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Animal Prosthetics: A Leg Up on a Bad Break

Amputee animals have a hard life. In the last few years, more and more disabled creatures of different species are being helped by modern technology, and by the researchers and volunteers who go the extra mile.

Fuji's Rubber Tail

Fuji is a dolphin who lives in an aquarium in Okinawa. A mysterious illness in 2002 caused her tail to rot, and it was amputated to stop the spread of the disease. Without a tail, a dolphin can't swim. Engineers from Bridgestone Tire Company worked to design a new rubber tail for Fuji. The first designs did not work properly or had some other drawback. Finally, Fuji accepted the third tail design, made of silicon rubber with a foam padding, and was able to swim almost as well as an intact dolphin.

Uzonka and Beauty and their New Beaks

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When a bird's beak is damaged, it may not be able to eat, drink, or hunt properly and could die as a result. Uzonka the stork had her bill damaged by human assault. She received a prosthetic beak after five preparatory operations and is in the care of an animal hospital in Uzon, Romania.

beauty.jpgBeauty is an Alaskan bald eagle whose beak was shot off several years ago. She was found in 2005, unable to properly hunt or eat. She was taken to a refuge, but her beak did not grow back. Beauty will receive a nylon-composite beak next month. A new beak attached with screws would enable her to hunt, but the animal experts in charge of the surgery decided against it, because the screws would have to be dangerously close to her eyes and brain. Instead, her prosthetic beak will be attached with glue. Beauty must stay in human custody, where she will be fed and protected.

George Bailey's Implanted Leg

prosthesis.jpgA cat named George Bailey was born with only stumps for hind legs. He got around by dragging his rear end. Veterinarians and engineers from North Carolina State University tackled the problem in a new way. Instead of attaching a limb over a stump, they attached an artificial limb to his bones. The hope was that the existing bone tissue would grow around the prosthetic, a process called osseointegration. Using a cat scan of the cat, they created a model of George's pelvis and leg bones and designed a lower leg and foot. In 2005, the team implanted a titanium post into George's stump, to which the prosthetic leg could be attached. George was soon running and jumping on his new leg. Animals that normally walk on four legs usually get along just fine with three. George took great advantage of his new mobility, and was so rambunctious that in two months, he broke the titanium nails that were holding his leg in place. The prosthetic limb had to be removed.

Storm's Carbon Fiber Paw

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A Belgium shepherd named Storm had a similar surgery performed in England in 2007. Storm had lost a front paw due to a tumor. A titanium rod was implanted in the dog's radius, and a carbon fiber paw was later plugged into the rod.

Stumpy the Kangaroo

MFstumpyKangaroo.jpgStumpy the red kangaroo lives in Ohio, at the International Kangaroo Society's sanctuary. She only has one leg. Veterinarians at Ohio State University created an artificial limb for her. Dr. David E. Anderson, Associate Professor of Surgery, Food Animal, of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Richard Nitsch, a licensed prosthesis orthotist for American Orthopedics, made sure it included a spring to replicate the natural movement of a kangaroo.

Allison the Triple Amputee Sea Turtle

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Allison is a three-year-old Atlantic Green sea turtle. She was found in south Texas with only one fin, bleeding from where the other three should be. She was taken to Sea Turtle Inc, a turtle conservation facility, where she healed up against the odds. Allison can swim with just one fin, but only in circles. In February, medical and veterinary volunteers announced they would fit her with a prosthetic flipper on her left rear, where she has enough one to support one. There have been no updates, so the procedure probably hasn't taken place yet.

George the Pegleg Parrot

georgeparrot.jpgGeorge the African Gray parrot lost a leg 18 months ago when he was attacked by an unidentified wild animal. Since then, he's had a hard time getting any sleep, as he tries to balance on one foot. It even drove him to swearing! But Dr. Glyn Heath of the University of Salford's School of Health Care Professions designed an artificial leg for George. Although Dr. Heath has made many false limbs for animals, this was his first prosthetic for a bird. This particular leg wasn't fitted on George himself, but attached to his perch. The idea was that George could sit on it and balance himself enough to get some sleep. However, George wasn't impressed with his prosthetic. In fact, he ate it.

Tahi the Kiwi

MFtahi.jpgKiwi birds do not fly; they walk on two legs. So when Tahi lost a leg in a trap, he could do nothing but hop. The New Zealand zoo where the kiwi lived turned to the Wellington Artificial Limb Board and Weta Workshop, the team responsible for the special effects in the Lord of the Rings movies. The Weta crew made a mold of the bird's stump, and the Limb Board made an articulated (bendable) limb, the smallest they've ever made. Tahi can now stand, and is learning to run with his new leg.

Motala and Mocha Survive Land Mines

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Motala the elephant stepped on a land mine near the Thai-Burma border in 1999. Veterinarians were able to repair her front leg, but it was left much shorter than the others. At Friends of the Asian Elephant's hospital in Thailand, Motala began using a prosthetic leg in 2005. The prosthesis is a bag filled with wood shavings, which makes her damaged leg as long as the others. She accepted the attachment, and is still using the same kind of prosthetic leg. You can follow Motala's life in pictures at her webpage.

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A very young elephant named Mocha found herself in the much the same situation after an encounter with a land mine near the border with Burma. Mocha was fitted with a new leg earlier this year, also from the Friends of the Asian Elephant organization in Thailand.

Artificial limbs have been fitted on horses, llamas, and cows, and probably plenty of other animals.

Other prosthetics are available, too. A group of students are opening a business to produce dentures for cats. But the strangest prosthetics are Neuticles, which are implanted testicles for dogs who has been neutered. It's purely for cosmetic reasons.

It may seem extravagant to fit prosthetics on animals that have a relatively short life span, but it makes a big difference in the quality of life for that particular animal. It also enhances the quality of life for the animal's owner. The experience of fitting artificial limbs to animals leads to innovations in human prosthetics. And after all, most of these animals are missing their natural parts because of humans.

PS: Here is one reaction to this story that you must read for its incredible cuteness.

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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iStock

Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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History
How an Early Female Travel Writer Became an Immunization Pioneer
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by A. Devéria

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was a British aristocrat, feminist, and writer who was famed for her letters. If that were all she did, she would be a slightly obscure example of a travel writer and early feminist. But she was also an important public health advocate who is largely responsible for the adoption of inoculation against smallpox—one of the earliest forms of immunization—in England.

Smallpox was a scourge right up until the mid-20th century. Caused by two strains of Variola virus, the disease had a mortality rate of up to 35 percent. If you lived, you were left with unsightly scars, and possible complications such as severe arthritis and blindness.

Lady Montagu knew smallpox well: Her brother died of it at the age of 20, and in late 1715, she contracted the disease herself. She survived, but her looks did not; she lost her eyelashes and was left with deeply pitted skin on her face.

When Lady Montagu’s husband, Edward Wortley Montagu, was appointed ambassador to Turkey the year after her illness, she accompanied him and took up residence in Constantinople (now Istanbul). The lively letters she wrote home described the world of the Middle East to her English friends and served for many as an introduction to Muslim society.

One of the many things Lady Montagu wrote home about was the practice of variolation, a type of inoculation practiced in Asia and Africa likely starting around the 15th or 16th century. In variolation, a small bit of a pustule from someone with a mild case of smallpox is placed into one or more cuts on someone who has not had the disease. A week or so later, the person comes down with a mild case of smallpox and is immune to the disease ever after.

Lady Montagu described the process in a 1717 letter:

"There is a set of old women, who make it their business to perform the operation, every autumn, in the month of September, when the great heat is abated. People send to one another to know if any of their family has a mind to have the small-pox: they make parties for this purpose, and when they are met (commonly fifteen or sixteen together) the old woman comes with a nuts-hell full of the matter of the best sort of small-pox, and asks what veins you please to have opened. She immediately rips open that you offer to her with a large needle (which gives you no more pain than a common scratch), and puts into the vein as much matter as can lye upon the head of her needle, and after that binds up the little wound with a hollow bit of shell; and in this manner opens four or five veins. . . . The children or young patients play together all the rest of the day, and are in perfect health to the eighth. Then the fever begins to seize them, and they keep their beds two days, very seldom three. They have very rarely above twenty or thirty in their faces, which never mark; and in eight days' time they are as well as before their illness."

So impressed was Lady Montagu by the effectiveness of variolation that she had a Scottish doctor who worked at the embassy, Charles Maitland, variolate her 5-year-old son in 1718 with the help of a local woman. She returned to England later that same year. In 1721, a smallpox epidemic hit London, and Montagu had Maitland (who by then had also returned to England) variolate her 4-year-old daughter in the presence of several prominent doctors. Maitland later ran an early version of a clinical trial of the procedure on six condemned inmates in Newgate Prison, who were promised their freedom if they took part in the experiment. All six lived, and those later exposed to smallpox were immune. Maitland then repeated the experiment on a group of orphaned children with the same results.

A painting of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Lady Mary Wortley Montagu with her son, Edward Wortley Montagu, and attendants
Jean-Baptiste Vanmour, Art UK // CC BY-NC-ND

But the idea of purposely giving someone a disease was not an easy sell, especially since about 2 or 3 percent of people who were variolated still died of smallpox (either because the procedure didn’t work, or because they caught a different strain than the one they had been variolated with). In addition, variolated people could also spread the disease while they were infectious. Lady Montagu also faced criticism because the procedure was seen as “Oriental,” and because of her gender.

But from the start, Lady Montagu knew that getting variolation accepted would be an uphill battle. In the same letter as her first description of the practice, she wrote:

"I am patriot enough to take pains to bring this useful invention into fashion in England; and I should not fail to write to some of our doctors very particularly about it, if I knew any one of them that I thought had virtue enough to destroy such a considerable branch of their revenue for the good of mankind. But that distemper is too beneficial to them, not to expose to all their resentment the hardy wight that should undertake to put an end to it. Perhaps, if I live to return, I may, however, have courage to war with them."

As promised, Lady Montagu promoted variolation enthusiastically, encouraging the parents in her circle, visiting convalescing patients, and publishing an account of the practice in a London newspaper. Through her influence, many people, including members of the royal family, were inoculated against smallpox, starting with two daughters of the Princess of Wales in 1722. Without her advocacy, scholars say, variolation might never have caught on and smallpox would have been an even greater menace than it was. The famed poet Alexander Pope said that for her, immortality would be "a due reward" for "an action which all posterity may feel the advantage of," namely the "world’s being freed from the future terrors of the small-pox."

Variolation was performed in England for another 70 years, until Edward Jenner introduced vaccination using cowpox in 1796. Vaccination was instrumental in finally stopping smallpox: In 1980, it became the first (and so far, only) human disease to be completely eradicated worldwide.

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