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High-Tech Prosthetics Are Changing Pets' Lives

dog in surgery

Story at-a-glance -

  • Veterinarians are gaining increasing access to prosthetics (artificial limbs) and orthotics (support devices) for pets
  • High-tech materials like carbon fiber, which is strong and flexible, are now being used to create more natural movement
  • Aside from artificial limbs, animals have received artificial beaks, tails, fins, and more

By Dr. Becker

If a dog severely injures his leg, standard veterinary practice is to amputate the limb. The traditional thinking is that a dog can get by with three legs instead of four, which is typically true, but he probably will not be able to run freely the way he used to.

There’s also a risk of arthritis for dogs (and other animals) forced to adapt to life without a limb, and they may suffer a shorter lifespan as well. Until recently, amputation has been the only option, and one that was certainly preferable to the alternative (of putting an animal down).

Today, however, veterinarians are gaining increasing access to artificial limbs for pets, and they’re changing the game when it comes to animal limb injuries.

High-Tech Prosthetics for Pets

Bill Bickley, a licensed and experienced orthotist and prosthetist for humans founded Pet Artificial Limbs and Supports (PALS) in Houston, Texas. It’s one of a small but growing number of companies creating animal orthotics (supportive devices) and prosthetics (artificial limbs).

Bickley collaborated with Hans DeBot, founder of deBotech, a company that uses carbon fiber to build aircraft, Olympic bobsleds, and more. The material is unique in that it’s strong and flexible, which provides the perfect combination for animal prosthetics. As reported by Newsweek:1

“The two collaborated on the project, testing prototypes until they hit an idea: different ‘spring rates’ based on the size of the dog for the carbon fiber blades that act as the dog’s legs.

Eventually, they also fine-tuned a back leg with progressive stiffness, DeBot says, going from less flexible up top to more pliant near the bottom. Bickley then created a ‘foot’ by injecting silicone gel into a cup pad at the bottom of the leg to provide the dog with a softer landing.”

The cost of an average prosthetic dog leg is about $1,500. Maintenance costs to replace chewed straps runs about $100 a year. To date, PALS has worked with surgical centers, zoos (including providing a knee brace for a flamingo), and veterinary teaching hospitals.

Dr. Brian Beale, a surgeon at Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists in Houston, told Newsweek:2

“He has made a huge difference in the services we provide … The carbon fiber provides more flexibility and probably feels more natural to the dog, so they can really run on these things.”

There are other makers in the market as well, like OrthoPets. OrthoPets creates prosthetics by taking a fiberglass impression of the limb, scanning it, and creating a 3-D model that is then created out of foam and vacuum-sealed with plastic.

OrthoPets founders Martin and Amy Kaufmann have written a textbook on animal orthotics and prosthetics that is due out in 2016. They hope the book will help change the standard protocol taught in veterinary schools and raise awareness about animal prosthetics.

Bionic Animals: How Technology Is Saving Lives

If your dog or cat has a crippling birth defect or injury, it’s now possible to use prosthetics or orthotics to give him back his quality of life. Nakio was the first dog to receive four artificial limbs after his owners left him behind in a foreclosed home.

His paws and tail were frozen into a puddle in the basement, and he lost all four paws as a result. After being adopted by a veterinary assistant, Nakio received four prosthetics from OrthoPets, including a “no-slip grip” that allows him to run and jump even on slick surfaces.3

There’s also Oscar the cat, who lost his back paws in a farm accident. Dr. Noel Fitzpatrick, a neuro-orthopedic surgeon, worked together with biomedical engineers to develop prosthetic implants that mimic a cat’s natural walk.4

Motala, an elephant in Thailand, also received a prosthetic leg after hers was injured in a land-mine explosion, as did Meadow, a calf who lost her hind legs due to frostbite. Other animals that have benefited from prosthetics include a tortoise, a pig, a dolphin, and storks.5

There’s even a bald eagle named Beauty that received a prosthetic beak, and a green sea turtle named Allison that received a prosthetic fin.6 As reported by Mother Nature Network:7

“Her handlers think it's likely that she lost her other three flippers to a shark. Her prosthetic fin acts like a rudder and keeps her stable. The turtle has learned how to flap her one good flipper in unique ways to change direction.

She enjoys her ‘ninja suit’ so much that her handlers say she tries to swim away any time they approach her to remove it.”

As the technology advances even further, it’s certain that even more animals will be able to live out happier, fuller lives as a result.