The Bionic Dog

Technological advances let veterinarians rebuild dogs from the paws up.

By | Posted: Tue May 30 00:00:00 PDT 2000

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"We have to look to human medicine for the early history of hip replacement in the dog," Dr. Olmstead said. As early as 1938, a stainless steel artificial hip was designed in England. But it wasn't until the early 1960s that physicians reported placing a total hip in their first patient. Today, human hip replacement has turned into a major industry with more than 125,000 surgeries performed in the United States a year, each with a hospital stay of five to seven days and an average cost of $38,000 per hip. In contrast, veterinarians put fewer than 2,000 hips a year into dogs, each with an average hospital stay of two to three nights and a cost of $1,700 to $4,000 per hip.

The first total hip replacement in a dog was performed in 1974. Dr. Olmstead, considered by many to be the father of canine total hip replacement, began performing the procedure in 1976. He has done more than 2,000 surgeries, both at Ohio State and assisting surgeons in other practices. In November 1995, he helped give Maxwell a new hip, working with Thomas Sooy, VMD, and Ronald K. Fallon, DVM, as part of the hip team at Maryland Veterinary Medical Services in Catonsville.

"Total hip replacement is a two-day process for us," explained Dr. Sooy, owner of Maryland Veterinary Medical Services. "It takes 16 to 20 technician-hours to prepare the operating room for surgery. We scrub the walls, the floors, the lights and every nook, cranny and piece of equipment. We are very, very fussy. We maintain high standards to absolutely minimize the risk of infection during surgery, and it pays off."

Maxwell's presurgical exam was just as thorough as the surgical suite's cleansing. Before referral he had hip X-rays taken and passed a physical exam and a full general health screening given by Dr. Nisson. Then the surgical team pored over the test results and Maxwell, as they clipped the surgical site and settled the dog into the hospital the day before surgery. "If we find the dog has any systemic illness, nervous-system problem, pain from another orthopedic problem - such as a ruptured cruciate, or knee ligament - or even a skin infection, he's not a candidate for surgery," Dr. Fallon said.

The surgery is relatively fast. The team completes most surgeries in less than an hour, but that hour is intensely busy. To place a total hip, the surgeons must remove the head of the femur - the "ball" of the joint - along with the upper thighbone (femur), making the cut at a carefully determined angle. The femur is hollowed out so the stem of the implant fits snugly inside. Cartilage and a precise amount of bone must be removed from the acetabulum - the natural "socket" - to make room for the polyethylene replacement. After the surgical cement is applied, the ball is fitted into the socket, and the surgical site is stitched closed.

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