Midnight, a fluffy senior dog, was having difficulty using her back legs. So her owner asked Carrie Harkins, DVM, a veterinarian at VCA New Hartford in New York, to recommend the best resources for buying a dog wheelchair.
Dr. Harkins had a better idea.
She told her husband, Chris Lallier, who happens to be a technology teacher at Oriskany High School. Mr. Lallier then asked his students if anyone would like to take on the project of creating a dog wheelchair for Midnight.
This wasn't the first time Mr. Lallier asked his students to use their technology skills to help a dog in need. In 2016, his students used a 3D printer to create a wheelchair for a 2.8-lb. rescued puppy mill dog named Claire. Because of a birth defect, Claire couldn't move her back legs.
"That was around the time I met Dr. Harkins, my now-wife," Mr. Lallier recalls. "We started talking about a dog wheelchair for Claire."
Thanks to Dr. Harkins, Mr. Lallier and his students, Claire didn't have to have her legs amputated. Instead, the students spent a month designing a lightweight, adjustable wheelchair-like device and then created it with plastic layers using a 3D printer.
The tiny dog gained mobility with what the students called "Claire's Chariot." This inspiring story made the national news and was featured on People.com.
A laser-cut wheelchair for Midnight
Fast-forward six years, and when Mr. Lallier told his students about Midnight needing a wheelchair, Maggie Tylutki, a freshman, immediately volunteered to help.
"I have a dog of my own and I love her so much," Maggie says. "If my dog had trouble walking, I would try to do the same thing. And I would hope that if someone else got the opportunity to, they would as well. Plus, I'm going to be honest: Midnight is really cute, so that always helps."
Maggie put her own spin on that original wheelchair model.
"She was kind of innovating on what we had already built, and she came up with a unique design," Mr. Lallier says. "You can change the size of the wheelchair. I thought it was really cool."
Using computer-aided design (CAD) software, Maggie created a wheelchair that could be produced with quarter-inch sheets of plywood using a laser cutter.
"We were able to cut the sheets, then laminate them together and assemble the wheelchair using some hardware I got at the local hardware store," Mr. Lallier says. It took about three weeks to complete the wheelchair, from the planning stages to the finished product.
To glam up Midnight's wheelchair, Maggie painted it purple, her favorite color, and added acrylic wheels with paw prints. Dr. Harkins helped with the fitting to ensure Midnight was comfortable on her new wheels.
“It's nice to see how engaged the students get when it's a real-world problem, especially when it concerns a cute little dog. It really gets them involved.”
A brief history of dog wheelchairs
In the not-too-distant past, euthanasia was often recommended for pets with mobility problems. Fortunately, that is no longer the case. "As veterinary medicine has advanced, so has our understanding of how to keep pets comfortable and engaged in the face of previously devastating conditions," write Ryan Llera, DVM and Robin Downing, DVM.
Pets with weakened or paralyzed rear legs "often learn quickly how to use a wheelchair that they pull behind them," the veterinarians write. "Adapting the pet's lifestyle to accommodate compromised mobility is often limited only by the imagination."
Back in 1961, veterinarian Dr. Lincoln Parkes created the first patented animal wheelchair for a Dachshund patient of his. Although Dr. Parkes is now retired and in his 90s, he is still making wheelchairs for dogs—as well as for cats, birds and rodents.
Dog wheelchairs, especially custom-built ones, can cost hundreds of dollars or more. So along with generously providing dogs with the ability to stay mobile, Mr. Lallier's students have also saved their owners a lot of money.
Maggie helps Midnight gain mobility
Thanks to Maggie's imagination, Midnight is adjusting well to the wheelchair she created for her. Midnight's story was featured in the Oriskany School District newsletter—and Maggie deservedly got an A for her project.
"It's nice to see how engaged the students get when it's a real-world problem, especially when it concerns a cute little dog," Mr. Lallier says. "It really gets them involved."
Maggie says that if a dog needs a wheelchair in the future, she'll be happy to create another one. "It was a really good experience," she says. She has career plans to create prosthetics in the field of medical engineering.
And should another patient of Dr. Harkins ever need a wheelchair, the veterinarian will once again seek the help of her husband's students. "It's a fun project and the kids seem to love it," she says.
If your pet is showing any symptoms of mobility issues, such as limping, stiffness or difficulty getting up, find a VCA hospital near you at our website.