Caring for disabled pets: balancing medicine and compassion

February 27, 2021
Caitlin McCafferty, Assistant Editor

The equipment and resources available today for disabled pets ensures that they can enjoy an excellent quality of life, but the veterinarian plays an integral role in ensuring a successful outcome.

Pets with disabilities are nothing new in veterinary medicine. In fact, they are often the face of veterinary educational programs, rescue groups, and other nonprofit organizations. Unfortunately, many pets that become disabled are euthanized, abandoned, or relinquished to shelters, sometimes due to a simple lack of education on how to best care for them. According to Melissa Shapiro, DVM, owner of Visiting Vet Service in Westport, Connecticut, and the driving force behind the social media phenomenon @pinkpigletpuppy featuring her deaf and blind dachshund-Chihuahua mix, disabled pets today can enjoy a good quality of life thanks to the evolution of pet wheelchairs and carts, advancements in physical and alternative therapies, and the power of social media.

Decades ago, many clients whose dogs became paralyzed because of conditions such as spinabifida, cerebellar hypoplasia, or congenital leg deformities opted for euthanasia, either because they believed their pet would have poor quality of life or they felt unprepared to care for a disabled animal. Recent years have witnessed a movement among pet owners to keep disabled dogs and provide them with wheelchairs and other necessary equipment to give them a second chance at life, Shapiro said during a lecture this week at the Fetch dvm360® virtual conference.

“The perception of paralyzed and mobility-challenged dogs has changed dramatically in the past 10 to 15 years,” Shapiro said, attributing the shift largely to improved networking capabilities through social media. Now rescuers can fundraise to help save, treat, accommodate, and find homes for dogs that need wheels to get around, and owners can connect with other owners of disabled dogs for support and care information.

This increased interest in providing wheels for disabled dogs means veterinarians have a new role in advising and guiding their owners on how to care for wheelchair dogs.

Canine wheelchairs 101

The canine wheelchair industry has grown exponentially in recent decades, and new lightweight materials and designs can now accommodate dogs with a wide range of needs. Front carts, for example, can assist dogs with front limb abnormalities, including congenital deformities, missing limbs, and amputation due to cancer or injury. Clients must learn how to train their dogs to use the front wheels until they become accustomed to them.

According to Shapiro, front-leg amputees or dogs with congenital leg deformities should be acclimated to carts at about 7 months of age. The sooner they can get adjusted, the better.

Rear carts are useful for dogs paralyzed from intervertebral disk disease, spinal injury, neoplasia, hind limb deformities, injuries, and weakness due to arthritis and spinal cord degeneration. Quad carts provide support for dogs with overall weakness, generalized arthritis, cerebellar hypoplasia, and other musculoskeletal conditions, as well as those recovering from cervical surgery. Additionally, carts can be customized to accommodate individual dog needs.

A balancing act

According to Shapiro, there’s an art to caring for disabled pets. “You’re balancing medicine with compassion,” she said. “Clients look to you for support and guidance as they navigate this new and stressful situation with their pets. Having compassion for the people who are taking care of these animals is a big part of the package.”


One of the veterinarian’s roles is to guide clients with the difficult and emotional decision of whether to keep a disabled pet. Shapiro’s advice? Educate them about what is available to care for disabled pets, discuss quality of life, and provide general care recommendations and a list of useful resources.

Caring for disabled pets also involves treating secondary problems. For example, dogs using rear wheelchairs are at increased risk for developing urinary tract infections, abrasions from rubbing, ulcers, sensitive skin, and more. To help avoid some of these issues, make sure the cart fits properly and advise clients to change the pet’s diapers regularly.

Depending on the severity of paralysis, you may need to teach clients how to express the bladder and bowels and treat pressure sores. Some patients may also benefit from physical therapy, acupuncture, laser therapy, or swim therapy in conjunction with medical treatment.

Finally, make sure you connect clients with other owners who have disabled pets through social media support groups. Having a like-minded network of people to talk to can provide them with the support they need to adjust to this new way of life.

The take-away

Caring for a disabled pet can be challenging, but the rewards are great. “These special pets can inspire their owners to face their own challenges, help children with special needs feel and be accepted by others, and promote empathy,” Shapiro said. “For veterinarians, caring for these pets presents a unique opportunity to be a part of something very special.”