High-Tech Pet Prosthetics Give a Leg up to Man’s Best Friend

dog with prosthetic leg runs through snow

New technologies like 3D-printed prosthetics have helped disabled people around the world. Now, animal orthotics are improving the lives of disabled dogs – and the occasional elephant.

Derby, a husky mix, was born with a congenital birth defect that left his front limbs curled like tiny T-Rex arms, rendering him unable to walk or run like other dogs.

Hudson, a pit bull puppy, became an amputee at the tender age of three weeks, when an abuser nailed him to railroad tracks and left him for dead.

dog with prosthetic
Hudson the railroad puppy got a new lease on life.

While these stories wrench the heartstrings, fortunately, for these pups, they don’t end there. Thanks to some big-hearted people, new technologies and the pioneering field of animal orthotics these lucky dogs get a new “leash” on life.

“Technology can be a valuable tool in the veterinary prosthetic field,” said Derrick Campana, of Virginia-based Animal Ortho Care. He is one of about a half dozen orthotists around the world who design and create high-tech braces and prostheses for disabled animals.

goat with two prosthetic legs

“3D technology enables us to treat a broader range of patients. It also enables us to treat tiny patients we couldn’t accommodate before.”

By combining traditional methods with new technologies, Campana creates custom pieces that enhance the lives of pets, primarily dogs and cats, but also goats, llamas, deer and even the occasional elephant.

elephant with prosthetic leg
Fitting elephants with prosthetic legs in Thailand.

Campana is the guy who helped Derby and Hudson get back on their feet.

For example, Campana explained, if a dog in Australia needs a prosthesis, a vet can take an MRI and send it to Animal Ortho Care, where the team can create a mold to fit the disabled dog.

Campana said 3D imaging can also be a time saver when multiple iterations of a device are needed or if a prosthesis gets broken as there’s no need to start from scratch again.

ram with prosthetics
Felix the ram smiling in Spain.

Derby, Blade Runner

Tara Anderson first encountered Derby in 2014 at Peace and Paws, a New England-based animal shelter. It was impossible not to notice the little Husky mix with his severely deformed front legs, shuffling along the floor while the other dogs ran and jumped.

The image stayed with her, and eventually, she returned and volunteered to foster him.

“I kept looking at his photo and hearing his story, and I cried, literally, every time,” she said. “I had to try and help this dog.”

To enhance his mobility, Anderson got a cart with wheels, which could be attached to Derby’s front legs. But his mobility was still limited; he couldn’t run or play with other dogs.

Anderson, a manager with 3D Systems, enlisted the help of coworkers Kevin Atkins and Dave DiPinto, both 3DS designers, to use 3D tech to create custom prostheses for Derby. She reached out to Campana to join in because of his orthotics expertise.

Using 3D modeling software, the team created a model of Derby’s front legs and designed custom sockets to fit his misshapen limbs, then designed the wheel-shaped blades that would become his 3D-printed prosthetic legs.

The initial design was intentionally small to allow Derby time to learn to walk and run on his new prostheses, and to strengthen his back muscles before graduating to a larger design that would enable him to walk with a flat back like other dogs.

“Derby was a challenging case, and I don’t think it would have worked if we didn’t use 3D printing,” said Campana. “Because the file was stored on the computer, we didn’t have to build molds by hand time after time.”

Derrick Campana's studio
Derrick Campana’s studio.

Often, Campana noted, it takes multiple designs and iterations of each design to get a prosthesis just right for a pet. That applies to materials, as well as design.

“As we grew the design taller and taller, the structural needs changed, and so we started looking at all our technologies and seeing what was the best fit,” said Anderson. “We needed something like a nylon that would have that structural capacity, but also to have that little give-and-take, just like a real knee actually would.”

In Derby’s case, the solution was Selective Laser Sintering (SLS), a process of fusing tiny particles together via laser to create a strong, yet somewhat flexible prosthesis.

“Derby took to his new prosthetics very well,” said Sherry Portanova, who – along with her husband, Dom – adopted Derby.

The Portanovas report that Derby now runs two or three miles a day and can sit up like other dogs, things he was never able to do before.

Hudson, The Railroad Puppy

In 2012, railroad workers in Albany, New York, found three pit bull puppies whose hind legs had been nailed to the tracks. Victims of abuse, the puppies were severely dehydrated and malnourished, and suffering from serious infections, when brought into the Mohawk Hudson Humane Society.

One pup didn’t make it, the second lost toes, and the third – Hudson – lost his left rear foot.

When Hudson’s physical injuries were finally under control, Richard and Rosemarie Nash adopted the pup and began the work of helping him overcome his nightmares and trust issues.

Meanwhile, Campana started on a prosthesis for the pup.

In this case, Campana opted to build the device by hand, using materials such as polypropalene, polyethylene and other copolymers that could be vacuum formed.

“3D technologies definitely have their place,” said Campana, “but sometimes the best choice is to use traditional methods with materials that offer extreme durability at a reasonable cost.”

Often, insurance does not cover pet prostheses. Campana seeks out low-cost materials that will last, to keep cost down for customers both in terms of materials and endurance.

Campana created five different prosthetics for Hudson, finding fault with each one, before coming up with the final version he believed might work for Hudson.

“You cross your fingers every time you fit a prosthesis,” he said.

When he slipped the prosthesis onto Hudson’s abbreviated leg, it was as if the glass slipper had been delivered to Cinderella. The pup pranced around the room with a big grin on his face.

“It was a whole new Hudson,” Nash said, watching. “He was like, ‘I’m free.’”

These days, it’s clear that Hudson has come a long way. He’s now a therapy dog who spends his time visiting hospitals, care centers and schools, with Nash, spreading awareness about animal cruelty and bringing comfort and smiles to those who need it most.

For this work, Hudson was honored at the 2015 American Humane Association’s annual Hero Dog Awards ceremony in Los Angeles, where got to walk the red carpet on all fours, thanks to his shiny new red, white and blue paw.

The Growing Field of Animal Orthotics

Though Campana shifted from human to pet orthotics just a handful of years ago, his work already extends far beyond the canine community.

To date, he’s created prosthetics for goats, sheep, llamas, deer, donkeys, horses and, yes, even elephants.

turtle in desert

Last year, he traveled to Thailand to set up a veterinary prosthetics lab and create prostheses for Mosha and Motala, two elephants who were used to haul logs until, separately, they became amputees due to landmines. Campana has set up a GoFundMe page to raise funds for such charitable work.

Campana says he loves what he does because it’s rewarding.

“Many people think it’s sad when they see these animals. Me, I think it’s a happy thing when we get to see a dog walk again, or maybe even walk for the first time ever,” he said. “To be able to help someone – a person, a dog, whatever – to have a better life. There’s just no better thing to be involved in.”


All photos courtesy of Derrick Campana.

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