The Importance of Custom Bracing for Dogs

Updated: Jan 19

In veterinary medicine, custom splints and braces are becoming standard practice. Why is it important to provide custom supports for dogs?

First, let's take a look at us - humans. There are hundreds of different types of splints and braces made for humans. They come in various ready-made, off-the-shelf sizes (usually from XS to XXL sizes) and are made for practically every part of the body (see image below). These off-the-shelf splints and braces tend to fit most people.

Dogs, on the other hand, are much more difficult to fit with off-the-shelf braces and splints. For off-the-shelf braces to fit most dogs, a bracing company would probably have to make upward of 25 or more different sizes! This is because dogs' body sizes vary so much. In fact, there is more variability in the dog's body shape and size than any other mammal in the world!

Let's take a look at the picture below. Here are 3 dogs (basset, pitbull, greyhound) that all weigh about the same (66 lbs or 30 kilos). An off-the-shelf size "MEDIUM" wrist or ankle brace may fit one of these dogs, but not all 3 because their shape and size vary greatly even though their weights are the same. This is why custom bracing options are important for pets, and especially for dogs.

There are many other reasons that custom braces are preferred. A custom brace:

  • Provides a better and more intimate fit

  • Makes a brace more comfortable and tolerable for the pet

  • Provides better support

  • Decreases the chance that the brace slips or twists

  • Decreases rubbing and pressure sores that can occur for a poorly-fitting brace

There are three basic choices when is comes to custom braces:

  1. Custom orthotic braces

  2. Custom thermoplastic splints

  3. Custom neoprene braces

1) Custom Orthoses

Custom orthotic braces are fabricated from a cast of the pet’s leg. The veterinary professional makes a cast of the pet's leg then sends it to the orthotics company who then uses that cast to make the orthotic brace. Orthoses are made using high-temperature thermoplastics, hinges, padding, and hook-and-loop straps (see Custom Orthotics & Prosthetics Choices).

When should you consider using a custom orthosis for your pet?

  • If you need a long-term solution (orthoses are extremely durable and usually made for the life of the pet)

  • When graded/controlled movement is needed (via locking hinge)

  • Recommended for large or heavy-set dogs with severe issues

  • When the paw needs incorporation or support as well as the limb

  • When cost is not a significant factor

2) Custom Thermoplastic Splints

Custom thermoplastic splints are made directly on the pet by the veterinary professional. Flat sheets of thermoplastic are heated in hot water until soft, then draped and formed over a pet's body part. The incorporated joint is immobilized by the splint. The thermoplastic sets in minutes, forming a custom-fitted splint. The splint can be reheated and remolded as needed (up to 3-4 times depending on type of thermoplastic).

When should you consider using a custom thermoplastic splint?

  • For general stability and immobilization (splints immobilize the body parts they cover)

  • For short-term use (up to 2-3 months)

  • When modifications are needed since splints can be reheated and remolded (e.g., edema, reducing contracture, growing puppy, osteosarcoma)

  • To serve an immediate need for immobilization (splints are made directly on the pet by the treating professional)

  • When needing a cost-effective alternative to an orthotic brace

There are many brands of thermoplastics, each with their unique set of characteristics (e.g., strength, drape/contour, working time, surface self-adherence). When splinting pets, two different thermoplastics are recommended:

A) For small dogs, toy breeds, and cats use a solid (non-perforated) sheet of 1/16” thick thermoplastic with a high degree of drape to contour intricate areas. B) For medium-to-giant breed dogs, use a solid sheet of 1/8” thick thermoplastic that is strong, with moderate drape, and has surface-adhering properties so that you can reinforce areas subjected to increased stress.

A video on making a custom carpal splint is provided in another blog. Similar techniques can be used when splinting any part of the body.

3) Custom neoprene braces

Custom neoprene braces range from flexible-to-rigid. They are useful as a post-surgical protective aid, transitional coaptation device post-cast removal, and as a stabilizing agent following ligament sprains and strains. Light and more flexible neoprene wraps are useful for offloading painful arthritic or deviated joints and for proactive protection. Supportive, neoprene wraps allow partial weight-bearing so that soft tissue and recovering structures can gradually adapt to loading. To date, Thera-Paw is the only company that makes custom neoprene braces.