Derrick Campana with Petey the dog with prosthetic leg Derrick Campana hangs out with Petey, who is sporting a new prosthetic leg. (Photo: Animal Ortho Care/Instagram)

Derrick Campana just wants all animals to be able to walk. And if they can do it without an expensive, invasive surgery, all the better.

Campana is the founder of Animal Ortho Care, a Virginia-based company that makes prosthetics and braces for all sorts of creatures. His career-changing moment came a dozen years ago when he was a relative newcomer to the field of human prosthetics and he spoke to a veterinarian who wanted to have an artificial limb made for her dog. He told her he would try.

"She was a holistic vet and said a lot of people need these things," Campana tells MNN. "I said I would love to do this because I love animals, so I thought it was a perfect match."

That first case worked out well, and gradually Campana expanded to include more animal clients. But in the beginning, it wasn't easy convincing vets or owners to get on board.

"Prosthetics was such a bad word back in the day. Vets didn’t want to take away surgeries, and didn't know much about them," Campana says. "They did a lot of high-level amputations. Traditionally, vets would take the entire leg even if it was just a problem with the toe."

Prosthetics for animals were a far-fetched idea back then, Campana says.

Spreading the word

A puppy checks out his new prosthetic leg. A puppy checks out his new prosthetic leg. (Photo: Animal Ortho Care)

Gradually things began to change. Campana visited vet offices and showed them what his company could do. He also started to spread the word online. Pet owners realized they had another option: instead of amputating an animal's limb, why not try a prosthetic? In some cases, braces could help with injuries or other issues, helping to resolve problems or at least keep them from getting worse. Soon, all his clients were of the critter variety.

Then he developed a kit that allowed pet owners (with or without the help of a vet) to create a cast of their animal's injured limb at home using simple instructions and a step-by-step video. They then send in the fiberglass cast to the company and get a prosthetic in return.

"I send casting kits all over the world," Campana says. "I turn those into a dog's leg without ever seeing the dog."

These days, he only sees about 20 percent of his patients in person.

A menagerie of clients

The vast majority of the clients are canine, but Campana has made prosthetics and braces for a ponies, goats, deer, sheep, donkeys, a llama and a crane. He's going to visit a ram he assisted in Spain and has worked with an eagle and an owl at Busch Gardens. He went to Thailand and made prosthetics for Motala and Mosha, two elephants that had stepped on a land mine.

Some animals adapt easily to the braces and prosthetics, while others take longer.

"It's all over the board. Some get used to it right away; some never get used to it," Campana says. "We can tell humans what to do, we can't tell animals what to do. We never know how an animal is going to react."

Typically, he says, larger dogs adapt better than smaller dogs because there's more surface area for the device. In some cases, it's also a human and canine personality issue.

"There's so many different factors from the owner's personality to the dog's legs," he says. "We guarantee fit, we can't guarantee acceptance. Some cases are way harder than others."

Changing the vet world

Campana estimages he does about 200 prosthetics and braces a month and has created about 15,000 to 20,000 so far in his career. The devices range from $500 to $1,200 each which, he says, is typically much less than surgery. His own dog Henry has a knee issue, patellar luxation. ("I tried to make a brace, but he's the worst patient in the world," Campana says.)

Campana's done 3-D printing, but the materials tend to break down more quickly than traditional plastics and the other material he uses, so he thinks the technology isn't quite there yet.

But there are other advances that Campana is excited about, including high-tech braces for hip dysplasia. These days vets are eager to refer clients to him in order to keep animals from highly invasive surgeries.

"We're completely changing the veterinary community as a whole, and obviously helping pets is what I want to do," he says. "The more pets I can help without surgical intervention and giving pets more options to feel better is what we're all about."

Mary Jo DiLonardo writes about everything from health to parenting — and anything that helps explain why her dog does what he does.