There is little more heartbreaking than seeing anyone who is sharp of mind ending up physically incapacitated. To be alert and willing in every way, yet unable to move about seems sadly unjust.
This is how we felt when my parent’s beloved German Shepherd, Polo, became prematurely lame in her hind quarters at the relatively young age of 7. At first she struggled to get about, but by the time she turned 8, she was unable to use her hind quarters to walk at all and literally dragged herself around using her fore-quarters. The vets diagnosed her with canine degenerative myelopathy for which there is no treatment.
A healthy, active, champion Polo in her younger days
Canine degenerative myelopathy, also known as chronic degenerative radiculomyelopathy, is an incurable, progressive disease of the canine spinal cord that is similar in many ways to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Onset is typically after the age of 7 years and it is seen most frequently in the German Shepherd dog… Progressive weakness and incoordination of the rear limbs are often the first signs seen in affected dogs, with progression over time to complete paralysis. Myelin is an insulating sheath around neurons in the spinal cord. One proposed cause of degenerative myelopathy is that the immune system attacks this sheath, breaking it down. This results in a loss of communication between nerves in lower body of the animal and the brain. Degenerative myelopathy is an irreversible, progressive disease that cannot currently be cured. There are no treatments that have clearly shown to stop or slow progression of DM. Fortunately the disease of degenerative myelopathy in itself is painless. (Wikipedia.com)
Mobility is an important part of a dog’s quality of life. It’s not just being able to go for walks or sniff around the garden or chase off those annoying pigeons; it is also about being able to go and do her business or have a drink of water.
At the moment Polo doesn’t seem to be stressed at all. She lies on the lawn in the sun and is able to manoeuvre herself into the shade when she gets too warm and even will haul herself over to the gate across grass and concrete to bark at other dogs or passers-by that she particularly dislikes. When she wants to go inside the house, she moves to the edge of the lawn closest to the back door and my mom or dad will use her hind harness to assist her to come inside and lie on her bed.
Looking into Polo’s sharp brown eyes and seeing her tenacious attitude and the intelligence shining through, it is impossible to think of putting her down as some suggested. The dilemma of putting down an animal that is healthy and happy in every way despite her disability seems so wasteful and pointless. Yet at the same time my parents had to consider what would be best for Polo. Were they being selfish? Was she unnecessarily frustrated? To what degree were they attributing their feelings to her?
In 2001, Mark C. Robinson founded HandicappedPets.com. Inspired by the death of his pet Mercedes, a Keeshond who suffered from epilepsy and thus ‘had’ to be put to sleep, Mark decided there must be other options. Support and information was needed for owners of elderly, injured and handicapped pets. He created a site in memory of Mercedes that provides products, services as well as information.
One of the incredible products is the amazingly light and clever contraption made by Walkin’ Wheels, whose stated mission is: “To provide an alternative to ending a pet’s life so that elderly, handicapped, and injured pets can continue to lead happy, healthy, high-quality lives.”
Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation was created by Jason Parker when his beautiful black lab was hit by a car damaging two vertebrae and changing their lives forever. The support and financial assistance he received for the operations and the Walkin’ Wheels was more than he could pay back and so his foundation aims to “pay it forward” by assisting owners in providing mobility options to their pets. Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation offers a loan programme and the carts can be used for the duration they are needed, then returned to Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation to be refurbished and matched with the next pet in need.
Polo still has a good appetite and plenty of interest in life. So when Kim offered the Walkin’ Wheels that had been used by her dog Jamu before he recently passed on, to be used for Polo, we were hopeful and excited to see if this could work for her too.
The walkin’ wheels contraption is incredibly light and easy to put together. It consists of a harness that fits over the dog’s head and is strapped around the chest and behind the front legs. The aluminium side struts clip into this harness and are completely adjustable for the height and length of the dog. The unit provides padded foot-straps so that her hind paws don’t drag on the ground behind her.
It’s heartening to see how excited Polo gets when she realises she is going to be taken for a walk. She is rudely impatient, emitting irritated barks, wondering what takes us so long to get her ready to go!
Her first outing was a huge success. We were careful not to let her push herself too far and we had some interesting adventures as she learnt to ramp pavements and pull herself up onto verges. At first she would get her wheels stuck if she passed too close to say a street lamp or rockery, but before long she was able to reverse and judge her new width like a boss.
We learnt that using a normal leash means that you are likely to get run over, as her instinct with my Dad was to heel! The longer line shown in the pictures below works far better. We had to be careful to stop Polo from going too crazy though. If one wheel ramps up onto higher or uneven ground, she can go for a tumble!
Polo putting Jan and Geoff through their paces. It’s incredible how fast she moves! 🐾🐾
“Back in charge of the neighbourhood. Things have been getting out of hand while I haven’t been around!”
Little can fill your heart with more joy, than seeing a proud and relatively young dog regain her rightful and regal status. To sniff the warm earth, breathe the fresh air and run like the wind once again, like she used to do. We feel so grateful to the people that have helped us to get Polo back on her feet. Thank you Kim and Jamu, the Gunnar’s Wheels Foundation, Walkin’ Wheels and to all the wonderful people that do so much special work at HandicappedPets.com❤️