Have you heard the term “spinal walking or “spinal reflex walking”? The phenomenon happens to a small number of dogs (and cats) that are paralyzed after a spinal cord injury. These animals are able to use their reflexes to move even though their limbs no longer communicate with their brain.
Circumstances that promote spinal walking
The miracle of spinal walking isn’t fully understood, but researchers believe it happens in dogs who become paralyzed in their lower spine due to a herniated disc or an injury, like being hit by a car. These dogs don’t have feelings or (deep pain sensations) in their legs, but they’re able to walk by using their reflexes. Apparently walking is hardwired into the spinal cord. The theory is they’re moving by way of instinct and muscle memory.
These canines have typically gone through some form of rehab such as physical therapy, massage or water therapy. And their bodies have learned to remap the pathway of movement to their limbs. It’s a type of involuntary motor function that continues to work deep in the spine, even though the dog has lost communication between the spine and brain.
Dogs that master spinal walking swing their legs underneath their body and walk with a type of jerky step rather than smooth steps. They’re also better at walking in a straight line and have difficulty changing direction. That’s because their brain isn’t coordinating the message. They propel themselves with their front legs while the back legs move in support.
Iowa State University study
Several years ago research veterinarians at Iowa State University took the concept of spinal walking and tried to improve upon it. Their treatment combined physical therapy and spinal injections of a medication called Chondroitinase. The goal was to regenerate nerves in the spine and restore communication between a dog’s brain and their limbs. Chondroitinase helps the body dissolve the scar tissue which forms after a spinal injury, promoting the recovery of nerve function.
A total of 60 dogs were enrolled in the study. Half received the Chondroitinase while the other half received a placebo. All of the dogs received ongoing physical therapy.
Researchers saw some improvement in participants who received both the medication and therapy. An advanced version of the study is being continued at Texas A&M.
Here’s a video of a puppy named Scooter spinal walking
Jennifer Garrison and her family adopted Scooter after seeing him on the local news. He’d been hit by a car and left with a severed spine.
Scooter’s veterinary neurologist noticed the dog had good reflexes and could kick his back legs. He told Jennifer this was the perfect set of circumstances for Scooter to learn spinal walking. Jennifer read everything should could about canine rehab. She worked daily with Scooter to keep his muscles strong. She even built an obstacle course for him.
The exercises paid off and slowly Scooter began to use his hind legs.
Read Scooter’s full story: Puppy Hit By A Car Gets Around With Spinal Walking.