When Mary Hay and her companion Una, a mixed malamute and husky breed, go on one of their numerous daily walks, Hay inevitably finds herself explaining what happened to Una.
The 5½-year-old dog does not pull a sled, as her breed is famous for. Instead, she bounces around – Hay refers to it as a dancing motion – with the assistance of a prosthetic limb on her front left leg.
The gray plastic-looking tube resembles a cast on her front left leg, and it makes a pounding sound when she walks on hard surfaces.
Hay says she does not tire of explaining what happened to Una, but she wants more people to know just how common it is for a pet to have a prosthetic.
Una’s story starts around this time of year in 2009 when she and nearly 100 sled dogs were rescued in Hartsel after being abused and nearly starved to death.
Hay, a retired environmental lawyer and self-described animal lover, read about the incidents and decided to go to Ark-Valley Humane Society and play with some of the dogs in January 2010. She did not intend on bringing one home, she said.
In fact, Hay said if she was going to bring a dog home, it was going to be Una’s pen-mate at Ark-Valley. That was until Una, who still had all of her limbs at the time, walked up and wrapped her front paws around Hay.
“That was it. I took her home,” she said.
At the time, Hay lived alone in Coaldale just off the Arkansas River. Although Una was and still is skittish from her experiences in Hartsel, she warmed to Hay. The two became close companions and went on frequent, long hikes together.
“I didn’t adopt her. She adopted me,” Hay said/
But one night in February 2011, when the temperature was 19 degrees below zero, Una ran off, Hay said. She searched but did not find Una until 24 hours after she had first gone missing. During that time, Una’s front left leg and several toenails on her right paw got wet, and she suffered a severe frostbite.
“I was horrified,” she said.
Hay took Una to a local veterinarian, who told her that Una should be euthanized, a suggestion Hay vehemently rejected. Una’s left leg had to be amputated at her carpal – the equivalent of a dog’s wrist – and since it was one of her front legs, some sort of assistance would be needed for Una to walk.
That’s when Hay went to work researching possibilities on the Internet, which she seldom uses. She discovered several places in the country that specialize in prosthetics for canines, but it was not an easy fix.
The first two prosthetics did not fit snugly, which caused irritation and made it difficult to walk, Hay said. They also proved costly, with each one running in excess of $1,000.
Hay continued searching and eventually found K-9 Orthotics and Prosthetics in Nova Scotia. She contacted the owner, Jeff Collins, an amputee himself, and asked if he could help.
Una’s situation was fairly standard in comparison to most cases, said Dorothy Selig, K-9 Orthotics and Prosthetics office assistant.
With help from Mark Vandenberg at Animal Care Center, Hay was able to send a mold of Una’s leg to Collins, who designed a prosthetic Hay calls “perfect.”
Unlike the first two, the newest prosthetic consists of an inner liner of suede leather and a carbon fiber outer tube that slides over the inner tube like a shell.
“She took to it right away and never looked back,” Hay said.
The prosthetic means Hay can take her best friend on hikes. Since moving to Salida, the two usually walk the Monarch Spur Trail at least three times a day, where they run into other dogs and their owners, most notably author Kent Haruf, who had a special relationship with Una, Hay said. The abuse earlier in her life makes her hesitant around humans, especially men, but not Haruf.
“She would get excited and run up to him,” Hay said. “She adored him, and he was so sweet.”
Haruf, like others, asked Hay about the prosthetic, which Hay says she happily explained. However, Hay commonly leaves out the lengths to which she went to make it happen.
The three prosthetics cost more than $3,000, and while Harley’s Hope Foundation – a nonprofit organization in Colorado Springs that provides financial assistance to pet owners in need – paid for about 75 percent of the cost of the most recent prosthetic, there are still upkeep costs for the prosthetic, primarily replacing the sole, which wears down and has to be replaced.
The entire process required an untold number of hours and hundreds of miles of driving, but Hay said she never considered doing nothing.
“Lets face it, she’s been through hell twice,” Hay said. “She didn’t deserve that, so I was committed. I knew there was a way. I have so much love and respect for this animal. Why would I ever deprive her of the best possible care?”
Hay is not alone. At K-9 Orthotics and Prosthetics, the number of inquiries has been steadily increasing, Selig said. As more people become aware of the prosthetic capabilities, and as they become more affordable, it is safe to assume more and more pet owners will consider prosthetics as a viable and possibly preferred alternative to euthanasia, she added.
Hay said she has met other dogs with a prosthetic limb, including a dog with four prosthetic legs. For these pet owners, their dog is more than a pet, which is why Hay says she would not have done anything less for Una.
“When we cross paths with someone and I tell them the story, they turn to her and say ‘you’re a lucky dog,’” Hay said, “and I look at them and say ‘no, I’m a very lucky person.’”