Paraplegia in Dogs

27th Jul, 2020

Vesper on wheels (read more here)

Written by Dr Pranav Anjaria and Dr Varun Asediya, interns at College of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, Anand, Gujarat, India.

A dog’s ability to perform its daily activities, from walking and running to breathing and eliminating, depends on the ability of the brain, spine, nerves and muscles to function together.

This complex system involves nerves in the brain sending messages about the outer environment to the body and the body sending messages to the brain from the environment. These messages are transmitted through nerves in the spinal cord, which is embedded in the vertebral, or spinal, column. Together, the nerves in the brain and spinal cord make up the body’s central nervous system.

A trauma to any part of the nerve pathway can result in miscommunication and an inability to coordinate the body’s movements.

Symptoms and types of movement problems

  • Not able to move the rear legs
  • Walking with the front feet while dragging the rear legs
  • Possibly pain in the neck, spine or legs
  • Not able to urinate
  • Not able to control urination, dribbling urine
  • Not able to control defecation
  • Constipation

Movement problems of any kind are not only distressing for your dog, but you’ll probably also feel scared and worried. Try not to panic, but do take your dog to a veterinarian immediately. Most conditions have a much better outcome if treated swiftly.

Paralysis vs paresis and ataxia

Partial loss of voluntary motor function is called paresis (weakness), while complete loss is called plegia (paralysis). Dogs with paresis may be able to stand and walk, albeit with difficulty, or may be able to do so only if assisted (for example, they can move their legs but not walk unaided). Plegia is more severe and means the animal can’t move the affected area at all.

Paraplegia refers to both hind limbs being paralysed; monoplegia is when it’s only one limb, hemiplegia is when it’s the front and back limbs on the same side, and tetraplegia if it’s all limbs (in humans, this would be quadriplegia). Sometimes, only the tail is affected.

A dog that can move but does so in an uncoordinated way (for example, it staggers as if drunk) may have ataxia. This can occur on its own, such as in poisoning cases, and has to do with how the dog moves rather than if it can move. However, ataxia often does occur alongside paresis.


  • Injury to the spine: automobile accident, acts of violence
  • Canine degenerative myelopathy (DM)
  • Slipped discs in the back: intervertebral disc disease
  • Disco spondylitis – bacterial or viral infection in the bones of the spine (vertebrae)
  • Infection or inflammation in the spine
  • Canine Distemper
  • Meningomyelitis: viral or bacterial infection of the brain, resulting in miscommunication of nerves impulses
  • Polymyositis – infection or inflammation in the muscles
  • Polyneuritis – inflammation in nerves
  • Embolus – blocked blood flow to the spine
  • Aortic embolus – blocked blood flow to the rear legs
  • Tumours or cancer in the spine or brain
  • Tick paralysis resulting from tick bites
  • Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever
  • Botulism (bacterial toxins)
  • Myasthenia Gravis – severe muscle weakness
  • Fibrocartilaginous embolism – fluid from within an injured disc enters the arterial system and settles in the spinal cord, creating a permanent embolism, or blockage; it’s irreversible but non-progressive
  • Hypothyroidism (low thyroid level)
  • Malformation of the spine or vertebrae


Sometimes it’s pretty easy to identify why your dog is struggling, such as if they’ve been hit by a car. However, it often takes more investigation to pinpoint the cause. This may include:

  • History of dog’s health, onset of symptoms, and possible incidents that might have led to this condition, such as recent tick bites (even if you haven’t seen any – if you’ve been out walking in nature, you may have come across ticks), or injuries due to jumping or falling
  • Reflex tests
  • Dog’s ability to feel pain in all four legs; checking the head, spine, and legs for signs of pain and alertness to touch
  • Basic laboratory tests
  • Complete blood count
  • Biochemical profile
  • Urine analysis
  • X-ray images of dog’s spine may show evidence of an infection or malformation of the vertebrae, or a slipped disc that’s pressing against the spinal cord
  • Other conditions that can lead to disruption of the nerve pathways may be apparent on an x-ray, such as tumours, blockages, or inflamed nerves
  • Special x-ray called a myelogram. This process uses injection of a contrasting agent (dye) into the spinal column, followed by x-ray images
  • Computed Tomography (CT)
  • Magnetic Resonance Image (MRI) of your dog’s brain and spine


Fortunately, some dogs recover quickly, especially if the correct treatment is started quickly. However, damage to the nervous system can take some time to resolve and, in some cases, may never be repaired. These are all things you’ll need to take into account if your dog has developed some form of paralysis or movement disorder.

The course of treatment will depend on the cause. If the dog is unable to walk, urinate, or defecate on its own, it will most likely be admitted into hospital. From there, monitoring will be done daily to follow its recovery and progress. Your dog will receive symptomatic treatment, such as for pain, as well as intervention to resolve the cause of the problem.

Treatment may include some or all of the following:

  • Painkillers
  • Anti-inflammatory drugs will be used to reduce inflamed nerves
  • Bladder will be emptied several times per day by catheter
  • Physically adjusted throughout the day to make sure that it does not get sores from lying in one place for too long.
  • If the cause of the paralysis is infection or a slipped disc, the condition will be treated with either medicine, surgery or therapy
  • Tumour blockages of blood supply may be repaired surgically. Some paralysed dogs recover very quickly

Living and management

Once it’s time for your dog to be discharged from hospital, your veterinarian will help you to make a plan for caring for the dog at home. Now it’s up to you to care for them properly and follow the vet’s instructions carefully in order for your dog to recover completely.

  • Be prepared that, at first, your dog may resist care because of pain or fear, but firm and gentle care will help to diffuse the fearful reactions. If possible, ask a second person to help hold the dog while you’re administering care
  • Follow all of your veterinarian’s instructions carefully
  • If your veterinarian has prescribed medication, be sure to administer the full course, even after your dog appears to have fully recovered
  • In some cases, if the paralysis cannot be treated but your dog is otherwise healthy, your dog may be outfitted with a special wheelchair (cart) to help it get around. Most dogs with carts adjust well and continue to enjoy their lives
  • Needless to say, if your dog has been affected with a paralysing condition, it should be neutered or spayed so that it doesn’t risk being further injured by mating

Caring for a pet suffering from paralysis or paresis, no matter how minor, can seem daunting. It may even require you to learn new skills such as helping them empty their bladder or walking in a special harness. You might need to set up a special area in your home where they can safely recover, away from other animals, and change the way you usually do things. But if you do some research and follow your veterinarian’s advice, you’ll soon be a “pro” able to help your dog live their best life.