by Karen Baragona
Buddha is a pug on the go. He gets five walks a day, romps with pals at the dog park, swims in the neighborhood pool. He was even in a wedding. When he’s not out gallivanting, Buddha mans the front door, yelling at the world, “Get off my lawn!” Buddha also happens to have spinal ataxia and can’t use his back legs.
Not long ago, such a disease might have been the end of the line for Buddha and others like him. For dogs with incapacitating injuries, deformities and diseases there were few options for maintaining a good quality of life. Euthanasia was commonly considered the most humane route. But today the outlook is far brighter for dogs with impaired movement. From carts to braces to prosthetic limbs, there’s a wide range of highly effective and surprisingly affordable assistive devices that restore or enhance mobility. These devices, when paired with spunky dogs and dedicated owners, can give dogs a second chance at first-rate lives.
Many conditions can hurt, weaken or immobilize a dog’s back legs, including severe arthritis, nerve damage, disk disease, or spinal injury. A cart can get dogs rolling again. Some carts on the market are custom-built for each dog, while others are adjustable across a wide range of heights and weights. Or if you’re handy, you can make one yourself with tutorials on YouTube.
Buddha’s original cart was a two-wheeler, but with limited core strength, he struggled to propel himself on just his front legs. Buddha needed four wheels, but his dad Stephen Smith groaned at the cost of a new rig. Necessity being the mother of invention, he headed out to Home Depot, old cart in hand, in search of “anything that looked like it could be front wheels.” He came home with a sack of parts, welded it all together, and after some trial and error, finally got a fit. Buddha saddled up and took eight steps. The next day he ventured a bit further. And over the coming weeks, there was progress, but Buddha remained reticent. Instead of being liberated by the cart, he seemed dragged down.
That all changed when Buddha met Saoirse (pronounced “Seersha”)—a lab-boxer mix whose name means “freedom” in Irish—who regained her freedom when she, too, started using a cart. Saoirse ruptured a disk while playing fetch, and within hours, her back legs were motionless. After a complicated surgery and agonizing weeks of crate rest, she was still paralyzed. She had to be carried everywhere. She seemed miserable. Her heartbroken mom, Maggie Slye, reluctantly began to consider euthanasia. “I felt like we were just keeping her alive, nothing more.” The alternatives were a second surgery with a low probability of success, or a cart. She opted to try an adjustable cart, purchased through Waggin’ Wheels (www.wagginwheels.com). The cart turned out to be a literal life saver. Before long, Saoirse was sprinting around the yard again.
One fateful day, Stephen spotted Maggie and Saoirse rolling through his Arlington neighborhood. Overwhelmed with relief to have found another dog like Buddha, he rushed over and introduced himself. They shared their stories and arranged a meet-up. The first time Buddha saw Saoirse, Stephen recalls, “He suddenly realized, ‘Hey, this isn’t a punishment device, this is a THING!’” Buddha took over 80 steps that day. He chased Saoirse. Saoirse let him catch her. They became fast friends. Wearing their wheels, they were not disabled dogs, they were just dogs being dogs.
It’s becoming more common for dogs to undergo knee surgery for torn cranial cruciate ligaments (CCL), a severe injury that, left untreated, can cause chronic pain and lameness. Far less common, though, are knee braces that can replace, prevent, or complement surgery. If the ligament is only partially torn, it may heal on its own with a couple months of rest. This rest, however, is a tall order for active dogs and their owners. According to Derrick Campana, a certified orthotist/prosthetist and owner of Animal Ortho Care (www.animalorthocare.com) in Chantilly, supporting and protecting the damaged knee with a brace gives it the best chance of repairing itself. If surgery is still necessary, the brace can be used post-operatively to ensure a complete recovery. In 50 percent of cases, the same ligament on the opposite leg will also rupture within a year. Applying a brace to this vulnerable limb can keep it strong and help dogs dodge a second operation.
While knee braces account for 90 percent of Campana’s business, prosthetics are his true calling. He’s one of only a handful of specialists worldwide who create artificial limbs for animals. Early in his career, Campana worked only with human patients. His eureka moment came when Charles, a dog with a congenital limb deformity, hobbled into his office. His owner hoped a human prosthesis could be adapted to get Charles up and around. With some clever jury-rigging, Campana managed to fit his first canine client with a partial prosthesis. With some further tinkering, off Charles strode into the sunset. It dawned on Campana that plenty more animals could benefit from prostheses—but no one was making them. “Light bulbs went off: I need to start a company right away.” That was ten years ago. Since then Campana has treated whole a menagerie—including a llama, a gazelle, and a crane—but most of his clients are dogs who lack the use of one or more limbs due to deformities or amputation.
Many of us have marveled at the nimbleness of “tripods”—dogs missing one leg, most often because of osteosarcoma (bone cancer). Indeed, dogs seem to do fine on three legs, but over time, the remaining joints can deteriorate from bearing the extra weight. If enough of a residual limb remains after surgery, a prosthesis may be an option. Why do we still see so many more tripods than dogs sporting bionic legs? It’s partly because so few people, even surgeons, know they exist. And those who do know may presume the cost is prohibitive, when in fact the average prosthesis runs roughly $850. Campana keeps costs down by making most of his products in house, adapting components used for humans and molding plastic parts by melting them first in a pizza oven. He has even partnered with 3D Systems to print 3D prosthetics.
Worth the effort
Despite all these technological advances, caring for a disabled pet isn’t all sunshine and roses. Dogs using assistive devices may still have to be carried at times, including up and down stairs. While some dogs are up and running with their new parts and carts right away, there may be a prolonged period of acclimation for others, and a few never accept them. Dogs who lack sensation in their legs can scrape and bruise them unknowingly, and may need protective accessories like special boots or “drag bags.” Some disabled dogs go through a period of anxiety and require medication. And there are emotional costs for dog parents as well. For example, some people still assume disabled dogs are suffering and should be put down, and aren’t shy about saying so. This is hurtful to owners and clashes with so much evidence to the contrary.
In spite of all this, these resilient dogs and their devoted owners do, with time, hit their stride. Stephen Smith attests, “In so many ways, not that much has changed. Buddha is head of the household, and always has been.” Maggie Slye agrees. “We’re diplomats for ‘You can have a dog like this.’” She hopes one day Saoirse, who adores people, can become a therapy dog at a children’s hospital. What a lesson she has for them—and for us all—about rolling with the punches. ND
Karen Baragona teaches dog training and trains shelter dogs in Arlington. She lives near Mount Vernon with one husband, one cat, two kids, two rabbits, and a rowdy rescue hound named Huckleberry.