How Animal Prosthetics are Spurring Innovation

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My Wired piece about the weird and wacky world of animal prosthetics is finally out! And it looks stunning! (Thanks to the photographer and the Wired design team, not to me. I’m just the word girl.) In the actual hard copy of the magazine, the four-page photo spread, features three animals with prosthetics, but the online version is slightly extended–and depicts two extra animals not seen in the magazine. So be sure to check out the online bonus material.

The piece provides a quick glimpse into the veterinarians and prosthetists who are designing artificial limbs and body parts for injured animals. The piece grew out of my interviews with Kevin Carroll, Vice President of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics based in Austin, Texas and one of the world’s leading human prosthetists. (He consulted on the case of Oscar Pistorius, the controversial double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, and many of his patients are Paralympic Games medalists.)

Carroll, however, spends his night and weekends treating—for free—another class of patients: amputee animals. Over the years he has designed prosthetics for dogs, ducks, ostriches, storks, “whatever comes our way,” he says. He’s not the only one. There are now several animal-only prosthetic companies and clinics; one, the Denver-based OrthoPets, outfits an average of 150 animals a month with an orthotic or prosthetic. Material scientists have now created a prosthetic eagle beak; turtle shell; kangaroo foot and hundreds of dog and cat paws.

Animal bodies, of course, are radically different from our own, which is precisely what makes the wild kingdom such a hotbed of prosthetic innovation. With injured fauna, engineers are no longer bound by convention and tradition—in fact, success often requires ingenuity. Unable to just pop a human leg onto a kangaroo, for instance, or an elephant, or a crane, Carroll and his colleagues have to custom-design and individually
engineer each prosthetic. This sometimes involves creating new materials, joints, or structures that have never been used in prosthetics before. Add to that the fact that veterinarians can implement a new idea nearly instantaneously, without having to wade through the lengthy and costly clinical trials required for humans, and you have a recipe for innovation.

For instance, Carroll’s most famous patient is a dolphin named Winter, who lost her tail after getting tangled in a crab trap off the coast of Florida. (Winter, incidentally, is the focus of the new Warner Bros. movie Dolphin Tale, released this past weekend.) Designing a prosthetic for a tailless dolphin led researchers to develop a brand new rubbery material that was able to stick to the marine mammal’s super slippery skin. The gel-like sleeve, which slides on under a hard prosthetic shell, has proved to be a lifesaver for amputee athletes, who sometimes struggle to keep their artificial legs and arms from sliding off when they sweat.

And pet cats and dogs have become some of the pioneering patients in the world of osseointegration–in which a prosthetic limb is permanently attached to the body. (One end of an artificial leg, for instance, will be implanted inside what remains of a dog’s stump and anchored to the bone.) The traditional strap-on prosthetic often isn’t an option for a pet, who may chew or kick the device off. What’s more, the anatomy of cats and dogs can also make these external prosthetics difficult; below the knee, these animals don’t tend to have enough flesh for an artificial limb to grab onto. Above the knee, the problem is the opposite–too much loose skin and tissue for the prosthetic to stay safely put.

In any case, the work that a few forward-thinking vets and prosthetists are doing with pets and other animals could pave the way for big breakthroughs in human artificial limbs. The breakthroughs couldn’t be coming at a better time: Between the rise in diabetes, which often results in amputations, and ongoing wars, the number of human amputees is predicted to grow by 40 percent by 2020.

“People will say ‘Why are you wasting your time working on an animal?’” says Carroll, who once consulted with Thai veterinarians seeking to build an artificial foot for an elephant. “Well, we could have a five-hundred pound patient come in the next day. The first motivation is to help the animal. But we also learn a great deal.”

Unfortunately, I didn’t have room for too many details in the Wired piece–it’s mostly a photo essay–but I crammed in as much information as I could, and it’s a good introduction to the world of animal prosthetics. (Plus, the photos are fantastic.) Rest assured–I will have much more on animal prosthetics in my book. In the meantime, hop on over to Wired.

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