By YUKI SHIBATA/ Staff Writer
November 17, 2020 at 07:00 JST
OSAKA--Distraught at seeing their beloved dachshund become unable to walk in 2013, a canine-loving couple here went over the heads of experts and created a custom-built wheelchair of their own to get their pooch mobile again, with amazing results.
Fast forward to 2020, and wheelchairs produced by Eiji Kawanishi, 61, and his wife Hiromi, 55, have found eager buyers nationwide, even among Japanese expats.
Studio Sweepea, where the Kawanishis make the devices in Osaka city's Suminoe Ward, has churned out 3,000 or so custom-made wheelchairs for dogs with disabilities to date.
Their nightmare started after their dog Sweepea developed a spinal disc hernia just before turning 8 years old, leaving the lower part of its body paralyzed.
Sweepea's weight plummeted to 3 kilograms from 7 kg due to the stress of being unable to walk freely.
The Kawanishis purchased a wheelchair designed for dogs after consulting with a veterinarian who examined Sweepea.
But the dachshund bristled over the wheelchair's straps. Taking a close look at them, the Kawanishis realized the straps were not designed for a good fit.
Eiji, confident in his own handy man abilities, headed to a home improvement center and other outlets to get supplies, which he used to replace the wheelchair's straps and wheels.
When they took Sweepea to a nearby park using Eiji's customized wheelchair, the dog started running on the lawn, stirring up fallen leaves with the wheels.
After going out for brisk walks, the dog regained its appetite and put on weight.
When a new wheelchair became necessary, Eiji built a custom one from scratch. He spent two months to complete it, testing it on Sweepea as he finetuned the details. The endeavor set him back 300,000 yen ($2,860) as it required him to purchase a full set of tools and other materials.
His project soon caught the attention of other dog-owners.
One day, while he was walking Sweepea, Kawanishi was approached by another dog-lover and asked where he got the wheelchair.
"My dog can't walk, either, because of a hernia," the person said.
It hit Kawanishi that he and his wife were not the only ones desperate to find ways to help their pet dogs in such circumstances.
Eiji then got to work by renovating his garage into a studio to make custom wheelchairs for other pet owners, using the tools he had assembled. Five orders flooded in as soon as he had set up a website to promote his endeavors.
ATTENTION TO DETAIL
Commercially available dog wheelchairs come in just three sizes: large, medium and small. But Eiji measures the lengths of the body and legs, waistline and other parts of each dog down to the exact millimeter before he gets to work making one.
He also pays close attention to how the dog's muscles have developed, its center of weight and how its body bends.
While commercial products run between 50,000 yen and 100,000 yen, Eiji's wheelchairs sell in a range between a little less than 20,000 yen and less than 40,000 yen.
Though he makes only a small profit, Eiji says his priority is for as many dogs as possible to use his wheelchairs.
His wife, Hiromi, also obtained a qualification to work as a veterinary nurse and caregiver so as to give advice to people with sick dogs and reduce their burden as much as possible.
In addition to helping dogs recover their motor functions, she suggests using a wheelchair to prevent them getting bedsores.
Eiji has now built nearly 3,000 dog wheelchairs, including ones for customers in New York and Shanghai.
For a 70-kg Great Pyrenees whose legs were weakened by age, he created a large four-wheel wheelchair.
For a standard poodle that lost its front legs to bone cancer, he built a wheelchair that supports its chest, but not its lower body, to help the animal move forward on its hind legs.
A dachshund named Hotaru, owned by Kyoko Iwatani, 48, lost its ability to walk in summer last year after suffering a spinal disc herniation.
The resident of Onomichi, Hiroshima Prefecture, learned about Studio Sweepea online and contacted Eiji about making a wheelchair for Hotaru. After using it, the dachshund recovered and now goes out for walks alongside Iwatani's other dogs, all Papillons.
"Its eyes are shining differently. It got a fresh start, thanks to the wheelchair," a beaming Iwatani said.
"The wheelchairs aren't just a tool that assist walking. They're like a body part that helps the dog stay healthy and live with its owner as long as possible," Eiji said. "I want to reduce the burden for owners and make dogs happy until their last days."
MOVE TO STAY MOBILE
The average life expectancy of pet dogs in Japan in the decade until 2011 was about 13.9 years, according to the Japan Pet Food Association.
But the figure increased to about 14.4 years for the decade until 2019, showing that the dog population is aging.
Generally, it is thought that dogs are living longer thanks to widely available nutrient-rich pet food and advancements in medical technology for animals.
"When a dog is unable to move its hind legs and other parts of its body after it grows old or falls sick and is left untreated, it ceases moving the rest of its body, resulting in muscular weakness and eventually becoming bedridden," said Kazuhiro Yamamoto, an associate professor who teaches as a veterinarian at Teikyo University of Science.
"If the dog uses a wheelchair while it still has muscles to move, it can maintain its motor functions and the quality of life increases for both the owner and the dog," he added.
Genetic conditions, along with how a dog is raised, are believed to contribute to dogs developing walking difficulties.
Corgis, for example, are prone to degenerative myelopathy, while dachshunds are susceptible to spinal disc herniation.
Decreased motor function due to a lack of walking, as well as the strain on the legs and waist caused by walking on slippery surfaces, may also lead to dogs developing problems, experts say.
Studio Sweepea is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. and closes irregularly. Readers can visit its official website at (https://www.studio-sweepea.co.jp/).
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