Walt the dog had a stroke, changing the way the animal walked. The Schnauzer‘s owner wanted to help his dog, but didn’t like the advice he was getting from the dog’s veterinarian.
“Walt’s vet wanted to amputate the leg because it was dragging and getting in the way,” said Amy Kaufmann.
So Walt’s owner consulted his cousin and Amy Kaufmann’s husband, Martin.
What unfolded would change the lives of Amy and Martin Kaufmann, both Chippewa Falls Senior High School graduates, and hundreds of animals around the globe needing assistance walking.
The work of the Kaufmanns, who are based in Denver, Colo., has been featured on ABC’s Good Morning America, CNN, People magazine and USA Today, and several other daily newspapers. They are scheduled to be part of a segment on the syndicated “Rachel Ray” TV program July 13.
Walt’s dilemma caused the Kaufmanns to start a business providing braces and artificial limbs, called prosthetics, to animals.
“We treat it like a pair of shoes. So you pull it on the morning and take them off at night,” Amy Kaufmann said on July 8 in a trip back to Chippewa Falls.
One of their success stories involved Nakio, a dog that lost part of all four of its limbs after they were frozen into a puddle during a Nebraska winter. Nakio is the first dog to receive prosthetics on all four legs, and an online video showing the dog bounding about with no problem has collected thousands of hits.
While others had dabbled in the field before, the Kaufmanns did it better than anyone else and were able to parlay their success to a world-wide presence.
“We have worked with (people from) over 25 countries and 8,000 animals in the last seven years,” she said. Those animals have included dogs, cats, cows, horses, alpacas, birds, llamas, goats, sheep and even a baby orangutan that now resides in the Milwaukee County Zoo.
And their OrothoPets business has expanded to Europe (with an office in England), Australia and South Africa. In September, the Kaufmanns plan to open OrthoPets near Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, and hope next year to open a facility in Japan.
“It’s kind of neat to think we’re just two kids from Chippewa Falls,” Amy Kaufmann said.
The parents of Amy and Martin Kaufmann, George and Judy Szotkowski and Greg and Diane Kaufmann, continue to live in Chippewa Falls.
Martin graduated from Chi-Hi in 1995 and Amy the next year. “I’ve known him since high school,” she said of her husband.
Amy attended Winona (Minn.) State University to get a degree in elementary education, while Martin went to Century College, which is affiliated with the University of Minnesota. While there, he studied human orthotic and prosthetics. He would go on to become a certified Pedortist (some who helps people with lower extremities) at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Amy would go on to teach for eight years, including in South Korea, from which she returned to Chippewa Falls in 2001. And it was in Chippewa Falls where she met up again with Martin.
This time, romance bloomed and, eventually, marriage. The couple moved to Denver in 2002.
Starting from scratch
At the time, the field of animal orthotic didn’t exist. But then came the question by Martin’s cousin: What could be done to help a struggling Walt the dog?
Martin thought putting a brace on Walt’s struggling leg would work. And it did.
That got Martin and Amy thinking if they could help other animals. So they started working in animal rehabilitation in 2003. After consulting with a veterinarian, they contacted Colorado State University in Fort Collins, one of the leading veterinarian schools in the country.
“This was very new. We didn’t know if it would work or not,” Amy Kaufmann said. The doctors at Colorado State University thought it could, so the Kaufmanns created a website and began working on helping three to five dogs a month.
“When an animal can’t go through surgery, we can offer lots of different solutions,” she said. “We are at least a fourth of the price of surgery.”
For braces, the cost is between $600 to $800. For prosthetics, its $1,000 to $1,200. (For an animal to receive a prosthetic, it needs part of the leg for the prosthetic to fit.)
All of the devices are handmade so they fit the animal correctly and with no pain.
Need more room
By 2005, the equipment for the couple’s sidelight business had swallowed up 400 square feet of their garage. They were helping 10 to 15 animals a month.
The next year, things had to change.
“By 2006, it started to take over my house,” Amy Kaufmann said of the business. “And I found I was pregnant.”
Martin quit helping humans and concentrated on the animal business. He and Amy opened their first clinic, which had 1,200 square foot. They were now helping 20 to 30 animals a month.
Amy quit her teaching job in the 2007-2008 school year. “It was becoming too much,” she said.
By then, they were helping 50 to 60 animals a month.
By 2009, they began to have competition in the Denver area. So they decided it was time to partner with a veterinarian, Dr. Patsy Mich. She was familiar with OrthoPets.
“In 2003, we worked with her personal dog,” Amy Kaufmann said.
Dr. Mich is a specialist in animal pain management and rehabilitation, so she was a natural fit for the business. And with her presence, the Kaufmann’s business could become an accredited veterinarian clinic, the only accredited clinic providing the devices to animals.
“Once she came on board, it really opened up a lot of avenues,” Amy Kaufmann said.
By this time the business had five employees, and were helping 70 to 80 animals a month.
Last year the business moved into a 5,000-square-foot facility in Denver, and had grown to 13 employees.
And this year, OrthoPets is seeing 160 to 170 cases a month from all over the world.
Amy Kaufmann said she and her husband have worked very hard to see their business grow. She credits both of their families in Chippewa Falls for their support, even when things were tough when both Martin and Amy quit their previous full-time jobs.
“We just always had that vision that things are going to be better,” she said.
She said growing up in Chippewa Falls helped them, giving them strong ties to their church and this community.
“Martin and I are very thankful we grew up here,” she said.