Horse prostheses: Wyoming veterinarian gives horses a second chance at life
Dr. Ted Vlahos, owner of Yellowstone Equine Hospital in Cody, has been amputating and fitting horses for prostheses for over 20 years.
“I did my first case in 2000, on a horse that had a very debilitating injury which either needed euthanasia or to try amputation and a prosthesis. A couple of my mentors had done some prostheses cases in years prior, so we did our first one and it worked out very well,” says Ted.
“The first case taught all of us a lot, and we have since modified some procedures, making it more similar to what they’re doing in humans,” says Ted. “We’ve worked on some prosthetic designs and continue to improve. Even to this day we are working on some new prostheses, increasing range of motion and comfort for the horse. It’s been a work in progress for the last 20 years.”
Since then, Ted has done over 100 amputations on horses and has helped other veterinarians with the procedure on four different continents. Horses travel from all over the country to Cody for the opportunity to be fitted for a prosthesis. In the last year alone, he has had horses come from Massachusetts, Texas, North Carolina, South Dakota, Illinois and Colorado.
“We have veterinarians calling us from all over the world who heard about us, and we have been able to talk them through the process,” Ted explains. “We will do anything we can to save the horse. We decide if this procedure fits the horse and the owner and if they are a good candidate.”
Amputation and prosthesis
Over the last two decades, Ted has honed and finely tuned the amputation and prosthesis process. The process starts with determining whether or not a horse and its owner are a good fit for the procedure.
Due to the time consuming nature of this process, Ted and his team need to know the horse is in good enough health for the procedure and the owners are committed to the long-term care the horse will need.
Heading into the process, horses are given a complete medical examination, including a radiographic study and baseline blood tests. Once deemed healthy, the horse will have the affected leg amputated and will be up and standing the same day.
“It’s not like they’re in a hospital bed. They have to get up and stand right after surgery,” says Ted.
In lower limb cases, or cases affecting the fetlock and below, the horse is placed in a transfixation cast, which involves two large threaded stainless steel pins placed into the cannon bone and incorporated into the cast.
This allows for the weight to be distributed more evenly through the cast without applying too much pressure to the stump. After approximately two to three weeks, the horse will be put under short anesthesia to evaluate the stump and the healing process.
A couple of weeks later the pins are removed so the horse can place all of its weight onto the stump. Immediately after surgery a temporary prosthesis – a metal cup welded to three or four straps extend over the horse’s leg, is placed over the cast as it’s curing.
This temporary prosthesis allows for the horses to pivot and turn freely.
Constructing the prosthesis
After the stump has healed and the pins have been removed, the horse is given a couple of weeks before the process of constructing the prosthesis begins.
“It generally takes two to four weeks to make the prosthetic,” says Ted. “Generally, we tell people to expect to have their horse in the clinic for three to four months.”
The prosthetic is a post and footplate design made from a mold taken of the horse’s stump. When the mold is shipped to the prosthetic manufacturers, they make a plaster of Paris cast in the mold, then fabricate a hard test socket.
The test socket is then shipped back to the veterinary clinic, the horse is placed under short anesthesia to be sure the prosthetic is a good fit, and the horse is refitted with the temporary prosthetic while the final prosthetic is made.
It takes one to two weeks for the final prosthetic to be made, and they are made of either graphite laminate or hard plastic. The clinic then has a welding shop make a stainless steel footplate with borium for added grip.
The final prothesis is a bivalve design with a padded liner for the horse. It’s perforated to allow air flow to keep the horse cool. Just like in humans, horses wear a standard prosthetic sock, secured with straps.
“We want them to go home and be turned out to run around in a pasture as quickly as possible,” says Ted.
After the surgery, horses return to a comfortable life where they can run and roam for many years to come.
When asked why he does it, one can hear the smile in Ted’s voice.
“I think it’s all about being a good steward of the gift we are given. It has been an absolute privilege to be a veterinarian for the last 35 years, and I hope at the end of the day we have been a good steward of this gift. And the big thing is, we have actually made a difference,” he says
Tressa Lawrence is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.