Scientific Study Shows That Dogs Play Crucial Role In Treating Returning Vets’ Spinal Injuries

Our military vets will be returning from the War in Afghanistan in record numbers. Many who survived will return with battle wounds and disabilities that will require some to use walkers, and others to be placed in leg braces or wheelchairs.

Dogs, which regularly play a crucial role assisting troops on the battlefield, are also helping vets adjust to post-war life upon their return home.

Military stats

Since the U.S. entered the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, approximately 2.5 million members of the armed services have been deployed. Of that number, about 670,000 have been designated with disability status, while 100,000 additional service people are awaiting the processing of their claims.

Contribution by canines

Dogs have a long history of working with the military on and off the battlefield. “Nowzad Dogs,” for instance, is an initiative that allows for dogs befriended in Afghanistan to be reunited with their keepers after the soldier’s tour of duty is up.

The “Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act,” which is awaiting a vote by Congress, will actually provide lifetime veterinary care for retired military dogs, at no cost to the taxpayer.

In a GlobalAnimal report, Duke University student Anthony Russo re-emphasized the need for Congress to act on this particular bill: “If we are bold enough to integrate canines into the military, shouldn’t we also be compassionate enough to reward these valiant heroes by affording them the same love and care that we do our own pets?”

Dogs assist with PTSD

The greatest strides in the contributions of dogs that help the military comes in the field of medicine. Mary Cortani, who was named one of this year’s Top 10 CNN Heroes, heads up the non-profit “Operation Freedom Paws,” which assists veterans to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The initiative is based on a program run by Cortani which helps veterans train their own service dogs in northern California. The program matches veterans with dogs from shelters or rescue groups. “Service dogs are but one tool, but they’re a very important tool, in the healing process for our veterans,” Cortani says.

Dogs assist with breakthrough research

Similarly, a groundbreaking research study funded by the Department of Defense (DOD) at Texas A&M focuses on aiding veterans with serious spinal cord injuries. Using paralyzed pooches as test subjects, the scientists are experimenting with a drug that blocks enzymes known to affect injuries to spinal cords.

“Spinal cord injuries can occur at any level of the spinal cord, and the level of the injury will dictate which bodily functions are altered or lost,” according to the Paralyzed Veterans of America’s website.

“Damage to the spinal cord can cause changes in movement, feeling, bladder control, or other bodily functions. How many changes there are depends on where the spinal cord was injured and how severely the spinal cord was injured.”

Glendon Bentley, executive director of the Lone Star chapter of Paralyzed Veterans of America, praises the new study. “If this works and actually rejuvenates some of the spinal cord nerve endings, it could alleviate some of that pain and possibly allow [injured veterans] to (transition) from a wheelchair to a walker or leg braces,” Bentley said.

“One of the big obstacles in the past has been a lot of the research has used rodents and experimental animals,” said Jonathan Levine, an associate professor of neurology and neurosurgery. By using dogs, his belief is this type of an approach will lead to improved results.

“Hopefully what that is going to lead to is better mobility, better ability to empty the bladder, and that is going to be beneficial of course to dogs and hopefully that can be scaled up to humans as well,” Levine noted.

A spinal cord injury is the second most costly injury according to the team at Texas A&M. A person who has sustained one at 25 years old may rack up anywhere from $729,000 to $3.2 million in expenses over the course of their lives.

Levine and his researchers received a $900,000 grant from the DOD to develop non-invasive therapies for these spinal cord cases by seeing if the work accomplished with dogs can easily translate to humans.

This isn’t the only research that’s used dogs as guinea pigs in an effort to help humans. British scientists reported in November 2012 that they were able to help dogs with spinal injuries to regain their ability to use their limbs by injecting the injured areas with cells taken from the linings of their noses. The cells helped produce more nerve cells, scientists at Cambridge University reported.

Intermediate and follow-up remedies

For those who await medical breakthroughs to assist with their individual cases, ankle braces and supports can alleviate some of the pain. They also aiding in the transition from wheelchairs. According to, wearing these types of devices may help ease the pressure that causes the pain with injuries to the back and spinal cord.

Neck braces and cervical collars are ideal for helping to heal head and neck injuries by immobilizing the area after an injury has occurred.

In all cases, however, any injury to one’s spinal cord should be evaluated and treated properly by professional physicians to ensure there isn’t any long-term damage that might require additional medication, hospitalization, or ongoing rehabilitation. In the meantime, man’s best friend will once again rise to the occasion and become the gold standard to assist with mediating spinal cord injuries for our military service people in the future.