bulldog in booties and a vest

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I love to write about my Vincent. Not only does my eight-year-old French Bulldog possess the irresistible looks, comic charm and characteristic moxie of his breed, he’s aging and disabled too. Which, I’ll advance at the risk of sounding a tad insensitive, makes him the perfect poster child for so many of veterinary medicine’s modern advances.

Over the years Vincent has taught me a lot about being a veterinarian. Mostly, that’s because I’ve had to live through the correction of his many congenital deformities, meanwhile ministering directly to his chronic dermatologic condition, bulldoggy respiratory problems, and general state of spinal decline. What can I say? Vincent’s vet troubles are enough to challenge a whole team of veterinarians (and they often do).

A Common Canine Condition

Despite the many categories of debilitation he might well represent, for the sake of this post, Vincent will serve as an epitome for just one discrete area of his life: his inability to walk like most dogs do. Like so many who suffer from spinal disease, generalized weakness, or simple old-age decline, he’s simply unable to get his legs to listen to what his brain is desperately trying to tell them.

This communication gap is shockingly common, especially among the geriatric and arthritic, and leads to a variety of signs dog people should be on the lookout for as their pets progress through life:

  • Difficulty rising, jumping and climbing stairs
  • Loss of muscle mass on the hind limbs (“skinny” legs)
  • Slipping on floors
  • Paws “knuckling” under while walking
  • Legs crossing while walking
  • “Shaky” limbs
  • Hopping with the rear limbs when running

Help Is on the Way

Whether you’ve only seen one of these signs or are well-acquainted with them all, you should consider yourself fortunate that you live in 2013. That’s because, as of the last five or 10 years or so, vet medicine has been rapidly ramping up its approach to any disease that keeps dogs off their paws for any length of time.

Which means everything from drugs and surgical procedures to supplements and even canine rehabilitative services. And that’s great. But even that’s not enough. Pet owners also need at-home tools to help keep their dogs on their paws.

With that in mind, consider the following seven tools designed for dogs who suffer from diseases and conditions that threaten to throw them off their game:

1. Dog booties. Traction is everything for dogs with primary neurologic or orthopedic issues. When dogs can’t get it, weakness, loss of coordination and diminished confidence in their daily walkabouts can conspire to exacerbate decline. Nonslip booties interrupt this downward spiral of disability by allowing them to gain purchase on surfaces and confidence in their musculoskeletal skills. A few examples include:

  • Pawz dog booties are like little rubber gloves. I’ve used these with great success on Vincent.
  • RuffWear booties: Some of these even have Vibram® soles for enhanced traction on all kinds of terrain.
  • Power Paws: These are like those no-slip socks people wear. Some dogs tolerate this comfortable, lightweight option better than the above two.

2. Toe Grips. Think of Toe Grips as another version of booties. These little plasticky rings fit snugly around your dog’s toenails and help him gain traction as he moves around slippery surfaces. This new product doesn’t work for all dogs, and the rings need to be carefully sized, but they’re receiving positive reviews so far within the canine rehab community.

3. Harnesses. I love harnesses. They help me hold onto Vincent more securely when he’s in my arms, they help me direct him as he’s trying to get moving, and they also serve to help me adjust him when his limbs are splayed uncomfortably akimbo and he can’t figure out how to reposition himself (poor thing!). Here are my favorites:

4. Beds. Everyone needs a comfortable bed but dogs with mobility issues need them even more than others do. A firm, low-profile orthopedically supportive sponge of a mattress is what’s typically best. Alternatively, cot styles will work (these elevated beds are best for those who either like to sit atop high things or chew everything else), as will many of the high-tech thermoregulating kinds.

5. Weight management tools. Excess poundage impedes mobility for obvious reasons. Moreover, it’s painfully disabling! So painful, in fact, that one study found that weight loss alone could significantly relieve the signs of lameness in dogs with hip osteoarthritis. And when you consider that over 50% of dogs and cats in the U.S. are overweight or obese, any tool that helps your dog lean down is a welcome thing when it comes to improving her function.

  • Life vests like RuffWear’s K-9 Float Coat will help him get the best kind of exercise there is for a dog with diminished limb function — swimming! — and stay cool, to boot!
  • Walking still works wonders. So why not try a treadmill? I’ve not yet tried them all out, so I’m far from recommending any one brand, but the DogTread’s version demonstrates the kind of functionality that’s out there.
  • Still need help getting the weight down? You can always try The Fat Dog Diet, the iPhone app I developed for this purpose.

6. Dog strollers. Disabled dogs need to get out too. Without some social interaction and healthy environmental stimulation, plenty of dogs will continue their decline. So while it may sound silly, getting your dog (even a big one!) into a stroller built just for him… really isn’t. Here are a couple of examples:

7. Canine carts (aka “doggy wheelchairs”). When your dog’s decline has reached the point where her hind limb function is insufficient to allow her to walk at all, it might be time to consider these devices:

  • The K9 Cart is the original “doggie wheelchair,” and it’s the one Vincent uses when we go on longer strolls. (I don’t bring it out often since I don’t want him to rely on it for regular use.)
  • K-9 Cart East offers different styles.
  • Walkin’ Wheels: Another brand I may try someday.

So whether your dog suffers from something mild-ish and temporary or progressive and permanent, consider these above approaches. But, as always, ask your veterinarian for her opinion too!