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Last updated: Sat. Apr. 19, 2014 - 09:19 am EDT

More veterinarians turn to prosthetics to help pets who lack legs

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LOS ANGELES – A 9-month-old boxer pup named Duncan barreled down a beach in Oregon, running full tilt on soft sand into YouTube history and showing more than 4 million viewers that he can revel in a good romp despite lacking back legs.

“It's a heartwarming, wonderful thing to see,” said Dr. Bonnie Beaver, a professor at Texas A&M University's College of Veterinary Medicine and executive director of the American College of Veterinary Behaviorists. “These animals generally look to us as if they are very happy. We don't know that they are, but they are excited and jumping around and doing things that are wonderful to watch.”

But dogs aren't made to stand, and they are putting unwanted pressure on their joints and probably shortening their lives, Beaver said. Duncan's owners say they keep a “vigilant eye” on the animal who balked at a doggie wheelchair and can't use prosthetics.

More veterinarians are using wheelchairs, orthotics and prosthetics to improve the lives of dogs that have lost limbs to deformity, infection or accident, experts say. The move is driven by persistent pet owners who aren't deterred by the cost and commitment. At the same time, there have been great strides in technology to keep up with U.S. soldiers returning wounded from war, and veterinarians have adapted materials and know-how.

“There are so many things we can do to solve mechanical problems. ... If you have broken parts, we can replace them,” said Martin Kaufmann, co-owner of Veterinary Orthotics and Prosthetics in Denver, also known as OrthoPets, which helps about 2,000 animals a year.

Most devices range from $150 to $2,000 but can cost more, Kaufmann said.

There have been successes even in challenging cases, Kaufmann said. Orthopets helped mixed-breed puppy Naki'o after his four legs and tail were frozen in ice. A surgeon amputated all four legs. Then, Kaufmann outfitted him with four prosthetics.

“To see Naki'o at the beginning, he was protective and guarded,” he said. “Six months after all this was done, he was just a fun-loving guy who likes to socialize.”

Now, Naki'o lives with the Nebraska couple that found him.

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