A first-of-its kind muscle transplant surgery has enabled six-year-old Border Collie “Bella” to walk again six months after a freak accident completely disabled her right front leg, causing it to draw up and behind her until it was almost perpendicular to the floor, surgeons at Boston’s Angell Animal Medical Centerannounced on Tuesday.
Bella was saved by Angell surgeon Dr. Mike Pavletic who performed a groundbreaking surgical technique (that Dr. Pavletic himself invented) to transfer muscle tissue from one part of her body to another, thereby “training” the transplanted muscle to do the work the previous muscle had done before the injury.
Bella—who lives with her family in Pawtucket, R.I.—fell off a platform bed in May, severely injuring the muscles and connective tissue in her right front leg. Immediately after the fall Bella was unable to bear weight on the leg and, worse, the triceps muscle contracted so tightly that it caused the entire leg to draw up and behind her where it remained frozen in place for months. Said her owner Anthony Martinetti: “This was a freak accident, not unlike many stumbles and falls that most dogs immediately recover from. But when she started holding the leg rigidly behind her we realized this was a very serious injury.”
Cutting Edge “Muscle Transplant” Surgery
Martinetti wasted no time in getting Bella to the doctor. However, after visiting with three different veterinarians—none of whom agreed on just what was wrong with her, or how to treat the injury—Martinetti brought her to Angell’s Surgery Department. It was there that Dr. Pavletic, Head of Surgery and a globally recognized leader in veterinary reconstructive surgery, was introduced to Bella.
Dr. Pavletic has handled a range of peculiar cases throughout his career, from removing a tumor from a pet mouse to reconstructing a gorilla’s finger to re-attaching a cat’s face after it was torn free by an automobile fan belt. While Bella’s case was as unique as they come, Dr. Pavletic was confident she was an excellent candidate for the revolutionary surgery.
To perform the procedure Dr. Pavletic and his team surgically transected, or separated, the triceps muscle on the back of Bella’s affected leg. This eased the rigidity of the leg, much like cutting a taut rubber band, and enabled it to straighten toward the floor. The team then transferred a piece of Bella’s Latissimus Dorsi—the heavily muscled side of her back—to the front of her right leg. The end result meant that Bella’s back muscles would now do the work that the muscle on the front of her leg had done prior to her fall—even though those muscles were never designed for that kind of movement.
Bella’s Road to Recovery
According to Dr. Pavletic, Bella endured the surgery like a champion. “She’s a very strong and strong-willed dog and impressed our entire team her calm demeanor. Her road to recovery is a long one but we’re confident she’ll get back to her old self in time.” After her operation and a period of recovery Bella began an intense physical therapy program, which she is continuing today.
Three months after her surgery, Bella regained use of the leg and most of the activity level she enjoyed prior to the accident. She regularly attends physical therapy at The Canine Joint, whose founder, Patricia Tribou, is a “miracle worker” according to Martinetti. As part of her rehabilitation Bella has been walking on a specially designed treadmill at the bottom of a large water tank to strengthen her leg and improve range of motion. A video of one of Bella’s treadmill sessions can be found here.
“I’m overjoyed that Bella continues to recuperate and our family is grateful to the many talented individuals who have overseen her recovery,” said Martinetti. “I’m confident that her ongoing physical therapy, coupled with her determination and courage, will see her return to her old self.”