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Bioengineer Designs Improved Dog Wheelchair

August 14th, 2008

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Maggie

A puppy dashes out the front door, runs into the street and gets hit by a car. An older dog leaps down from the porch to chase a squirrel and fractures a vertebra in its spine.

When a family dog’s hind legs are paralyzed from injuries, nerve problems or disease, its owners face a tough decision. They can take on the demanding job of caring for a pet which no longer can walk, or they can have the animal euthanized.

University of Louisville bioengineer Gina Bertocci was deeply troubled by the problem, so this past year, she and mechanical engineering graduate student Eddie Fowler designed and developed an adjustable wheelchair for paraplegic dogs that anyone can build with items commonly found at a hardware store.

She’s not pursuing a patent on their invention. Instead, she plans to post free instructions on the Internet for people who want to build the wheelchair themselves.

“This isn’t about making money,” said Bertocci, an endowed chair of biomechanics at Speed School of Engineering with a joint appointment in pediatrics. “It’s about improving the quality of life for injured dogs and their owners.”

Bertocci field-tested it for the first time in July with a 3-year-old Doberman Pinscher named Maggie.

Maggie’s hind legs were permanently paralyzed after she was hit by a car last year.

“The new wheelchair is great,” said Gretchen Lindquist, a Madison, Ind. veterinary assistant who adopted the dog after its owners realized they could no longer care for her. “Maggie isn’t depressed any more. She’s running all over the place. She’s even chasing the cat.”

Wheelchairs for paralyzed dogs have been on the market for some time, but their high cost keeps many pet owners from buying them, Bertocci said. Most carry a price tag of several hundred dollars and can’t be adjusted to keep up with a growing dog.

That means an owner may face buying several wheelchairs for the same pet, an expense that can run upwards of $1,000, she said.

Bertocci’s canine wheelchair is fully adjustable and weighs about 12 pounds. Parts can be purchased for less than $200 and assembled in one day.

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PVC pipe keeps make the wheelchair lightweight.

“We used computer modeling and analysis to design the wheelchair so that it was lightweight and strong,” she said.

The only non-hardware store items used for the wheelchair are two harnesses that attach to the dog. They can be purchased online from a dog training supplier. The frame, made of telescoping PVC pipe, can be made longer or shorter by moving locking cotter pins along pre-drilled holes in the pipe. The wheels are wheelbarrow-size pneumatic tires.

“We even mounted a speedometer on the wheelchair to see how fast Maggie can go,” she said.

Bertocci will present a paper Aug. 16 at the Fifth International Symposium on Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy in Veterinary Medicine on how she and her students developed the wheelchair.

She also is actively engaged in other bioengineering research, including one project aimed at detecting child abuse and another geared toward improving wheelchair safety on vehicles, such as buses.

Bertocci holds a Ph.D. in bioengineering and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering. She also has taken veterinary courses at Purdue University and animal rehabilitation courses at the University of Tennessee.

“My work in rehabilitation builds on my expertise in biomechanics, and I don’t feel that should be limited to humans,” she said.

She also brings firsthand experience to her work. Her Labrador Retriever, Rex, suffered hind-leg paralysis five years ago.

“We bought him a commercial wheelchair,” she said, “but it was too heavy and cumbersome for him to use. Now I hope we can help other dogs with this new wheelchair.”

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