Podiatrist creates orthotic for 'Houdini' wombat

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A Queensland podiatrist and a prosthetist have branched out from their usual profession of treating humans to help create an orthotic for an injured wombat.

Rockhampton Zoo staff approached a local podiatrist about an ulcer on wombat ‘Alan’s’ back leg.

Fate, it would seem, lead them to a podiatrist of the same name, Allan Harwood, who said he was instantly keen to see what he could do for the furry marsupial.

“Alan was a wombat that the zoo picked up quite some years ago,” Mr Harwood said.

“He was hit by a car, which left him with an injury to his right rear foot, which left it misshapen.

“Standing on that foot, there was a pressure point that kept breaking down and while his health was good, in his latter years, he needed some extra help and the question was asked whether the podiatrist could do anything to help this spot and help heal the ulcer.”

Mr Harwood said they attempted to take a plaster cast of Alan’s foot but he didn’t enjoy sitting still for too long.

Instead they managed to take a print of his paw using foam, which they were then able to derive measurements from.

“We came up with something that was a good starting point and then we brought Marcus Wood into play, a visiting prosthetist who makes artificial legs, so he was able to create a lovely soft pad that was going to be able to off-load this pressure point,” Mr Harwood said.

But Mr Harwood said Alan was a ‘bit of a Houdini’.

“It was lovely to see how that would fit on his foot but it wasn’t always staying in place, so we had our staff here sitting behind the front counter stitching pieces of leather and velcro on to make it work a little more effectively,” he said.

“It was a labour of love — it was a bit of a pleasure to try to create something that was going to off-load this pressure but still leave his claws sticking out because a wombat still needs to scratch.”

Sadly, Alan passed away last week due to old age. He had been at the Rockhampton Zoo for 20 years.

Alan was seriously injured in 2015 when Tropical Cyclone Marcia brought a tree down between two enclosures allowing a neighbouring male wombat to enter Alan’s enclosure.

A fight ensued leaving Alan with serious injuries, which he took weeks to recover from.

Zoo staff on Facebook described Alan as a “trooper” who thought he was the “top dog” and had earned a special place in the keepers’ hearts.

Orthosis and prosthesis for animals a growing industry

The Australian Veterinary Association’s Paula Parker said the orthotics and prosthetics industry for pets was still in its infancy in Australia but she said it was not unheard of for specialists in the human world to assist in tough animal cases.

“Occasionally we will, depending on a particular case, talk to our medical colleagues and get them to collaborate with a vet in terms of how we can find a best fit or the best solution for a particular animal,” she said.

Dr Parker said the orthotics and prosthesis sector for animals in Australia had the potential for growth.

“One thing we know about pets is, because of all the veterinary care we know that they are getting and all the diseases that we’re able to prevent, they’re thankfully living much longer than what they used to,” she said.

“More and more of what vets are dealing with is chronic age illnesses and how we keep our pets mobile and happy in their late years, so that’s one part where we could see [growth in the industry].

“The other part is where we see them in conjunction with animals, particularly the flat-faced [breeds], where because of how they’ve been bred they have conformation abnormalities.”

As to whether Mr Harwood would be creating orthotics for other animals at the zoo, he said it certainly would not become his niche market.

“As a podiatrist, I’m great with humans,” he said.

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