Horses and Dogs Find a Friend at Equine Prosthetics

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By Miki Fairley

When Deborah Galt, a licensed veterinary technician, first saw Thor, it seemed likely the stately thoroughbred would have to be put down.

Thor, who was supposedly being cared for by a horse rescue group, had been standing in a bare lot in weather conditions ranging from scorching sunshine to torrential downpours for months, according to Erin Harty in the article "A New Leg Up on Life," www.vetcentric.com. When Galt was finally able to take him home, he was severely underweight, dehydrated, and so badly injured that he couldn't put any weight on his mangled right leg. The injury, probably caused by becoming tangled in wire or machinery, caused Thor to hold the leg suspended above ground.

But Thor wasn't ready to give up--and his cheerful "can-do" attitude convinced Galt not to give up on him.

After Thor underwent two unsuccessful attempts at providing him support for his deformity, Galt decided to try something else, and she talked to Roy Scudamore, CP, who has more than 25 years' experience in providing human O&P care. Scudamore, who worked at Old Dominion Prosthetics & Orthotics, Charlottesville, Virginia, and Ivan Letner Jr., CP, company president, worked together to provide Thor's first prosthesis. Letner donated both time and materials to fabricate the prosthesis.

The majority of the 16-hand, 1,200-lb. gelding's right hind leg is present, although nonfunctional from the fetlock down. "He had suffered trauma to his right leg that severed his deep and superficial flexor tendons and his lateral suspensory and broke his lateral splint bone," explains Roy. "The first attempt to correct this condition resulted in his P-3 breaking and his hoof capsule being shed. The second attempt at correcting his condition made him extremely lame, and it became very apparent that the only way to save him would be with a customized prosthesis."

Although his residual limb is not ideal, Thor now wears the same type device that the Paralympic athletes wear, Scudamore adds. He does the typical horsey activities: bucking, grazing, and playing. "He is a very gentle horse and a wonderful ambassador," says Roy. "He regularly travels to events such as the Adventure camp for amputee children, benefits for the Christopher Reeves Paralysis Foundation, and to a local Disability Awareness Day." Roy adds, "Through his example, these children can see that anything is possible!"

Thor's Success Inspires New Company

Successfully providing the brave horse with a prosthesis led Scudamore and Galt to found Equine Prosthetics Inc., recently relocated to Florida. "Thor is our signature horse," says Roy, who now works full time providing veterinary O&P care. Requests for help have come from all over the country and abroad.

Many small animals, such as cats and smaller dog breeds, don't need prostheses, since they adapt fairly easily to walking on three legs, and their light weight means that the "tripod" configuration doesn't put undue strain on their bodies, Scudamore explains in the VetCentric article. However, bigger animals, such as horses and larger dog breeds, have too much body mass to support themselves comfortably on three legs. If they are otherwise healthy, even-tempered, and in good spirits, these animals are good candidates for a prosthesis.

In some ways, the furry, four-legged patients are similar to humans. They have a "gadget tolerance," Roy explains. Some animals will learn to handle prostheses or orthoses right away, but most will need time to adjust to the devices and learn new methods of walking--just like people.

Thor: A Disability Ambassador

In Thor's case, a certain amount of trial and error was needed before arriving at a comfortable, effective prosthesis. In fact, the establishment of Equine Prosthetics Inc. was based on the almost complete absence of prosthetic care and know-how in veterinary medicine and the need for more knowledge and experience in this area, Scudamore comments. Thor's first comfortable prosthesis was fabricated using crude materials, but had the basics of what he ultimately needed. Thor's first professional prosthesis was a simple peg-leg that gave him a support and a chance for the leg to heal.

Educating Veterinary Professionals

The veterinary profession has never had much experience in treating animals with limb deformities, and in the past they were simply put to sleep instead, notes Galt. Now there is another option. In cases in where an animal has a limb that is no longer functional, it is best to amputate rather than try to save the limb, Scudamore believes. Saving the limb in these cases could risk further injury along with prolonged deterioration of health. Ideally, the surgery, performed by a veterinarian, will best prepare the limb for a prosthesis.

After surgery, the residual limb should be placed in a snug-fitting cast with a temporary (jig) prosthesis. This is done for three main reasons, Roy explains:

1. To keep the wound clean and free of debris;

2. To keep edema from settling into the surgical site, thus retaining maximum circulation which will promote healing by keeping oxygen-rich blood flowing to the internal wound site;

3. To retain mobility. Mobility keeps muscle function high, thus maintaining strength and agility; prevents contracture deformities; increases circulation to the limb and throughout the entire body; and helps maintain the animal's psychological health.

Educating O&P Professionals

Simply applying human techniques to animals does not necessarily work well for several reasons, Galt explains:

1. Fitting a limb or brace to an animal requires extra-special attention to detail, since the animal can't voice where it needs adjustment;

2. Another consideration concerning horses is that, because of their great size and flight instinct, they could very easily hurt those who are trying to help them;

3. Animal gait patterns are very different from humans, so traditional methods of management seldom work the same.

It takes years of experience to fit animals comfortably and correctly, so that the animal performs as expected, and the owner has a positive outlook on the whole experience, says Galt.

Educating Owners

Owners need to be aware of the care their animals will need. For example, Deb Galt removes Thor's prosthesis, brushes his leg, and examines it for any pressure sores that might be developing, notes the VetCentric article. She washes his leg and dries it with a hairdryer, since the prosthesis can't be replaced if the hair and skin are wet. She replaces his "stump sock" (a sock or nylon) with a clean one and reattaches the prosthesis. The entire process takes about 15 minutes daily. Once or twice a week she also gives his leg a whirlpool bath.

Once the care becomes a matter of routine, the patient expects it and usually quite cooperative, the article points out. To help the owner know how to take care of the patient at home, Scudamore also videotapes the animal being fitted and cared for.

Most animals adapt quite quickly, Scudamore says. One dog was standing on his new leg just five hours after surgery and was chasing squirrels nine days later, according to the article. A burro that hadn't walked in two and a half years was chasing a dog around the backyard within a month of receiving his prosthesis.

Some Other Typical Clients

Spirit
Spirit

Among Roy and Deb's other furry clients are Spirit, a golden retriever, who lost a hind paw, probably to a rat in the mass-breeding "puppy mill" in which he was born. He is doing much better now, since he has a $1,000 prosthetic paw.

Beauty Grace, a Doberman mix, was found in a drain ditch as a puppy. She was missing her right front leg distal to the carpus. Radiographs showed a congenital deformity with little or no ulna and carpus. She was fitted with a simple peg-leg to help her learn how to walk. If she continues to do well, Equine Prosthetics will improve the device to give her more mobility.

When Mickie came to Equine Prosthetics, he was a one-month-old appendix quarter horse colt born with windswept feet both front and hind. Although his hind legs and left front leg straightened out nicely, the right front leg didn't show much promise of improvement. The veterinarian was doubtful that corrective surgery would be successful for this type of deformity and decided to try something else instead. Equine Prosthetics made a custom orthosis to correct the valgus deformity. After wearing the brace for four-six hours daily for two-three months, his leg is now straight and his gait normal. Mickie is currently in training and competing successfully in shows.

Company Continues To Progress

Equine Prosthetics works to stay abreast of the frequent advances in prosthetic and orthotic care through continuing education, notes Scudamore. The company also is working to establish a database of veterinarians dedicated to the rehabilitation of animals and also is working with veterinarians to develop a line of orthotic devices. Says Scudamore, "By developing a variety of devices that will help postoperatively for many types of injuries, including fractures and soft-tissue injuries, we hope to offer options for animals that would otherwise have a poor prognosis."

For more information, contact Roy Scudamore,res@equineprosthetics.com