DJ is a sweet, energetic pit heeler/terrier mix who was less than a year old when he was found as a stray. He was taken to a shelter in Illinois where rescuers quickly noticed his back legs weren’t working properly. Even worse, the issue that was affecting his legs was also causing incontinence. In most cases, DJ would be at high risk for being euthanized. Thanks to the collaborative efforts of Animal Lifeline of Iowa, VCA Avondale Veterinary Hospital, and therapeutic device company Thera-Paw, Inc., DJ is happy, thriving and patiently waiting for the right family to adopt him.

A Rough Start

The shelter in Illinois that rescued DJ knew that they could not give him the support and care he would need. They reached out to Martha Wittkowski, executive director of Animal Lifeline of Iowa – Central  Iowa’s only special needs, no-kill animal shelter – who agreed to take him in.

Animal Lifeline rescues cats and dogs that are injured, handicapped, abused, have a serious medical condition, pregnant and nursing moms, or orphans that require bottle feeding. The shelter rehabilitates the animals, who run a higher risk of euthanasia in a traditional shelter setting, then adopts them into loving forever homes. Animals are not euthanized because they have been at the shelter for a certain length of time.

For the entire 35 years of its existence, Animal Lifeline has collaborated with VCA Avondale to ensure the animals they take in receive the very best care. VCA Avondale offers a full range of services including advanced canine orthopedics and a complete pet rehabilitation facility, making  the hospital the perfect partner for Animal Lifeline.

“Because we take in animals with special needs, we see a lot of weird cases,” says Martha. “But I rarely say no to a case because I know the staff at VCA Avondale have the expertise and willingness to work with these special animals.”

Christina Carlo, DVM, CCRT, medical director and certified canine rehabilitation therapist at VCA Avondale, treated DJ. After extensive X-rays and examinations, Dr. Carlo diagnosed him with inter-vertebral disc disease, a condition where the discs in the vertebrae harden until they are no longer able to cushion the vertebrae normally. Dr. Carlo thinks it was caused by a serious accident when DJ was a young puppy.
Bike Shorts for DJ

Despite his issues, DJ is a sweet and happy boy, who's extremely social and playful. To help him get around, Animal Lifeline got DJ a custom wheelchair, but quickly found that he prefers to run and play without it. 

DJ’s condition makes it challenging for him to walk, and he often falls on his backside. Martha and the other caregivers noticed that the constant falling was causing sores on DJ’s legs and the base of his tail. To help solve the problem, Dr. Carlo contacted Ilaria Borghese, owner and President of Thera-Paw, Inc.

Thera-Paw designs custom products for dogs that reduce discomfort, support injured limbs and improve mobility. Ilaria and her team work with several VCA hospitals, creating devices that help reduce pain and improve the quality of life for dogs.

“Working with Ilaria is great, because she’s always willing to take on a challenge and experiment,” explains Dr. Carlo. “I’ve worked with Thera-Paw for other patients who needed custom carpal supports, and I knew she would be willing to make something that would help DJ to protect his back end when he falls, but also extend the front section of the shorts to go over his belly for pads to help keep him clean.”

Martha, Dr. Carlo and Ilaria started by discussing DJ’s challenges, then worked together to brainstorm ideas that would help prevent the sores. Martha sent pictures and videos of DJ and Dr. Carlo took careful measurements, then Ilaria got to work.

“I look at all products that are already available to see if there's anything that we can use as a foundation; this is more cost-effective and faster than starting from scratch,” says Ilaria.  "In DJ's case, I suggested that we start with a swim diaper that fit him, then add the needed leg, tail, and belly components and make any other adjustments." 

Ilaria added padded hip components and tail bumper, then created openings for the front and back so that DJ could potty outside without having to remove the shorts. It took one round of modifications to get it just right, and DJ's bike shorts were done. Ilaria documented the entire process in a video.

Waiting for his Forever Home

Although his legs will always be a little “wonky” according to Dr. Carlo, rehabilitation and physical therapy exercises have helped to strengthen DJ's hind end and develop his muscles. Thanks to his custom bike shorts, he no longer gets sores on his tail or backside. There is just one problem: because the bike shorts need to be washed regularly and can’t be put in a dryer, they can’t be worn every day. So Ilaria recently created a whole-body suit for DJ that will dry much faster and should better accommodate DJ’s very active lifestyle.

Thanks to the loving care and collective efforts of Martha, Dr. Carlo and Ilaria, DJ went from being at high risk for being euthanized to healthy, happy and thriving.

“All animals deserve a chance,” says Dr. Carlo. “They have wants and needs just like we do, and we’re here to be their advocates. If there’s something we can do to help them find a forever home, we’re going to do it.”

According to Martha, Animal Lifeline could not save as many animals if it wasn’t for their partnership with VCA Avondale. 

“The relationship we have with VCA makes what we do possible,” says Martha. “They have the expertise we need to take on these special cases.”

As DJ approaches his second birthday, he is still at Animal Lifeline, waiting for his forever home. 

“Animal Lifeline isn’t a home, but it’s as close to a home as we can make it,” says Martha. “I know there’s a family out there for DJ.”

For over two decades, VCA has been committed to helping animal welfare organizations lessen return to shelters, end pet homelessness and encourage pet adoption nationwide.

Pets like DJ can get a healthy start in their new home thanks a partnership between VCA Animal Hospitals and over 100 outstanding animal shelter and rescue organizations all over the country. The VCA Healthy Start Shelter program gives adopters peace of mind by offering a free initial health exam and treatment of any minor illness up to 14 days after adoption (up to $250) at any VCA Animal Hospital. Additionally, pet adopters are educated by our medical experts and hospital team members on how best to keep their pet healthy and happy in their lifetime. 

If you’re interested in learning more about Animal Lifeline of Iowa or adopting DJ, please visit their website.
“Despite his issues, DJ is a sweet and happy boy, who's extremely social and playful. As DJ approaches his second birthday, he is still at Animal Lifeline, waiting for his forever home. ”