Tinkering When You Don’t Have a Leg to Stand On

In 2003, a stroke left a Walt the schnauzer unable to use his front leg. The veterinarian recommended amputation. As fate would have it, however, amputation wasn’t the cards for Walt the dog. Walt’s owner’s cousin, Martin Kaufmann, came up with an idea to create a canine prosthetic. Utilizing the same tools and techniques he used in his day job as a human prosthetics engineer, Martin adapted his knowledge of muscles and bones to develop a pup prosthetic. After some tinkering and testing, Martin was able to custom fit a canine device, and just like that, Walt was back on his feet.

Pet owners, rescue and rehabilitation groups are often faced with difficult decisions about how far they should go to help a disabled animal. Historically, most of these animals were euthanized, but thanks to tinkerers like Martin Kaufmann, immobile pets are getting a new lease on life…and it all began with a little tinkering.

Martin Kaufmann is no stranger to animals. He grew up on a 25-acre hobby farm in Wisconsin that hosted a menagerie of creatures including chickens, goats, cats, dogs and sheep. When Martin graduated from high school, he decided to specialize in human Orthotics and Prosthetics in order to use the hands-on skills he had learned on the farm to help others.

After getting Walt back on his feet, Martin returned to his day job in human orthotics and prosthetics, however he and his wife Amy, a school teacher, began accepting two to five animal cases a month in their spare time. Each night they would head home from their day jobs and into to their 400-square-foot garage to tackle the next challenge.

One of the Kaufmann’s first patients was a six-pound Jack Russell Terrier that had been born without his front legs. The little dog named Kandu was in the care of a local rescue organization. Kandu lived with Martin and Amy for three months while they worked on creating a device that would allow him to walk. Canine wheelchairs are typically designed to support a dog’s hind legs, which posed a problem. In addition, the weight of the wheelchair was too much for Kandu’s small stature. The Kaufmanns took the canine wheelchair concept, tweaked it and integrated a slanted vest that would help relieve stress and strain on the dog’s little body, allowing him to walk. Finally able to walk, run and play just like an able-bodied dog, Kandu found his forever family with an engineer who has continued to tinker with Martin’s device. Kandu now has a series of modifications and accessories that allow him to sled and swim.

By 2007, word about the Kauffmans’ animal prosthetics had spread. People from around the world were reaching out to the Kaufmanns for help on behalf of their pets. One notable case was that of Andre, a Rottweiler mix from Alaska. After being caught in an illegal snare, Andre chewed off his own paws in order to escape and survive. He was flown to the Kaufmanns by an Alaskan rescue group. Andrew remained with Martin and Amy for three months as the duo prepared his prosthetic paws. Seeing Andre take off on his new prosthetic legs was a sight the Kauffmans say they will never forget.

By this point Martin was eight years into a career in human prosthetics. He loved his job, but had grown frustrated watching the bureaucracy of insurance processes prevent patients from obtaining the prosthetics they desperately needed. In addition to his day job, Martin’s newfound hobby of helping animals had begun to take up a considerable amount of time. The Kaufmanns realized they could not continue working at their full-time jobs and coming home to spend evenings and weekends working on prosthetics in their garage. After reflecting on the unnecessary costs pet owners spend to fix problems like torn ACLs or amputation surgeries, the couple talked it over with their families and decided to pursue their dream of giving animals an affordable, viable second chance and mobility—and OrthoPets was launched.

Today, operating out of a 5,000-square-foot facility in Denver, OrthoPets has a staff of 19. The team is even able to consult with patients and prospective patients online, thanks to virtual conferencing through Skype and Facetime. OrthoPets has worked with over 8,000 patients on six continents, but disabled dogs aren’t the only ones walking again. After the Kauffmans helped a 300-pound llama named “Tripod” who fell into a hole and broke his leg, word spread, and soon they were helping farm animals of all kids.  OrthoPets’ clientele now includes cows, horses, alpacas, sheep, goats, mice and a ram — each with an incredible story to tell.

What began as the story of a man searching for answers on behalf of a family pet led to a development that has changed the lives of countless pets and pet owners around the world. In 2010, OrthoPets reconnected with Dr. Patsy Mich, a veterinarian whose pet they had helped a few years before. With her assistance, OrthoPets became a fully accredited veterinary clinic. To-date they are the only orthotics clinic in the world that works exclusively on animals.


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