One man's wheelchairs have kept thousands of disabled pets moving

At 91, Dr. Lincoln Parkes keeps rolling on—just like his patients
Published on
information-circle This article is more than 3 years old

Neither retirement nor age has stopped Dr. Lincoln "Nick" Parkes from helping disabled and elderly pets get around.

During the early 1960s, Dr. Parkes invented and patented a wheelchair for an animal—an idea that caught fire, improving the lives of untold numbers of paraplegic pets that otherwise may have been euthanized.

Small dog in an animal wheelchair
Animal wheelchairs are no longer a novelty. Several companies manufacture these medical devices to help lame pets stay mobile.

Dr. Parkes retired just over 25 years ago in his early 60s and devoted himself wholly to K-9 Carts Co., the business he had started decades ago and had been running on the side while working as a veterinary surgeon. Now 91, he spends up to 10 hours a day, "eight days a week," at his shop in Oxford, Maryland, continuing to craft custom wheelchairs for dogs, cats, birds, and even rodents.

Unlike many veterinarians, Dr. Parkes did not feel called to the profession from an early age. The New England native joined the Navy Air Corps before the end of World War II at the age of 17. Afterward, he and a friend traveled the U.S. for two years, working odd jobs to pay for their skiing habit. Finally deciding to "get serious" about his life, Dr. Parkes enrolled at Colorado State University to learn ranching and be near the slopes.

Dr. Parkes decided during an animal husbandry class that he would pursue a career in veterinary medicine, probably as a surgeon. "I enjoyed learning and working with my hands," he explained.

After receiving his veterinary degree in 1957, Dr. Parkes enrolled in one of the first internships offered by the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. Then, he returned to Colorado and practiced for a few years before joining the Animal Medical Center in New York City to focus on neurologic and orthopedic surgery.

I still remember that first Dachshund. That dog tore out the clinic door like he was sprung."

Dr. Lincoln "Nick" Parkes, founder, K-9 Carts Company

Owners of patients that were partially paralyzed always asked the same question of Dr. Parkes: Is there some way their pet could get around? One day in 1961, he realized there was. He fashioned a crude wheelchair from metal bars and four wheels. "I still remember that first Dachshund. That dog tore out the clinic door like he was sprung," Dr. Parkes said with a laugh.

And with that, K-9 Carts was born. Dr. Parkes says the reaction of his colleagues to such a novel idea was overwhelmingly positive. "They just thought it was great because they did not want to see their patients that couldn't walk euthanized," he said, adding: "I did quite a bit of advertising with them."

Dr. Parkes left AMC to teach orthopedics and neurosurgery at PennVet. Seven years later, he opened a specialty practice in a Philadelphia suburb. Dr. Parkes used a small room in the practice to build wheelchairs. He rolled out new and improved models over the years, with the heavy metal bars replaced by strong, lightweight materials. Each cart is custom-made, designed to allow the patient to urinate and defecate, and costs between $300 and $800.

Dr. Parkes retired in 1991 with more than 3,000 spinal surgeries under his belt. A few years later, K-9 Cart Company divided into separate companies following a divorce between Dr. Parkes and his wife, Barbara. They agreed that he would move to Maryland and sell wheelchairs on the East Coast. Her company would be called K-9 Carts, and his would be called K-9 Carts East. The dividing line would be the Mississippi River. In addition to his ex-wife's company, Dr. Parkes' company faces at least six other serious competitors, he said.

The last few years have been difficult for K-9 Carts East. Sales are down to a few hundred carts each year, mostly to local customers, and Dr. Parkes had to let his company's five employees go because he could no longer afford to pay them. Time was when a wheelchair could be built in a day. Now, Dr. Parkes fills each order himself, taking several days to machine and fit the parts.

The slump hasn't dampened Dr. Parkes' spirits, however. He's working on a new and improved wheelchair model that he thinks will sell like gangbusters.

"I'm not in this for the money," he said. "It's about the animals, and how happy they are to be walking again, and the owners, who get to enjoy their pets for a few more years."