Bionic buddies: How modern tech is saving amputee pets 

February 6, 2024 - 7 min read
Cyborg dogs

Losing a limb isn’t what it used to be, and that’s a good thing. Thanks to the remarkable strides in veterinary technology, particularly in the field of prosthetics, pets who are down a paw are getting a second chance at a normal life (9 lives for cats).

From 3D-printed limbs tailored to each pet's unique anatomy to advanced materials offering comfort and mobility, let’s explore the cutting-edge developments that are transforming pets into fully mobile companions.

Prosthetics for dogs and cats: How it started

Human prosthetics are more ancient than you might think. (The first known prosthesis was a wooden toe affixed to the daughter of a priest in ancient Egypt. That was nearly 3,000 years ago.) 

It’s fair to say that human prosthetics laid the groundwork for animal prosthetics, but it took a few millennia. The field of veterinary prosthetics only started gaining real steam around four decades ago. Early research focused on building exoprostheses—devices secured to incomplete limbs to enable locomotion—for pets, working animals, and even cattle.

At first, these prostheses were basic in design and function. But they still marked the beginning of a new era in veterinary care. Then that era took a great, big bionic leap into the future.

How 3D printing has changed the prosthetics game

The early 2000s marked significant advancements in pet prosthetics. Companies like Petsthetics and OrthoPets emerged, focusing on custom solutions to improve the mobility and quality of life for pets with limb amputations. Such companies have begun employing advanced techniques, like 3D modeling, to ensure optimal fit and function for each animal. And thanks to an ever-improving ability to quickly produce and iterate designs, it’s become easier to rapidly respond to a pet’s changing needs.

Advancements in prosthetics have even extended beyond domestic pets, reaching wildlife conservation efforts. Injured wild animals, often considered beyond help, now have a chance at rehabilitation. 

The introduction of 3D printing technology in veterinary prosthetics marked a revolutionary shift in the field. This technology has allowed for the creation of highly accurate, custom-fitted prosthetics tailored to the unique needs of each animal. And the versatility of 3D printing materials, including plastics and metals, allows for the production of durable, lightweight prosthetics that can withstand the daily activities of animals.

3D printing has broadened the scope of treatable conditions (and species!), enabling more pets and wildlife to benefit from these life-changing devices. Now, basic function can be coupled with comfort. Adjustment periods are shorter, and mobility is better than ever. 

And 3D printing's rapid prototyping allows for quick and cost-effective production of these life-changing devices, with swift adjustments for future iterations. 3D-printed prosthetics have been developed for dogs and cats missing limbs, birds with damaged beaks, and even turtles with mobility issues.

So if Fido is facing the unfortunate consequences of completing his car chase, here’s the good news: The future of pet prosthetics is incredibly promising, with continuous advancements enhancing both accessibility and effectiveness.

The future of pet prosthetics

The future of pet prosthetics is incredibly promising, driven by ongoing technological innovations. With advancements in materials, science, and biomechanics, future prosthetics will likely become even more lightweight, durable, and comfortable. These improvements will enhance the quality of life for pets with disabilities, allowing them to engage in a wider range of activities with ease.

A key focus in the coming years will be on making pet prosthetics more accessible and affordable. Efforts are already underway to reduce costs associated with custom prosthetics, potentially making them available to a larger segment of pet owners. This includes the development of more cost-effective manufacturing processes, such as advanced 3D printing techniques, which could significantly lower the price of custom-fit prosthetics​​​​.

One other exciting area of future development is the field of bioprinting and tissue engineering. This technology holds the potential to create prosthetics that are even more biocompatible and tailored to individual pets. Research in this area could lead to breakthroughs where prosthetics are integrated more seamlessly with the pet’s body, enhancing functionality and comfort. 

Transdermal osseointegration” is one other area in which veterinary medicine has taken the lead. The procedure involves implanting a titanium rod directly into the bone at the end of the impacted limb and attaching a prosthetic foot to the protruding post. Only a handful of animals have undergone the procedure to date, but it shows great promise.

Pet prosthetic success stories

There have been plenty of groundbreaking examples of pet prostheses over the last 20 years. Here are a few stories that demonstrate the potential for prosthetic devices to improve quality of life. 

Teddy: Pawgress in motion

In 2017, a 10-week-old Boston Terrier named Teddy was surrendered to the Boston Terrier Rescue of North Carolina. He was sprightly and adorable, but he was missing his front paws and back toes. 

Under the care of the North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine, Teddy's journey towards mobility began. When he reached maturity, he was fitted with silicone sleeves and lightweight carbon-laminated "feet." This transformation not only improved his mobility but also his quality of life, showcasing the profound impact of pet prosthetics​​.

Teddy's prosthetic challenge was notable for his small size and unique needs. Heather M. Davidson from Bio-Tech Prosthetics in Durham led the design of custom devices using a suspension technique typically seen in human prosthetics. Despite doubts about scaling this approach down, Davidson's efforts were successfully adapted for Teddy, ensuring the prosthetics were functional and comfortable.

Custom silicone liners were crafted for Teddy's limbs, offering protection and a snug fit, while preventing self-injury and deterring chewing. Integrated tiny components and Dacron and Velcro straps provided stability and mobility, with added soling material for enhanced traction and shock absorption. This thoughtful design allowed Teddy safe and comfortable movement across different terrains.

Teddy's success with his prosthetics underscores the impact of careful design and collaboration in veterinary prosthetics, improving the lives of animals with disabilities. 

Winter: Flippering through adversity

Winter the Dolphin's swim toward recovery began in 2005, when she was found entangled in a crab trap, leading to the amputation of her tail. This harrowing event could have spelled the end for the young dolphin, but her resilience—and the innovative work of Kevin Carroll and the Hanger Clinic team—turned her story into one of hope and inspiration. They embarked on a unique challenge to create a prosthetic tail for Winter, employing a carbon composite spring blade system and a novel suction mechanism for attachment, ensuring she retained her natural movement.

The relationship between Winter and the Hanger Clinic team evolved over the years, adapting her prosthetics as she grew from a young calf into an adult dolphin. This ongoing care fostered a deep bond, with Winter recognizing and warmly greeting the team during their visits. 

Oh, and if any of this sounds familiar, there’s a good chance you’ve seen the movie “Dolphin Tale,” which was based on Winter’s story. They even made a sequel. 

Oscar: The bionic feline 

Oscar, a resilient cat from the British Channel Isles, became one of the world's pioneering bionic cats after a tragic accident with a combine harvester led to the loss of his two rear paws. Enter Dr. Noel Fitzpatrick, a neuro-orthopedic surgeon known for his innovative approach to animal care. 

Together with a team of biomedical engineers, Fitzpatrick developed metallic peg prosthetics that not only restored Oscar's mobility but also closely mimicked the natural movement of a cat. This feat was achieved through custom-built faux paws attached to the metallic pegs, which were then intricately fused to Oscar's bones and skin, allowing for a natural gait.

The prosthetics journey for Oscar was a meticulous process involving the integration of the metal implants into his ankle bones and ensuring that the cat's skin grew over the pegs to prevent infections. This level of innovation was crucial in providing Oscar with a chance at a normal life, highlighting the potential of such technology to impact both veterinary and human prosthetics positively.

The collaborative effort resulted in Oscar not only walking but also hopping over obstacles in less than four months after his surgery.

Embracing a new era in pet care

The world of pet prosthetics, blending cutting-edge technology with compassionate veterinary care, is ushering in a new era for our animal companions. This journey, marked by significant advancements and heartwarming success stories, is not just about overcoming disabilities; it's about enhancing the lives of pets and their families.

Looking to the future, the field of pet prosthetics holds exciting possibilities. The continued evolution of materials and design promises more effective and comfortable prosthetics, improving the daily lives of pets with disabilities. 

Even as technologies advance, pet parents will always have to take care of the injuries and illnesses that lead to complex health conditions. Covering the costs of such advanced treatments can be challenging, and pet insurance offers a way to ensure pets receive the best possible care without financial strain. It's a crucial step in preparing for the unexpected and making sure our furry friends can benefit from the latest advancements in veterinary medicine.

Ultimately, the intersection of technology and veterinary care is not just transforming pets into furry little cyborgs; it's redefining what's possible in animal healthcare. One thing is clear: The future is bright for our bionic buddies.

David Teich
Lead Editor

David oversees content strategy and development at ManyPets. As Lead Editor, he focuses on delivering accurate information related to pet care and insurance. David’s editorial background spans more than a decade, including a pivotal role at Digiday, where he wrote content and managed relationships with media and tech companies. As an Associate Editor at Cynopsis Media, David wrote the Cynopsis Digital newsletter and interviewed executives and digital marketing experts in the TV industry. His background also includes film journalism. His diverse experiences in journalism and marketing underpins his role in shaping content within the pet care industry.