Oct. 2, 2012 at 2:08 PM ET
A miniature donkey foal born with a deformed leg is now walking – and frolicking with her mother – thanks to a custom-fit pink prosthetic made just for her.
It seems every creature – from dogs to dolphins and penguins to turtles – is receiving artificial parts these days, but equines with prosthetics are rare. That’s because when their limbs are injured or deformed, they’re often put down.
“It’s not something that’s very successful in these size animals – what I mean is 1,000 pound to 1,200 pound horses,” explains Emma's equine surgeon, Dr. Fred Caldwell, an assistant professor at Auburn University’s College of Veterinary Medicine in Alabama.
“Donkeys typically are not as large. Since she’s a miniature donkey, it makes that more of a feasible option. They don’t run the risk of having complications of the other limbs, the support limbs.”
The care of a horse or donkey with an artificial limb is tricky – and often not even attempted. The problem is that the prosthetic must fit well and be comfortable so that the horse will distribute its weight properly – or the animal can hurt its good legs and its quality of life becomes an issue, explains Dr. Barrie Grant, one of the pioneers of equine prosthetics, an equine surgeon and former professor at Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine who is now a consultant.
“Every time it’s done in a donkey and pony and they have a good quality of life, it helps expand people’s knowledge of what can be done,” he says.
The Hangar Clinic – which famously supplied the prosthetic tail for Winter the dolphin from the movie “Dolphin Tale” – also made an artificial leg especially for Emma. Her prosthesis is comparable to those used by Paralympic athletes.
Emma’s exuberant antics are a reversal from her life before: The fluffy donkey foal hobbled into the world in April on three good legs and one so badly warped it had to be amputated in the first days of her life.
The community has rallied around Emma, who has about 70 caretakers, including staff and students at Auburn University, says Dr. Caldwell. The miniature donkey foal showed the right attitude – running around her stall in only her cast at first – from the get-go, which has helped ensure her success.
Dr. Caldwell says Emma’s prosthetic requires daily care and that’s why it’s critical that she allows people to handle her. She’s also adapting well to using her prosthetic as to not cause more damage.
“She’s definitely a fighter,” Dr. Caldwell says. “She has a great attitude.”
Emma is his first equine patient with a prosthesis – and has offered a teaching moment for him and his students.
“Although we’re trained in veterinary medicine, it goes beyond animals,” Dr. Caldwell says. “There’s a bigger picture.”
The plan for Emma is that she’ll give back to her community as a therapy animal to inspire people with an injury or deformity to overcome it, her owner, Cece Smith, says.
The spunky donkey foal who sometimes sports a pink tu-tu is already building a fanbase on her farm and on Facebook.
Jasmin Aline Persch, TODAY contributor and M.D. candidate, is wondering whether a fluffy pink tutu-prosthetic-wearing miniature donkey would make a good pet at medical school. Tweet her here.
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