A catastrophic injury doesn’t have to mean a death sentence for a horse.
Dr. Ted Vlahos, a veterinarian in Cody, specializes in fitting horses for prosthetic limbs.
“After 911, we started having a lot of guys and girls come back from the Middle East with prosthetics,” Vlahos said. “And it was intriguing to me, and I had a horse that needed to have that as an option — either an artificial limb prosthesis or be euthanized. So I did my first case in 2000.”
Vlahos held up one of the prosthetics he has used to put a horse back on its “feet.”
“This prosthetic for a horse actually comes apart, like a ski boot with a horse’s leg in there,” he described. “We clamp it, and we actually tighten this cable system shut.”
Vlahos said giving a horse a prosthesis is only considered in worst-case scenarios.
“Some of them are expensive breeding animals, some of them are just backyard pets. And I would say more than half of them that we deal with are family members,” he said. “We don’t care how much the horse is worth on paper. We care what quality of life we can give it, and if we can’t give it a good quality of life, then we’ll stop.
“But the vast majority of the horses that we’ve done amputations on, over 70% of them long term have a really normal quality of life – so they can be turned out to be brood mares, be pasture pets, be therapy horses for wounded warriors, and we’ve done a few of those as well,” he continued.
Vlahos used an X-ray of a horse’s injured leg to demonstrate.
“This was one that was not salvageable,” he said. “So we, and the owners, elected to give him an artificial limb, and we did the amputation and prosthesis here. So he spent a few months here in the clinic, and he’s back in California running around and is a pretty happy horse.”
Vlahos explained that he works with two prosthetics companies, Comfort Prosthetics in Michigan and Hanger Prosthetics, a Wyoming company.
“They’ve been really helpful to put together safe limbs for the horse,” he said. “So we’ve had quite a few of them. We’ve done, I think, six of them this year.”
Dr. Vlahos explained that although his practice is based in Cody, he’s been able to travel the world helping horses with extreme injuries live normal lives. He said that so far, he and his team have done around 100 cases on four continents.
“What makes an expert is if you’ve seen every complication possible, so I am an expert,” Vlahos said. “And our job is to troubleshoot and deal with them.”
In addition to traveling himself, Vlahos works virtually with teams, coaching surgeons around the globe.
“I have to be in surgery in the morning, 2 o’clock tomorrow morning in Italy, via Zoom, to work with a team at the University of Bologna on a horse over there,” he said. “So we help surgeons all over the planet.”
Vlahos’ regular practice is busy year-round – he sees between 5,000 and 6,000 horses a year, and he said he performed six surgeries just last week.
“It’s not our everyday job, we see regular horses for everyday lameness and everyday preventive care, but we just kind of fell into this about twenty-some years ago, and it’s worked out well.”