control in the affected part of their body. 

corgi wheelchair
Walkin’ Wheels Dog Wheelchair
German Shepherd DM harness
Buddy Up Harness

Different Types of Paralysis in Dogs

A dog’s paralysis is characterized by which limbs are affected and how many legs are paralyzed. Understanding the medical terms of your dog’s paralysis can be confusing. Here are a few common veterinary terms that are used to describe canine paralysis:

  • Tetraplegia – occurs when a pet is unable to move any of their legs. A dog or cat with tetraplegia is paralyzed in all four limbs. Both tetraplegia and quadriplegia mean the same thing and both terms are used by veterinarians.
  • Paraplegia – is when two limbs are affected. In dogs, paraplegia most often impacts the hind leg function. A dog that is paraplegic can walk with their front feet while dragging their back legs behind them or using a dog wheelchair for hind leg support. 
  • Mono – means the paralysis is only occurring in one leg while the other three legs are still mobile.  
  • Hemi – One side of the dog’s body is paralyzed, but the remaining side is still mobile and functioning.

Caring for a paralyzed dog is an adjustment for everyone in your family, including your best friend. Luckily with the invention of the dog wheelchair, paralysis is no longer an end of life decision for pet parents. A paralyzed dog or cat can continue to lead an active life with the support of mobility cart. Even if a pet’s paralysis is temporary, using a wheelchair helps them get back on their feet and gives them the ability to play again!

Ataxia versus Paresis in Dogs

large dog wheelchair

According to Dr. Terry Fossum, DVM the terms ataxia and paresis are often confused. “Ataxia is a term used to describe a lack of coordination that is due to neurologic disease. Ataxia is often seen in dogs who have an intervertebral disc or tumor that is bulging into and putting pressure on the spinal cord.”

Other diseases associated with ataxia include:

  • Degenerative myelopathy (loss of spinal cord tissue)
  • Inflammation or infection of the spinal cord
  • Instability of the spine which puts pressure on the spinal cord, and narrowing of the spinal canal.
  • Vestibular disease associated with a middle or inner ear infection
  • Tumors in the ear or skull, or trauma to the ear may manifest as ataxia
  • Infections, such as canine distemper, may affect the brainstem and lead to ataxia.
  • Metronidazole, an antibiotic, has been associated with vestibular dysfunction and ataxia.

Dr. Fossum describes paresis as, “a partial loss of voluntary movement and may be typified by muscle flaccidity and poor to absent spinal reflexes or, depending on the site of the lesion, may be typified by normal or exaggerated muscle tone and spinal reflexes.”

Do Paralyzed Dogs Know They Are Disabled?

No, in many cases paralyzed dogs have no idea that they are disabled. They act just like any other “healthy” dog. Paralyzed dogs still have the desire to play, eat, and have fun. Dogs never give up, and a disabled dog is unaware that they are different from any other dog. Your paralyzed dog may require more time and attention, but overall they are the same dog they always were.

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