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.”