Prosthetic limbs are changing dogs' lives

A 7-year-old German shepherd dog named Star has some new pep in her step. She lost part of her right hind leg at birth, leaving her unable to walk comfortably. Then two months ago she was fitted with a customized prosthetic leg. Star's owner, Elaine Diasparra, says the difference has been drastic.

"She's amazing and she can actually go for walks now," she said.

Star is one of a growing number of injured dogs whose owners are turning to human-like prosthetics and orthotics to improve their quality of life.

"In the last decade I would say there's been an explosion, at least in my practice," said Dr. Leilani Alvarez, who specializes in sports medicine and rehabilitation at the Animal Medical Center. She fits at least one dog a month with assisted devices.

"[Previously] when there would be an injury like Star had, the knee-jerk reaction is 'Let's amputate,' because they say 'dogs do great on three legs,' But that's not really true," Dr. Alvarez said. "Dogs really struggle as they get older, particularly a German shepherd. So being able to retain a limb and allow them to walk on that limb can be the difference between them living through the end of their life expectancy to them having to be euthanized."

A lot of time and technology goes into making devices like Star's. Hers was made by OrthoPets in Colorado, one of the biggest manufacturers of animal prostheses and orthotics in the country.

"We have about 20 different devices that we can fabricate," said OrthoPets founder Amy Kaufmann. The procedure is multi-step and involves advanced computer scanning and 3D printing.

"During that 3D carving machine we're actually carving out an exact replica of the patient's limb and then we go through the process of fabricating that custom-made device," Kaufmann said.

OrthoPets has worked on more than 13,000 animals from 35 different countries since 2003. And not just dogs; peacocks and llamas are among the animals they've built devices for.

"Anywhere from as small as a mouse up to a 2,000-pound horse," Kaufman said.

Their business goes beyond artificial limbs to high-tech orthotic braces.

The company created what is called a stifle brace for Fievel, a black Lab mix who suffers from a painful torn ACL. He'd been doing physical therapy at Water for Dogs in TriBeCa, where veterinary medical director Dr. Jonathan Block decided to fit him for the brace.

"He [now] goes on hikes, he doesn't experience any more pain, he doesn't come back limping from playing in the park, and we've avoided surgery," Dr. Block said.

But the devices aren't cheap, starting at around $1,500, and that doesn't include the cost of vet care and rehabilitation.

"There is an expense associated with it and there's a lot of rehabilitation involved," Dr. Block said. "So it's a process and takes patience."

But the pet owners say it is well worth it.

"This brace will be with him for his lifetime, for as long as he needs it," said Mei van der Schans, Fievel's owner.

A happier dog makes a happier dog owner, who seems willing to go to ever-greater lengths for a pet.

Dr. Alvarez summed it up: "Clients are treating their pets as they would their child, and when they learn that they can do something to help their pet in the same way they would for their child, they choose to do it for their dog as well."