Spinal walking in dogs with paralysis is a crazy phenomenon that sounds more like the plot of a science-fiction movie than real science. If you’re not familiar with the term, spinal walking is the ability of an animal to walk when they have a permanent spinal cord injury. These pets use their reflexes to move, even though, their legs have stopped communicating with their brain.
In the past, only a small number of paraplegic dogs have developed the skill, so the concept wasn’t routinely discussed with pet owners. Today things are changing. We know the type spinal cord injury that responds best to learning how to spinal walk and methods to improve a dog’s chances.
The answers came from a group of veterinary researchers. Their goal was to uncover the common characteristics that made some dogs more likely to spinal walk than others. They found their evidence in the medical records of 81 paralyzed dogs.
Note: Please talk with your dog’s vet before starting any new procedure.
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What we know about spinal walking
The first thing we understand about spinal walking is the potential to master the skill is hardwired into the spinal cord. In fact, walking and movement in general are hardwired, instinctive behaviors.
Dogs who learn to spinal walk make their bodies move by using reflexes, muscle memory and help from the brainstem, even when they have no feeling or (Deep Pain Sensations) in their limbs.
“Spinal walking is a type of involuntary motor function that continues to work deep in the spine.”VeterinaryPartner.com
The best candidates are dogs that have an injury to their lower spine that’s due to a herniated disc or a traumatic accident like being hit by a car.
Another quality these dogs have in common, is their participation in at least one form of rehabilitation. This includes: physical therapy, water therapy and massage. Apparently extensive rehab treatments help their bodies remap a pathway to movement.
One final point you should know about spinal walking is the way it looks. Dogs swing their legs underneath their body to move. They walk with a jerk in each step rather than taking smooth steps. Spinal walkers are also better at moving in a straight line. They don’t take turns well and have trouble changing direction.
Researchers think this happens because their brain isn’t coordinating the message to walk. Instead dogs propel themselves with their front legs while the back legs move in support.
The University of Bologna Study
Dr. Antonella Gallucci from the University of Bologna in Italy headed a study in 2017 that led to a better understanding of spinal walking. Her group of researchers analyzed the medical records from a previous clinical trial of 81 dogs with irreversible lower spinal cord lesions.
All of the participants had hind end paralysis and no deep pain sensations. Several breeds were represented, but more than half were Dachshunds.
And a new common denominator found in the group, was that every dog had been enrolled in an “intensive physiotherapeutic” program.
After pouring over the data, the researchers determined that 48 of the dogs (59%) learned how to spinal walk. The average length of time was 75.5 days, although some of the dogs walked as early as 16 days while others took an entire year to become mobile.
They also learned that the younger dogs, 5 years old and younger, and the lighter weight dogs of about 17lbs had the best results.
Dr. Gallucci’s conclusion was: Dogs with irreversible thoracolumbar lesions undergoing intensive physical therapy can acquire spinal walking.
You can read more about this study on the National Institute of Health website: Acquisition of Involuntary Spinal Locomotion (Spinal Walking) in Dogs with Irreversible Thoracolumbar Spinal Cord Lesion
How Scooter learned to spinal walk
Several years ago, I was introduced to a puppy named Scooter who became paralyzed after a car hit him and severed his spine. His pet mom, Jennifer Garrison, saw his story on the local news and adopted him.
Jennifer made sure Scooter received ongoing care during his recovery. At one visit to the neurologist, Jennifer was told that Scooter had good reflexes and could kick his back legs. The veterinarian said the dog was the perfect candidate to learn how to spinal walk.
Jennifer said she read everything should could find about physical therapy for dogs. She built an at-home obstacle course for Scooter and worked with him everyday to keep his muscles strong.
The exercises paid off and slowly Scooter began to use his hind legs. Today he spinal walks wherever he wants to go. He’s even learned how to climb the steps up to his house.
Here’s a video of Scooter when he first learned to spinal walk
One more quick story
In 2014 veterinary researchers at Iowa State University took the concept of spinal walking and tried to improve upon it. They combined physical therapy with injections of Chondroitinase, a medication that dissolves scar tissue. Their goal was to see if the nerves in the spine could regenerate when scar tissue was eliminated. Sixty dogs were enrolled in the study.
While the benefits of Chondroitinase are are being examined in an advance study at Texas A&M, it was clear that all of the participants benefitted from physical therapy. Many of the dogs were shown successfully walking on underwater treadmills and regular treadmills.
The study was another example about the benefits of physical therapy.
Not every paralyzed dog will be able to spinal walk, but I think it’s fascinating to learn about the possibilities.
Click to read more on the subject: 9 Dog Physical Therapy Exercises To Do At-Home