Now the patient is competing again — on all fours.
“She’s doing very well,” Pond said of Lily, a 9-year-old pug who participates in agility contests. “For her to be able to run, jump and climb again is pretty exciting news.”
Pond, who is based in New Haven, is among a handful of veterinarians who have been replacing hips, elbows and knees in dogs like Lily, allowing them to prolong their competitive careers.
Joint replacement has helped larger working dogs return to hunting, aiding the blind and assisting in search-and-rescue missions and other police activities, not to mention relieving the pain of beloved pets. Although hip-replacement surgery for bigger dogs has been performed since the mid-1970s, micro-hip replacement for cats and dogs weighing 6 to 30 pounds began in the last five years.
“I was totally shocked to see that Lily was walking so well almost immediately after the surgery,” said her owner, Kathleen Dooley of Washington Heights. “She is happiest when she is training and competing. It keeps her mentally and physically fit.”
That sentiment is familiar to Dr. Pamela Schwartz, who specializes in soft tissue and orthopedic surgery at the Animal Medical Center in Manhattan.
“Many people treat their dogs as if they were their own children,” she said. “So when it comes to the health of their dogs, owners are more inclined than ever before to seek out specialized care.”
According to the American Pet Products Association, based in Greenwich, Conn., spending in the industry — including food, supplies, veterinary care, live animal purchases and services like grooming and boarding — grew by 5.4 percent to more than $45.5 billion in 2009 from $43.2 billion the year before, with no declines in any category from 2007.
The average cost of replacement surgery is about $5,000, not including any physical therapy that may follow.
Lily, who weighs 18 pounds, is one of about 200 dogs around the world who have had a micro-hip replacement since the product was licensed in 2005, by BioMedtrix, a company in Boonton, N.J., that designs, develops and manufactures veterinary orthopedic implants and the surgical tools used in such procedures. The primary materials used in the prosthetics — titanium and cobalt-chromium-molybdenum alloys — are the same as those for humans.
“While the short-term results have been very good,” Pond said, “I think there aren’t many other veterinarians doing these types of surgeries because they seem to be hanging back, waiting on the long-term results.”
Indeed, six months after Lily’s replacement surgery, she still limped occasionally. Pond found a gap between the artificial socket and the bone, so he recemented the socket into place in May 2007. Lily has had no problems since.
“This is a relatively new science,” said Dr. William D. Liska, a veterinary orthopedic surgeon based in Houston who performed the first micro-hip replacement there in April 2005 on a Shetland sheepdog named Champ.
Two months later, Liska made an international house call in Helsinki, Finland, to perform the first knee replacement on a Karelian bear dog named Jere, a national moose hunting champion, as part of clinical trials for the prosthetics. Total knee replacements became available for all dogs in 2007.
Since then, about 120 dogs have had the operation. Among Liska’s 1,500 surgical patients over the years are a black Labrador retriever from Rome, a yellow Labrador from Mexico and a Lhasa apso from Japan.
“I don’t think the general public is very aware of these surgical procedures,” he said. “When they find out, they are wowed by it and pleasantly surprised.”
Three years ago, Liska replaced a hip on a 7-year-old Australian shepherd named Zydeco, whose career as a champion Frisbee dog was in jeopardy.
“She did this particular trick during competitions where she caught a Frisbee and rolled over on her back,” said Mark McNitt of Houston, who owns Zydeco. “Suddenly, she wasn’t able to do that anymore, and over time, I noticed she started limping and I realized she was in pain.”
Six months after the operation, Zydeco was working out again in her backyard. Shortly thereafter, she was back on the Frisbee circuit. In August, Zydeco and McNitt finished 12th among 69 teams at the Colorado Canine Challenge in Denver.
“I don’t know what we would have done if this surgery wasn’t available,” McNitt said. “She’s just tearing it up now, no more pain, and she will probably be competing for another three or four years.”
Pond said that, unlike humans, most athletic dogs who had joint-replacement surgery could return to top-level competition.
“As long as these dogs are not involved in a contact sport, they should be fine,” he said. “Bo Jackson had hip-replacement surgery and could not return to football, but Tom Watson was able to return because golf does not have the same physical demands.”
Total elbow replacements for dogs weighing 50 to 80 pounds began in the late 1980s, but only since a minimally invasive procedure was developed in 2008 has it become a generally accepted method of treating severe disease in the joint. Since then, 90 dogs worldwide have had total elbow replacements, the first performed by Dr. Randall L. Acker in 2007 on a black Labrador from Boise, Idaho, named Otis.
Acker, who is based in Sun Valley, Idaho, was inspired by his yellow Labrador, Tate, who suffered greatly from elbow tendinitis before dying of cancer in 2003. He worked with Greg Van Der Meulen, a biomedical engineer, to create a cementless total elbow prosthesis. Now known as the Tate Elbow, it was eventually licensed by BioMedtrix.
“I didn’t want to see any more dogs going through what Tate went through,” Acker said. “More and more people who consider their dogs to be a part of their families are now opting for this surgery, and they are willing to pay for it.”
“It’s well worth it,” said Dr. Jim Sabshin, a neurosurgeon from New Haven. Five years ago, Liska performed a double hip replacement on his 7-year-old Labrador retriever, Leia.
“She was having trouble hunting, swimming and walking up stairs, just sort of bunny-hopping around, which is a sign of hip dysplasia,” Sabshin said. “I thought I had two really bad options: letting her live with the pain or having to put her down. She’s now running around like a normal dog. You could never tell she has artificial hips.”
The same could be said for Lily, who was gnawing on a bone at home a few hours before a recent training session at the Port Chester Obedience Training Club in White Plains. An inch-long scar on her left hip was the only sign of her operation.
“My local veterinarian said Lily would never again be able to do agility exercises,” Dooley said, watching Lily scoot around her apartment. “But my husband and I kept searching for help. We never gave up.
“Just look at her now.”
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