Pet Connection by Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

Pet Prosthetics

Artificial limbs and other assistive devices can make a difference in pet mobility and quality of life

By Kim Campbell Thornton

Andrews McMeel Syndication

One of the patients who sticks in Dr. Denis Marcellin-Little’s memory is a golden retriever who was able to hike 6 miles a day after being fitted with a prosthetic device. His owner was an athletic trainer, skilled in wrapping and taping athletes. That came in handy during his dog’s adaptation to the new limb.

“He improved on the process, improved on the device in that dog,” says Dr. Marcellin-Little, a veterinary surgical specialist and professor at the University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Prosthetics are more than artificial limbs. They also include orthotics -- custom braces for knees, hips and ankles -- and wraps and other supportive devices. They can return mobility to pets who have suffered paralyzing injuries and improve gait for animals facing amputation or an orthopedic problem that inhibits movement, such as cranial cruciate injury.

Pet prostheses have been available for more than 15 years, but they are still challenging to create and fit. The latest advances include greater availability of 3-D printing and improvements in software for scanning and modeling. But just because you have a 3-D printer at home doesn’t mean you can simply print out a new limb for your pet who had a leg amputated after being hit by a car.

Not every animal is a good candidate for a prosthetic device, and not every veterinarian is knowledgeable about the mechanical, logistical and biological considerations involved in fitting pets for one. If your pet needs help getting around or is facing amputation because of an injury or cancer, and you are interested in a prosthetic device for him, here’s what you should know before moving ahead.

-- Plan ahead. Ideally, an animal will need two articulating joints remaining for a prosthetic therapy to be successful. There’s nothing for the device to attach to if a pet has had a full amputation.

“Talk to your orthopedic surgeon to determine if it is an option,” says Jim Nelson, co-founder of Tripawds, an online community for people with three-legged pets.

-- Medical factors. Considerations include whether the pet has pain, the kind of pain, the health of the tissue, whether there’s scar tissue, and whether skin is thin, loose or infected, to name just a few.

-- Coordination is key. A partial amputation with the goal of fitting a prosthetic device is a complicated procedure and involves a number of people: owner, general practitioner, surgeon, device manufacturer and rehab practitioner. The process typically involves an initial consultation, patient assessment, measurements, design and manufacture, the surgery itself and physical rehab for six weeks or more. Surgery must be coordinated with the maker of the device. Devices may need to be sent back and forth by mail until the fit is perfect. It helps to have a knowledgeable person keeping track of all the steps.

-- Go the distance. Because pet prosthetics are still in the early stages of development, little is taught about them in veterinary school. You may need to travel to find a veterinarian who is experienced in placing them.

-- Understand the full commitment. Fitting a pet with a prosthetic device takes time, money and a good rehab team.

“We’ve seen some dogs who are not getting the therapy they need, and they’re just kind of swinging a prosthetic around,” says Tripawds co-founder Rene Agredano. “Odds are, that device is going to end up sitting in a closet eventually, because the animal just doesn’t adapt.”

When everything goes right, a prosthesis can make a visible difference in a pet’s mobility and quality of life.

“Their joints are better, their backs are better, their muscles are better,” Agredano says.

Q&A

What shots do

outdoor cats need?

Q: I live on a ranch and have been acquired by a pair of outdoor cats. I know that they were vaccinated a year ago. I’ve never had cats before, and I want to know if they need a yearly booster. One cat is 14 years old and the other is 2 years old, and they don’t like being handled or in a carrier. I want them to feel safe here, so I’m reluctant to stress them by taking them for a long car ride to the veterinarian for shots if it isn’t necessary.

A: Vaccinations are important for good health, but in most instances, annual vaccinations are a thing of the past. When it comes to frequency of vaccination, factors to consider in consultation with your veterinarian are lifestyle and environment, the cats’ age and health, and the prevalence of infectious disease in your area.

Because your cats live outdoors and may come in contact with wild animals that carry the rabies virus, such as skunks or bats, rabies is a concern. A rabies vaccination is good for three years and protects your cats in the event of exposure to a rabid animal.

Other diseases include panleukopenia (feline distemper), feline calicivirus and feline herpesvirus-1. The American Association of Feline Practitioners recommends vaccinating for these diseases every three years. The AAFP recommends the feline leukemia vaccine for cats who go outdoors and are thus at risk of encountering infected cats.

You are correct that a car ride for cats who aren’t used to it can be overly stressful. If possible, try to find a Fear Free-certified veterinarian who makes house (or ranch) calls to come and examine your cats and give rabies or feline leukemia vaccines if their records don’t indicate protection from these diseases. -- Dr. Marty Becker

Do you have a pet question? Send it to askpetconnection@gmail.com or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.

THE BUZZ

Airlift saves at-risk

kittens, Chihuahua

-- More than 100 kittens -- and one Chihuahua -- were airlifted to Portland, Oregon, to help make room in crowded Los Angeles-area and Palm Springs shelters. A combination of cats taken in from a hoarding situation and animals displaced by wildfires had the Southern California shelters filled to capacity, but Oregon Humane Society, Wings of Rescue and TV's “cat daddy” Jackson Galaxy teamed up to take the animals, helping to relieve the California crowding and give the animals a better chance at finding homes.

-- Veterinarians in the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, are seeing large numbers of dogs with an unknown disease that resembles whooping cough. The cause hasn’t yet been determined, and area veterinarians are advising against taking dogs to parks, boarding facilities and other areas where dogs congregate to help prevent further spread of what appears to be a highly contagious disease. The cough lasts up to three weeks. Other symptoms include sneezing, low-grade fevers and lethargy. Dogs who show these signs should be seen by a veterinarian. Advise veterinarians of these signs before bringing a dog into the clinic so they can take steps to protect other animals.

-- If you’re looking for a smart, alert, bold, sturdy dog who’s not too big, not too small, the Norwegian buhund is one to consider. The furry spitz dogs are good at many different dog sports, including rally, obedience, herding and barnhunt, and will sound the alarm if intruders venture onto your property. The all-weather dogs have a double coat that stands up to rain and snow and can be light-colored, black or gray. The buhund is 17 to 18 inches tall at the shoulder and weighs 26 to 40 pounds. Cheerful and active, they need plenty of exercise and do best with athletic owners who will enjoy doing things with them. -- Dr. Marty Becker, Kim Campbell Thornton and Mikkel Becker

ABOUT PET CONNECTION

Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.