The Dr. Dolit­tle of Pet Pros­thet­ics

From dogs to ele­phants, Der­rick Cam­pana is chang­ing the lives of an­i­mals by spe­cial­iz­ing in a field of his own cre­ation


From dogs to ele­phants, Der­rick Cam­pana is chang­ing the lives of an­i­mals by spe­cial­iz­ing in a field of his own cre­ation.

W hen a vet­eri­nar­ian, desperate for help, brought a choco­late Lab to the hu­man pros­thet­ics and or­thotics clinic where Der­rick Cam­pana worked 12 years ago, Der­rick’s life was changed for­ever.

The dog, named Charles, needed a pros­thetic leg due to a rare con­gen­i­tal de­for­mity called ec­tro­dactyly, which causes limbs to form ab­nor­mally. Serv­ing an­i­mals was some­thing Der­rick had never con­sid­ered, but he forged ahead none­the­less. Af­ter suc­cess­fully cre­at­ing a pros­thetic leg on the first try, Der­rick had a light­bulb mo­ment.

“It opened my eyes to an en­tire field,” he says. “I knew I could do this for more an­i­mals.”

Der­rick, who holds a Master’s de­gree in Or­thotics and Pros­thet­ics from North­west­ern Uni­ver­sity, cer­tainly didn’t set out to be an an­i­mal or­tho­tist. In fact, that line of work didn’t ex­ist and there was no cur­ricu­lum of study to get into the field. He turned to the In­ter­net but found only one per­son spe­cial­iz­ing in an­i­mal pros­thet­ics.

Still, the idea of com­bin­ing two of his main in­ter­ests—help­ing oth­ers and his love of an­i­mals—was too good to pass up.

In short or­der, he founded An­i­mal Ortho Care in Stir­ling, Vir­ginia, and now works with spe­cialty and holis­tic vet­eri­nar­i­ans to cre­ate or­thotics and pros­thet­ics to help an­i­mals with limbs dis­abled through trauma, ill­ness or old age.

At this point in the story, a joke could be in­serted about giv­ing these an­i­mals a new “leash” on life, but in Der­rick’s case, it’s true.

Thanks to his ground­break­ing work, or­thotics and pros­thet­ics are on their way to be­com­ing com­mon­place in the an­i­mal world, sav­ing tens of thou­sands of lives and mak­ing the 38-year-old an­i­mal or­tho­tist and pros­thetist one of the world’s few ex­perts in the field.

Since found­ing his com­pany 12 years ago, Der­rick has cre­ated an av­er­age of 1,000 pros­thet­ics a year. He’s treated be­tween 15,000 and 20,000 an­i­mals, in­clud­ing minia­ture horses, bald ea­gles, tur­tles, goats, sheep, deer, lla­mas, and a gazelle. It’s earned him the nick­name of the Dr. Dolit­tle of Pet Pros­thet­ics, some­thing that makes him chuckle. Der­rick has trav­elled to Spain to treat a ram and to Lam­pang, Thai­land to fit two ele­phants who lost their legs in land mine ex­plo­sions while crossing the Burmese bor­der. “I took these casts home, made check sock­ets, and sent them to Thai­land where the Thai pros­thetists fab­ri­cated the rest of the pros­thetic de­vices,” he says. But for all his work with ex­otic an­i­mals, he es­ti­mates that 90 per­cent of his pa­tients are dogs.

One of the big dif­fer­ences be­tween work­ing in hu­man pros­thet­ics ver­sus an­i­mal pros­thet­ics is the ma­te­ri­als. Be­cause there are no in­sur­ance bod­ies dic­tat­ing what ma­te­ri­als must be used on an­i­mals, “I can use the ma­te­ri­als I think will work just right,” Der­rick says.

His ma­te­rial of choice is med­i­cal-grade plas­tics—both tra­di­tional high-tem­per­a­ture ther­mo­formable plas­tic and low-tem­per­a­ture ther­mo­plas­tics—ideal ma­te­ri­als for pros­thet­ics and or­thotics be­cause they are durable and can be form fit to the in­di­vid­ual an­i­mal. Its ver­sa­til­ity al­lows Der­rick to cus­tom-build pros­thetic de­vices to meet the unique needs of each an­i­mal un­der his care. Eas­ily mould­able, the pros­thet­ics can be eas­ily re­shaped as an an­i­mal grows—help­ing re­duce costs and thereby mak­ing these life-chang­ing mo­bil­ity de­vices avail­able to more an­i­mal own­ers.

Rec­og­niz­ing this, the Amer­i­can Chem­istry Coun­cil’s Plas­tics Make It Pos­si­ble pro­gram re­cently do­nated $20,000 to the Hu­mane So­ci­ety of the United States’ An­i­mal Res­cue Team, so that the group has funds to help res­cue an­i­mals with more chal­leng­ing dis­abil­i­ties, such as those Der­rick treats.

“It’s re­ally cool that peo­ple are putting money into ad­vanc­ing this field,” Der­rick says. “We’re giv­ing an­i­mals the same treat­ment op­tions as hu­mans.”

To make the pros­thet­ics, he uses cast­ing kits 95 per­cent of the time, but tech­nol­ogy has made his job faster. Us­ing do­na­tions raised through a Go Fund Me page, Der­rick pur­chased 3-D print­ers and a scan­ner which has al­lowed him to serve pa­tients that aren’t able to travel to his Stir­ling clinic.

Us­ing in­for­ma­tion from an MRI, Der­rick uses the prin­ter to make a 3-D pos­i­tive mold for a plas­tic pros­the­sis. From the start of the process to the time the an­i­mal gets its pros­the­sis runs just un­der a week.

But even with all the ad­vances, the field is still in its in­fancy, says Der­rick. There are still peo­ple to ed­u­cate, and it’s a role he has made his duty to take on.

Be­fore an­i­mal pros­thet­ics, many an­i­mals with miss­ing or in­jured limbs were put down. The ones that sur­vived man­aged as well as they could. “I’ve heard peo­ple say, ‘my dog walks fine on three legs,’ but we want them to walk great on four,” he says. A miss­ing limb takes its toll on the rest of the body, and peo­ple don’t re­al­ize that af­fected an­i­mals die an av­er­age of two years ear­lier. “You can get a new brace and it ex­tends their lives for such min­i­mal cost. It’s like gold.” Pet own­ers aren’t the only ones he reaches out to. Med­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als, too, need to be ed­u­cated in the value of pros­thet­ics. “Tra­di­tion­ally, vet­eri­nar­i­ans are taught to am­pu­tate,” he says. “I get to teach vets to am­pu­tate at the ap­pro­pri­ate point for the pur­poses of pros­thet­ics.” Pos­si­bly be­cause the fields of an­i­mal or­thotics and pros­thet­ics are so new, mis­con­cep­tions swirl around. “That it costs a for­tune is a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion,” he says. “They are ex­tremely af­ford­able and made to save peo­ple money,” he says. While surg­eries can start be­tween $2,000 and $5,000, braces and pros­thet­ics cost about $550 and $1,000 re­spec­tively, and braces can help an an­i­mal heal with­out the need for surgery. “This is the best job in the world,” Der­rick says. “My goal is to treat as many an­i­mals as pos­si­ble. We can help our pets live bet­ter lives through braces and pros­thet­ics.” A pet owner him­self, he and his fam­ily are now look­ing to adopt a dog in need of a pros­the­sis. Cer­tainly, there are some sad sto­ries—he’s treated dogs res­cued from Cam­bo­dia’s meat in­dus­try and a puppy that had its foot sev­ered and leg nailed to a rail­road track. Der­rick cre­ated a pros­thetic paw for the Pit Bull pup, named Hud­son by his new owner, that re­placed his miss­ing foot and did not af­fect his other legs. Hud­son the rail­road puppy went on to be­come cer­ti­fied as a ther­apy dog, and to­day spends his time vis­it­ing hos­pi­tals and other care fa­cil­i­ties with his owner. The happy end­ings more than make up for the sad ones. “I get to turn in­jured pets into bionic pets. I get to see an an­i­mal, born with a miss­ing foot, walk for the first time. I get to see an­i­mals walk again that were in­jured. It can’t get bet­ter than that. I have pet own­ers cry all the time, happy that their fam­ily mem­bers are be­ing treated.” He feels that even the an­i­mals are ap­pre­cia­tive. “Even though they can’t speak, I can tell by the way they wag their tails and from their over­all de­meanor,” he says. “It’s amaz­ing. I want to do this for the rest of my life.”

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