01 November 2010

A New Set of Wheels Can Improve a Dog's Life, Too

TheWall Street Journal

Dogs and sheep and chickens are going around on wheels; cats not so much. Since people consider pets part of the family, they are ever more willing to spend money making life more pleasant for those laid up with injuries and illnesses.

Spin, a five-month-old pet lamb born with crippled hind legs, recently got her fourth progressively larger wheelchair. She is, after all, going through a growth spurt.

"Spin is very special," says Debra Jones Bachrach, her owner, gazing down as the animal pivots to brush her head up against Ms. Bachrach's knee. Ms. Bachrach has spent about $450 so far on rental fees and modifications for the chairs, which were designed for dogs. Once fully grown, Spin will get fitted with a custom chair of her own. Estimated price: $500.

Spin is in a select but growing cadre of animals that use wheelchairs to get around. Developed for dogs with joint diseases and other complaints, wheelchairs are used to help everything from ferrets to llamas and goats. A company in Washington recently shipped one to Hawaii for a chicken hit by a car.

The pet-wheelchair industry is one manufacturing niche the U.S. still dominates. It is populated by a handful of fiercely competitive small companies, two of them run—not so amicably—by a man and woman who used to be married to each other.

Most of the wheelchairs are designed for animals with difficulties using their hind legs. Generally speaking, the devices consist of a saddle in the rear with some sort of harness that goes over the animal's shoulders or midsection, connected to wheels that allow the creature to move by using its front legs.

Andrew Farabaugh, a veterinary neurologist at Angell Animal Medical Center in Boston, says some animals appear to forget they're even in a chair, once they adapt. "We had a Jack Russell terrier that went a little crazy" once he was mobile again, says Dr. Farabaugh. "He'd go down stairs, chase squirrels."

Most pet wheelchairs—also known as carts—are used for dogs. Chompy, a French bulldog living in New York, is one. He was diagnosed in 2008 with a spinal disease that required three operations and left him unable to walk. This type of injury is beyond the powers of dog glucosamine to fix.

"Six months after the second surgery, we decided to get the cart—because it was hard to take him out," says owner Karen Portnoy.

Ms. Portnoy bought her wheelchair from the same company that produced the ones used by Spin the lamb. Eddie's Wheels Inc., here in Shelburne Falls, sells between 2,000 and 2,500 chairs a year, 90% for dogs, the owners say. But they are branching out into other types of products. They recently made their first chair for a pot-bellied pig named Bacon, owned by a retired butcher in Peru, Mass. They have developed a cross-country ski bracket that attaches to a chair for the skier's best friend.

The average price for one of the company's chairs is $300 to $600, but special designs—such as four-wheeled carts for quadriplegic dogs—can run up to $1,200. The company is run by a husband-and-wife team who produce all the chairs in a 14-employee shop tucked behind their showroom. Some people bring their pets to be fitted at the factory. Most buy online.

"It's becoming less acceptable to offer euthanasia as the only alternative for a pet," says Leslie Grinnell, the company's president.

There are no hard numbers on the size of the industry. But Lincoln Parkes, a veterinary orthopedic surgeon who started building pet wheelchairs in the early 1960s and is widely viewed as the first to develop a business around pet carts, estimates that between 5,000 and 10,000 are sold each year world-wide. Dr. Parkes says the proliferation of mom-and-pop producers and Internet operations has made it a tough business in which to make money.

"Somewhat to my demise financially, I've tried to accommodate most animals that come down the pike," he says. Dr. Parkes says his company, K-9 Cart Company East, located in Oxford, Md., was selling more than 1,000 carts a year a decade ago—but that has fallen to 400.

One of his competitors is his ex-wife, Barbara, of K-9 Carts West, in Langley, Wash. Ms. Parkes says she was the one who ran the company to make the carts designed by her husband while the two were married and her website today opens with the line: "We are the original pet mobility company."

Ms. Parkes's company made the cart for the Hawaiian chicken. "The chicken was run over by a car—and it was picked up by a woman who rescues birds," she says, noting that this job required a special design: The cart is a small semicircular device the chicken rests in. She had one of her employees who keeps chickens at home bring one to the factory to test the design. Ms. Parkes hasn' t yet heard how the Hawaiian bird adapted.

Animals seldom refuse to use wheelchairs, but it does happen. Ms. Parkes notes that obese animals sometimes have trouble. "Sometimes a cat wants nothing to do with it," she adds. "Because it's a cat."

Spin the lamb was put in her first chair when she was 12 days old and seems to have loved it from the start. Ms. Bachrach, her owner, is a hobby farmer in Petersham, Mass., and realized there was something wrong as soon as Spin was born. She couldn't stand up, but would use her front legs to turn in circles.

"So we started calling her the spin lamb, and so it just stuck with her," says Ms. Jones. She recently signed Spin up to work with autistic children and with a group for children in wheelchairs.

She admits it takes a certain kind of person to put a lamb on wheels. It helps that her husband is a veterinary ophthalmologist. "Some of my husband's clients also use carts," she says. "People who seek out an ophthalmologist—they'll do anything."

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