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Dog Marketplace Exclusive: Move It or Lose It

By Eve Adamson

Big dogs with hip dysplasia, little dogs with arthritic knees, long-backed dogs with disc ruptures, dogs recovering from surgery, dogs with degenerative myelopathy, dogs that lost limbs or suffered paralysis due to accidents, and dogs with orthopedic problems their owners just can’t afford to fix with expensive surgeries—every one of these dogs could benefit from mobility aids, a relatively new category that has only recently begun to grow as the dog population ages.

Ramps assist not only senior dogs but small dogs and dogs with mobility issues too. Courtesy of Solvit Pet Products.
“I’m still surprised how many people have never heard of a dog wheelchair,” said Mark C. Robinson, president and founder of in Amherst, N.H., a retailer and manufacturer of pet-mobility aids. “There is a huge change in the attitude now surrounding disabled dogs. Before, disability was a catastrophe, typically indicating the end of a dogs’ life. Today, people are realizing that it’s now really just an inconvenience, and that’s the attitude fueling the growth in this category.”

Mobility aids include dog wheelchairs or rear-end carts; leashes that hold up or support a pet’s back end, front end or both; ramps and steps to help dogs get in and out of vehicles, swimming pools or boats; and ramps and steps for inside the house to help dogs get on and off furniture.

Wheelchairs and rear-end carts have been around for awhile, especially in the Dachshund community, since this breed is prone to paralysis due to spinal disc rupture. In the past, Robinson said, wheelchairs required multiple precise measurements and had to be custom-made.

“What I’ve heard from retailers is that it’s impossible to sell these carts retail,” he added. “Someone walks in and wants one, and they have to have expert staff to measure. Then they order and the product doesn’t come for another week or two. If anything doesn’t work, they bring it back and the store is stuck with it.”

An innovation in this category solves the problem: fully adjustable wheelchairs that a dog owner can assemble without tools and that can fit dogs from 20 to 250 pounds.

“The customer can adjust the wheelchair as the dog moves, grows or changes in its health needs,” Robinson said. “When the dog no longer needs it, they can resell it at almost full value or donate it to a shelter because it can fit any dog.”

That’s a valuable innovation for people like Dr. James St. Clair, DVM, who owns Meriden, Conn.-based Top Dog Health, a canine rehabilitation and fitness facility with a retail store.

“As soon as I saw this adjustable wheelchair, I bought one because I can use it in my therapy practice,” Dr. St. Clair said. “One week I needed it for a basset hound. The next week I could use it for a German shepherd.”

Kay Harper, owner of Senior Pet Care Products, an online retailer in Winfield, Kan., appreciates custom-designed wheelchairs at a lower price point.

To help retailers enlighten consumers and sell products without taking up valuable floor space, many mobility aid manufacturers offer DVDs that demonstrate how ramps, stairs, leashes and wheelchairs work. Indoor ramps or stairs also make good displays.

“When I was researching which wheelchairs to carry, I found everything so expensive,” Harper said. “But then I found an innovative cart made out of PVC. It’s sturdy and cheap, so more people can afford it. I use it and people always ask me where they can get one.”

For some dogs whose back and front legs are weak or paralyzed, strollers are a better solution, Harper said. She researched many strollers before choosing a versatile model that holds dogs up to 70 pounds and has a large, easy-entry opening.

Strollers are also excellent for dogs rehabilitating from surgery that need fresh air and psychological stimulation even before they can move on their own, said Dan Hawk, director of sales for Pet Gear Inc. in Rutland, Vt.

“Strollers are also good for dogs that can walk a little but not as far as you want to walk,” he said. “You can take them with you on a walk or even a run if you use a pet jogging stroller, and it’s not just for seniors. Small dogs or older dogs that just can’t keep up can all benefit from riding in a stroller.”

For dogs on the go, ramps that help them get in and out of cars can make traveling easier.

“The dog-owner demographic and the dog demographic have both shifted,” said Wayne Whitney, sales manager for PetSTEP International Inc. in Lake Bluff, Ill. “You’ve got aging dogs with aging owners who have mobility issues of their own, so an innovation in vehicle ramps is to make them lighter, more compact and easier to maneuver and store. Lighter, smaller ramps also work better for smaller dogs, which more people have now than ever before.”

Unwieldy ramps have been redesigned for better portability, with fold-up or roll-up features, built-in handles, or carrying cases. Manufacturers also continue to work on improving grip on ramp surfaces.

Another innovation keeps ramps from slipping out of cars that dogs must enter from the side, such as station wagons or sedans.

“Not everybody has an SUV,” said Cathy Trauernicht, owner of Ramp4Paws in Potomac, Md. “And when you have a four-door car, if you need to use a ramp, the rear door doesn’t open wide enough to accommodate one. You have to angle the ramp and then it becomes unstable because it doesn’t rest entirely on the back seat. A new innovative strap attaches to the door frame when it’s open and wraps around the end of a ramp to keep it from slipping.”

Dogs may also have a problem getting out of a swimming pool after a dip to cool off, and some dogs, cats or other animals may fall into a swimming pool and be unable to get out. Larger breeds that enjoy swimming, such as Labrador retrievers, often have mobility issues, so ramps that help them get out of the pool can allow older, water-loving pets to keep swimming safely, according to Gina Waddell, director of operations for Scamper Ramp in Mount Pleasant, S.C.

Indoor ramps and pet steps in varying heights continue to evolve with lighter weights, collapsible styles for easy storage or travel, and more attractive designs that complement any décor. Innovations for smaller pets include deeper steps so small pets can get all the way onto the step and shorter risers to reduce impact. Neutral indoor colors or interchangeable covers also keep stairs and ramps looking current.

Debbie Runge, president of PetStairz in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., said retailers can sell more indoor stairs and ramps by talking to their customers about the importance of mobility as well as prevention.

“If you wait for your pets to get too old, when they’ve already eroded their joints, it’s too late to prevent anything,” she said. “Train them to use ramps or stairs at an early age and they may never know joint pain. Stairs and ramps are low-impact, preventive joint maintenance appropriate even for puppies and kittens.”

For dogs that can get around but need just a little help, or those in wheelchairs who need something less complicated for quick trips outside, leashes that support the rear end can make walks and rehabilitation exercises less stressful.

“I tell retailers this isn’t a specialty item anymore,” said Arnie Costell, president of Watson’s Senior Pet Supply in Santa Monica, Calif. “Three out of five dogs suffer from rear-leg problems, and almost everybody knows somebody with a dog that could benefit from it. The market is only getting bigger as we keep dogs alive longer, and I’ve found that when people find out a product like this actually exists, they become desperate to get it.”

To help retailers enlighten consumers and sell products without taking up valuable floor space, many mobility aid manufacturers offer DVDs that demonstrate how ramps, stairs, leashes and wheelchairs work. Indoor ramps or stairs also make good displays.

“Carry a small one, put stuffed animals on it to show what it’s for, and then provide literature showing other sizes and styles,” Runge suggested. “When a customer orders, it can be drop-shipped to the home or store.”

According to Whitney, many customers have no idea the mobility-aids category even exists.

“It’s a mixed blessing,” he said. “It’s not going to be your bread-and-butter category, but because consumers have zero awareness, there is a big impact when they see a mobility-aid product and realize how useful it could be.” <HOME>

Eve Adamson is an award-winning writer and a New York Times best-selling author with more than 12 years of experience writing about the pet industry. She has written or co-authored more than 50 books, including the forthcoming “Pets Gone Green” (BowTie Press, 2009)

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Dog Marketplace Exclusive: Move It or Lose It

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Reader Comments
With all the pet ramps/stairs mentioned you should also add Otto Step to your list of travel aides for dogs. Otto Step is the lightest weight and easiest to use and store for the traveling dog owner. At only 5.5lbs, this step holds over 200lbs and fits easily behind the drivers seat or in the back with the dog while traveling. What is needed is a trailer hitch receiver however; if traveling with a med to large breed dog most people are utilizing some sort of SUV or van and most have a trailer hitch receiver installed. Visit and see for yourself!
Debra, Albany, OR
Posted: 2/24/2010 10:00:30 AM
We found Mark Robinson's product to lack basic engineering - the cart will not stand up to constant use, and it doesn't adjust to fit all dogs. If a dog is less than 8 " wide, it doesn't get any smaller. The wheels eventually do walk, one ahead of the other, because of the shoddy engineering. And the consensus among my clientele who've ordered them is that they are flimsy and not worth the money they paid for them.
Leslie, Shelburne Falls, MA
Posted: 8/17/2009 2:33:26 PM
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