However, she was born looking a little different than your average donkey.
Emma is a miniature donkey, which means she is more petite than the average donkey.
She was also plagued with a severe congenital hind limb deformity.
The charming foal arrived at the John Thomas Vaughan Large Animal Teaching Hospital along with her owner, Cece Smith, who is also a technician at the hospital, at just two days old and was prepped for amputation and the placement of a prosthetic leg.
The College of Veterinary Medicine and the Hanger Clinic teamed up to perform the surgery.
Both are hoping Emma will help find answers to prolonging the life of horses and donkeys that have birth defects or are severely injured.
Equine surgeon Dr. Fred Caldwell, an assistant professor in the department of clinical sciences, performed the surgery, and, along with Billy Fletcher of the Hanger Clinic, created a prosthetic limb for Emma’s injured hind leg.
The limb needed to be strong and stable, yet flexible and light.
So, the team went with carbon fiber, Kevlar and fiberglass: the same materials used to create many prostheses made for war veterans and Paralympic athletes, as well as other famous amputee animals.
The Hanger Clinic notably made the prosthetic tail for Winter, the dolphin star of the 2011 film “Dolphin Tale” starring Harry Connick, Jr., Ashley Judd and Morgan Freeman.
“Billy was excited and enthusiastic to assist,” Caldwell said. “Once we amputated the limb, he provided a small footplate to incorporate into the cast to even out the length of her hind limbs so she could bear weight until we could get the surgical site healed.”
Caldwell said he was proud of the way the hospital employees have worked together.
“It has been a group effort on behalf of many caring individuals willing to go to great lengths to save her,” Caldwell said.
The large weight of a horse or a full-size donkey, as well as the relative rarity of congenital defects in equines, makes applying prostheses to large equines an uncommon medical practice.
Luckily, Emma is only expected to weigh 350 pounds when fully matured.
Caldwell is hopefully she will experience no problems with the leg, and Emma seems to be doing just fine thus far.
“She hasn’t known anything other than the prosthesis,” Caldwell said. “She absolutely loved it from the get-go. It was a very impressive design, and she did very well in it. She is getting stronger. She’s growing and doing wonderfully.”
Fletcher is a clinician who works at the Opelika and Columbus, Ga. Hanger Clinic locations.
He said Emma may go through eight or nine different sizes and types of prosthetics before she is done growing.
“The next step is trying to make sure we keep the prosthesis set up so she’s ambulatory and she can run and play and do things uninhibitedly, but to also keep the area of concern, the surgical site, offloaded so Dr. Caldwell can do his job in keeping her completely healed,” Fletcher said. “As time goes by, we’ll continue to provide a prosthesis that’s going to allow for growth. We want to provide her with full range of motion, but also give her the ability to use full strength. I think she’s got that in her current set-up. So, the big thing now is keeping everything offloaded so she heals completely."
Fletcher also said he and his collaborators will continue to increase the size of Emma’s prosthesis as she grows.
“Obviously, we don’t plan these kinds of things, but it’s a great opportunity to learn when something like this comes up,” Caldwell said.
This was the first procedure of its kind at Auburn, according to Caldwell.
“Every opportunity [when] we have with a case like this, I think we get a little closer to being able to consider this [as] a viable option,” Caldwell said, in reference to the impact of this case on future horse injuries. “It’s been very educational for me as an equine surgeon.”
Caldwell also said he believes there is still a long way to go before it can become a routine surgery, “but for a prosthetic limb to be an option in horses is something that’s pretty exciting.”