Meet the Modern Dr. Dolittle, Who Creates Prosthetics for Animals
June 15, 2017
Back in 2005, Derrick Campana was making prosthetics for humans when a unique customer came in: A vet asked the team to make a device for her dog. Campana’s boss was supposed to take on the furry client, but he happened to quit that day. Campana had never made an animal prosthetic before but was up for the challenge.
The procedure was successful, and the vet mentioned there were tons of other dogs out there in need of prosthetics, but no one was filling that need. “A lightbulb went off and I thought of the business,” says Campana, who some call a “modern Dr. Dolittle.” Since then, he’s been building prosthetics for all kinds of furry and feathered friends for Animal Orthocare.
As just one of six to ten people in the world devoted to making prosthetics for animals, Campana’s also a go-to for animals all around the world. He often won’t see his patients face to face. Instead, a vet or pet owner will make a cast to send to Campana’s team in Virginia, which uses it as a mold to fit the device. About a week later, Animal Orthocare sends it to its owner.
Because the animals don’t come in to get fitted, Campana makes the prosthetics out of durable medical-grade plastics with help from Plastics Make it Possible instead of the carbon fibers used for humans. “Carbon fibers are very expensive and you can’t really adjust them,” says Campana. If the device doesn’t fit perfectly when they send it to the animal, the team can adjust it easily. And because most insurance won’t cover pet prosthetics, Campana tries to keep costs as low as possible. The braces and prosthetics run from $500 to $12,000, depending on the device type and animal.
The devices can also save money over getting surgery. About 80 percent of what Campana creates are knee braces, he says, which cost about $500 to $700, compared to $3,000 to $5,000 for knee surgery. “We can help their pet without surgical intervention and save people money,” he says. “We can save its joints and extend the life of a dog.” If your pet wasn’t so lucky, find out how to cope with the loss of a dog.
Most of Campana’s clients are dogs, but he’s also treated a gazelle, llama, deer, and horses, among other animals. He’s even traveled to Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital in Thailand to get a cast for an elephant. “I took the mold personally and brought it back to the States,” says Campana. He helped fundraise money for the group to build a first-of-its-kind “limb factory” for elephants.
Campana doesn’t just treat four-legged animals either. He’s built prosthetics for birds like a crane, owl, and eagle. For their tiny feet, he uses a different process. “When we get to those small legs and small circumferences…getting a good mold proves difficult,” he says. Instead of a cast, he uses a 3-D printer to scan the legs and create the prosthetic.
When the animals first get their prosthetics, they usually try to kick it off. But pretty soon, most start walking as well as ever. “They realize, ‘It’s actually helping me walk better’ and quickly adapt,” he says. “The best part is people that call and say the dog loves it so much they bring the device to their feet because they know that they have to put it on in the morning to get their walk. It’s part of daily life once they get used to it.”