Over the last several years, there's a been a sea change in veterinary care for pets with disabilities. Driving said advances are a growing recognition of the inherent value of the animals we share our lives with and improvements in medical technology for both diagnosing ailments and devising remedies that restore mobility, alleviate pain, and improve quality of life.
Plastics Make It 'Pawssible': 14 Animals Living Their Best Lives Thanks to Prosthetics
At the heart of the latter, are the burgeoning use of both 3D printers and cutting edge plastics that are increasingly being used to design, model, and build prosthetic and orthotic devices that only a few years ago would have been cost-prohibitive to all but the 1 percent and the province of cheesy, straight-to-video science fiction flicks.
Below, we share 14 uplifting stories of pets and animals who have overcome the odds — thanks to the transformative properties of plastic and the varied applications of it — to not only live enriching lives but emerge as role models for the rest of us.
1. The Bionic Boxer
2. Pipe Dreams Are Made of This
When a kitten named Scooter was diagnosed with a neurological condition, doctors at the Ohio-based Niles Vet Clinic restored the use of his rear legs with a makeshift mobility device cobbled together from PVC piping, swiveling casters, and a very fashionable pink harness. Never one to sit on the sidelines, this little hellcat can now be seen tearing it up on the 'Gram.
3. Build Me Up Buttercup
Born late in 2012 with a backwards foot, Buttercup the Duck struggled to walk as a hatchling. Over the course of the next several months, officials at Feathered Angels Waterfowl Sanctuary developed a plastic replacement modeled after the foot of his "girlfriend" Mimi (also, if it wasn't already clear, a duck). After amputating his original foot, veterinarians fitted the little waddler with a webbed prototype cut using a 3D-printer.
As news of the surgery spread on the social web, Buttercup emerged as an unlikely internet celebrity but the R&D didn't stop there: In 2014, the groundbreaking mold was refreshed to include a "bendable ankle with springs for support."
4. Hudson the Railroad Puppy
A victim of unspeakable abuse, Hudson the bulldog was found spiked to railroad tracks in upstate New York. Doctors had no choice but to amputate the then 3-month-old puppy's left hind leg, but eventually he recovered and was adopted by a doting dog dad. Determined to restore his hobbled hound's quality of life, Richard Nash turned to the internet for help, which led him to one of the leading experts in the emerging field of veterinary prosthetics and orthotics, Derek Campana. Eager to help, he developed five early prototypes for Hudson but to no avail — it was "fail, fail, fail."
Campana kept plugging away, however, and landed on a novel solution that yoked "a hard outer plastic shell to a durable plastic tread and soft, cushioning plastic foam interior." Immediately after fitting Hudson with the custom prosthesis, the pup was zooming around the room — with a huge smile plastered on his face. For this, Campana credits the versatility of plastic: "[They] allow us to experiment and I can do things that I wouldn't be able to do with other materials."
5. Angel Marie the Mini Horse
Just two days after she was born, Angel Marie the mini horse suffered a tragic accident when her mom stepped on her leg, crushing it. Following an amputation, Angel Marie's owner connected with the aforementioned Derrick Campana who went to work crafting a two-pronged solution: A custom plastic prosthetic leg to replace the missing limb, along with a rugged brace to buttress her remaining front leg.
While Angel Marie was wary of the prosthesis at first, she has quickly adjusted to her new mobility device, walking, standing, and grazing on her own. And don't even think about leaving her stall unlocked: The pint-sized escape artist has given her human, Lennie, the slip on more than one occasion! As Campana noted in an interview, "the plastic based foam that we're retrofitting into the prosthesis and brace ... snug up the fit and allow Angel to trust the devices [more]. Creating these devices would not be possible without plastics, [because] they're cost-effective and easy to adjust and reshape, and durable enough to last the lifetime of each pet."
6. Baaaaaaaaaa-d News Didn't Get This Sheep Down
Attacked by a predator as a baby lamb, Felix the sheep's future looked dim until the kind folks at Woodstock Farm Sanctuary offered to nurse the tripod back to health. To ease stress on his remaining limbs, Felix was equipped with an artificial leg at the age of 4. The device restored his mobility but eventually broke down.
Working with a prosthetist and researchers at SUNY specializing in 3D-printing, the farm subsequently designed a stronger and lighter upgrade composed of production-grade thermoplastics similar to those used in LEGO blocks.
7. Don't Stop Retrievin'
Found abandoned in a South Korean dumpster with her legs bound by wires, Chi Chi the rescue dog has a smile as warm as her golden coat. After a series of surgeries, the quadruple amputee (!!!!) was brought to America by an L.A.-based charity and adopted by an Arizona family, who she quickly won over with her indefatigable spirit and unconditional love.
8. Move Over Tom Brady, There's a New G.O.A.T In Town
After jumping into a fire pit, Janice the goat was left with a pair of badly burned hoofs that had to be removed. The feral stray was subsequently relocated to the Magical Creatures of Hamakua, a sanctuary located on Hawaii's Big Island. While caring for her was a daunting task, the shelter's founder was determined to give her the best care possible.
Thanks in part to a successful crowdfunding campaign, Janice's damaged limbs were swapped out, first for homemade prosthetics, and later medical-grade designs. Rebranded earlier this year as a "Level 2 Robo Goat," Janice now serves as the nonprofit's official "spokesanimal" on social media and can often be found snuggling with the other critters that call it home.
9. Them's the Beaks
Shot in the beak by a poacher in 2005, Beauty this bald eagle was found in an Alaskan landfill unable to eat or groom herself. While that likely would have led to euthanasia in the past, a team of biologists, dentists, and engineers worked together to model and print a replacement made of nylon polymers. Beauty lives today at a refuge in Idaho, where she snacks on strips of salmon and spreads her wings in a private aviary.
10. Footloose and Fancy-Free
"Hey, I got a dog ... He doesn't have a foot, want to make one?"
Such was the unusual question Kendra Earl Warlow, a student at the University of Missouri, asked her classmates one day after she saw them experimenting with a 3D printer in the library. The pooch in question was Tucker, a 5-year-old Australian shepherd born without bones in one of his feet. The last of his litter to be adopted, the peg-legged pup was happy to chase Warlow's other shepherd around without a rear paw, but she worried that his condition would lead to medical complications in the future.
Taking up the challenge, students with the Mizzou 3D Printing Club spent a year testing potential designs, tweaking both form and material. The most recent round of adjustments, The Missourian reports, "has moved away from the white plastic and metal combination of the initial prototype toward a blue PLA filament, which is easier to work with."
When reached for comment, the patient barked enthusiastically and ran off after a bouncing tennis ball.
11. The Elephant Prosthetic in the Room
Big problems call for big solutions.
So when an elephant in Botswana was born with an angular limb deformity, Derrick Campana, one of the world's leading experts in the nascent field of animal orthotics, was recruited to workshop a remedy.
His answer? The world's first 3D printed carpal brace, which you can see in action below (press play to watch).
The crazy thing? It isn't the first time Campana has assisted with pachyderm prosthetics: In 2017, he prepared mobility devices for a pair of elephants in Thailand who had the terrible misfortune of stepping on buried landmines.
12. Moo-ving Violation
Falling into a concrete pit as a newly born calf, Fawn's knee was fractured badly. While she slowly mended from this injury, an infection went untreated, which contributed to mobility struggles as she grew. Ultimately, her legs, one of which was permanently twisted, couldn't support her weight.
Eventually, veterinarians recommended a radical plan of action: "Repairing the damaged bone and knee but also the shortened ligaments in her other leg."
Months of physical therapy followed, but Fawn progressed from plaster casts to permanent braces and now a single prosthetic.
More about her backstory can be seen in the touching video below, but pull the tissues close because it's enough to make a grown man (and professional animal blogger) cry.
13. The Luck of the Irish
Born with an underdeveloped leg and an oversized paw, Duke the Irish retriever struggled to walk from puppyhood on. Enter CBM, a research company established by the University of Wales Trinity Saint David, which designs and builds "bespoke medical devices."
Using scans of Duke's leg, a team of CBM employees partnered with an orthopedic surgeon and Duke's foster dad to model and print several prosthetic prototypes. Drawing on feedback from the patient himself, engineers dialed in the fit, that balanced the load across the limb, and rounded out the device with internal foam cushioning, a vacuum cast elastomeric foot, and tactile grip so he could navigate all manner of surfaces.
Watch Duke amble around on his new bionic limb in the video embedded below!
14. These (Plastic) Boots Are Made for Walkin'
Arriving in the world with paws twisted like a cruller, Watson was found as a kitten in a Michigan field, alone and struggling to fend for himself. A good Samaritan promptly took him to Almost Home, a no-kill shelter, where he caught the eye of a local woman, Melanie Lusnak, who had experience caring for pets with special needs.
Undaunted by his ailment (known more formally as radial hypoplasia), Lusnak brought him to an animal prosthetist, who eased his suffering with a pair of "plastic boots" lined with tread. The custom creations have had their intended effect, restoring Watson's mobility and allowing him to scamper about just like any other kitten.