This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Disabled Dogs Get New Lease on Life

From today's Boston Globe.

Hundreds of disabled pets can thank Buddha for their new lease on life - a wheelchair for handicapped animals. Buddha the dog, that is. The 10-year-old blue Doberman, who suffered from spinal degeneration and disc disease, was the inspiration for Eddie's Wheels For Pets, a Shelburne Falls business that designs and constructs wheelchairs for canines and other animals.
Leslie Grinnell, president of Eddie's Wheels, remembers the day when Buddha suddenly was unable to walk, dragging her back legs across the kitchen floor. Since back surgery wasn't an option, Leslie and Eddie Grinnell carried their beloved dog around in a firewood sling, massaging her legs at night, and scrambling her eggs for breakfast. They discussed euthanasia, but Leslie swears that Buddha barked in protest as she lay by the woodstove. So her husband, Eddie, a field engineer at the time, put together a makeshift cart, using the wheels from his daughter's red wagon, padding the harness with plumbing insulation.
"We put the cart on her, and she turned around, and looked at the wheels, as if saying, 'You don't expect me to walk in this, do you?"' remembers Leslie. But she did walk, and not just walk, but frolic in the woods, wade in the river, and play with other dogs and all while attached to a metal frame that hung on her shoulders and supported her pelvic floor. It was a pet wheelchair, an unusual sight in 1989.
"Buddha went from total paralysis to being able to use her back legs again," says Leslie. "She proved to us that dogs with disabilities can go back to living their doggy lives."
Buddha is long gone, but today Eddie's Wheels employs 20 workers, from assemblers to frame makers, based out of a new workshop in Western Massachusetts.
Wheelchairs for a dog? Why are they needed? It gives them and their owners a new quality of life. A dog that can't go outside can ultimately become extremely depressed and potentially suffer from secondary infections as well as skin ulcerations, pressure sores, and bladder infections.
What's the process of making a wheelchair? We start with a set of eight measurements that the owner or vet can take. It's incredibly difficult to measure a dog who can't stand; you need two to three people to hold the dog up and to take the different dimensions. Then we find out the dog's age, disability, and other facts, to make sure a cart is the right solution. The wheelchair is designed and constructed, based on what the issue is lameness, missing forelimbs or rear limbs, even quadriplegic. We make about 120 carts every two weeks, or about 2,000 a year. They cost between $300-$500.
Why not use prosthetics? Prosthetics are being developed by veterinarian orthopedics, but they're still in the experimental stage. Prosthetics are also difficult for dogs to wear and fit, as they can rub and shear the skin and cause infection. All these things are more difficult with a dog, who is not willing to lie in bed and be quiet, and rolls in the grass, and gets stuff in the wounds.
How long does it take for a dog to get used to having a cart or wheelchair? We call it the 30-second learning curve. They test it in the field behind our shop, and by the time they're headed out, at the bottom of the ramp, the tail is up and wagging.
Do you see owners with disabilities who also have dogs with disabilities? We see quite a few clients who live in a wheelchair. For example, one of our pet owners had multiple sclerosis, and her golden retriever, Holly, also had degenerative myelopathy, which is the canine version of MS.
What other animals do you make wheelchairs for? Rabbits, cats, alpacas, goats, sheep, and possums.
No gerbils? We found that rodents don't live long enough. When they are disabled, they are usually about to die. We had a few inquiries about guinea pigs, but by the time we finished the measurements, the animal passed away. We've also had requests for iguanas, a lion, and a donkey.
What about horses? They're generally too big, animals that weigh over a ton generally have other issues you need to deal with as well.
Have you expanded overseas? We have customers in Sri Lanka, South Africa, Israel, Greenland, Turkey, Ecuador, Europe, Australia, and Japan. Pet owners in Japan, for example, requested that we make the carts in different colors, so now we powder-coat the carts in raspberry pink, fire engine red, teal, plum, safety orange, and baby blue sparkle.
Daisy is your new company mascot, replacing Buddha. She's a dachshund with four herniated discs, and bowel and bladder incontinence. Does she have carts as well? She has five carts, including a candy raspberry cart that she wore to the Las Vegas veterinary conference. My teenage daughter painted Daisy's toenails pink to match. Daisy loved the polished marble floors in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center. She also has an orange-and-purple cart that we call the FedEx cart; a pale yellow glow-in-the-dark cart; a black cart with metal flake sparkles, which Ed wanted because he's a former Harley guy; and a plain aluminum cart that we call the mud cart.
Any accessories to go along with them? Daisy has a strobe light and flag on the cart so we can find her in the dark, and the inevitable clothes, of course. She loves her velveteen jumper with the Laura Ashley print. And because she's a dachshund, we put sweaters on her in the winter.


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