Huckleberry Fin’s owners are passionately committed to using all their skills and resources to provide the best possible life for the pet they love.
Dogs are inspirational. Their amazing ability to adapt to environmental and physical challenges, and still enjoy life, is the subject of many, popular social media videos. Who doesn’t feel better watching a three-legged dog racing down the beach with his tongue hanging out and a smile on his face?
Because most dogs adapt more readily than humans to a missing limb, the standard of care for a diseased or severely injured leg is often amputation. It is also the reason you rarely see three-legged dogs with a prosthetic.
Despite their great attitude, three-legged dogs face some real challenges, especially if their missing limb is in the front. These dogs have to compensate for the weight of their head, and a great deal of stress is placed on the remaining front leg. This can lead to early arthritis and other health issues.
Dr. Jennifer Warnock is an orthopedic surgeon at the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital who fell in love with a puppy named Huckleberry Fin. Fin was born with a rare set of defects in his front leg. His shoulder blade was deformed, and the muscles that move the shoulder were missing. He also had deformed leg bones: his radius was missing, his ulna was too short, and his foot was at the side of the ulna instead of the end where is should be.
“I met Fin when he was brought into the hospital,” says Dr. Warnock. “He was twelve days old and in a little lunch container. His eyes were still closed. We took a CT scan, and sure enough, he had multiple deformities. Basically, he has no functional joints in that leg and nothing is straight.”
Dr. Warnock’s dog Fiona had died three months earlier and she was still grieving. “I kept water bowls out for her, and her leashes were hanging nearby.” She asked her partner, Kevin Thomason, if he would like to adopt the puppy and he said, “Sure.”
From that day forward, they worked together on a plan to help Fin.
“Everyone said, ‘You should amputate that leg,’“ says Warnock, “but Fin was so determined to use it, and because it was his front leg, I knew if we amputated, his other leg would be at risk of overuse injury in just a few years.”
So, while Warnock waited until Fin was old enough for surgery, Thomason, a human physical therapist, began his quest to create the best possible orthotics for their puppy.
The first orthotics were simple braces to support the leg and try to straighten it. They found that the early braces also encouraged him to use his shoulder joint more normally. “He was moving his bad leg in a circular motion instead of moving forward and back,” says Thomason.
When Fin was two months old, Warnock decided it was time to surgically move his crooked foot, and repair his shoulder socket.
Dr. Warnock detached his foot and, being careful not to damage the neurovascular structures that supply blood to it, she pulled the foot down toward the end of the leg bone as far as it would go. Then surgical residents Drs. Jesse Terry and Sara Losinski helped hold it in place while she inserted stainless steel pins.
Fourth-year students on surgical rotation scrubbed in and observed the surgery. “They kept saying ‘What’s that?’” says Warnock. “There was nothing in there that remotely resembled an anatomy textbook.”
Fin recovered well from the surgery; his leg is still about half the length of a normal limb, but much straighter. At first, he wore a cast that covered the whole lower half of his body and immobilized his leg. When that was removed, Thomason put him in an orthotic he built from moldable plastic, heavy luggage material, pipe foam, neoprene, and Velcro.
“When humans get a total knee replacement, there are no ligaments inside the knee; it’s just skin and this wobbly joint,” says Thomason. “So when I developed his orthotic, I thought of him as having a shoulder replacement, an elbow replacement, and a wrist replacement.”
Because Fin is growing so fast, Thomason makes him a new orthotic every week. “It’s ingenious,” says Warnock. “Kevin spends the whole weekend making these things.”
Thomason also built a harness that limits Fin’s range of motion when they take him for a walk. It forces Fin to move the leg forward and back instead of in a circle.
In treating Fin, Warnock and Thomson have to take his breed into consideration: he is a Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retriever, also known as a Toller. Tollers are very smart, high-energy, athletic dogs. “Fin is a warrior, marathon runner who is not even trying to take care of his joints,” says Thomason. “We have to manage his activity.”
In addition to progressively longer walks, Thomason provides Fin with thinking games: “I set up little courses, so he has to figure out a puzzle to get his kibble. I keep changing it, and he figures it out every time.”
When Fin’s leg is completely healed, and his shoulder muscles are moving correctly, they will start him on water therapy. “He’ll be spending the rest of his life in water,” says Warnock, “because he needs to burn off steam while protecting his other legs.”
Fin wears his orthotic for most of the day, and now uses it with confidence (see video). Warnock and Thomson remove it in the evening to give the leg a rest, and Fin has learned to quickly adapt from a four-point gait to a three-point gait. In the morning, once the orthotic is on, it only takes him a minute to start walking on four legs.
What’s next for Fin?
“There are things we could still do surgically, but we are waiting to see how it goes,” says Warnock. They are weighing the pros and cons of lengthening the leg. “I have concerns about how that will affect his joints,” says Warnock, “and I can’t refer to case reports to make a decision. To my knowledge, this particular combination of defects has never been reported in dogs.”
Meanwhile, Warnock is carefully documenting Fin’s progress, so she can eventually write a journal article to share with the veterinary community. “When you treat rare conditions,” she says, “it is important to get your discoveries out there for everyone.”
Although Fin will never be able to run full-out for extended periods of time, or engage in rambunctious play with other dogs, he is very lucky to have two owners who are giving him a great life. “He has no idea he has a disability,” says Warnock “He gives so much: he loves everyone; he teaches the students the orthopedic exam, and how to do bandage changes; he is emotional support during finals week; he chases the birds off the blueberries; and he can also be quiet and just hang out with you.”