Good Things Come in 3(D): How 3D Printing is Helping Pets

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Of all of the advances in modern veterinary medicine, 3D printing ranks as one of the most fascinating and versatile new technologies. The process, also known as additive manufacturing, creates a three-dimensional object out of a digital file. This object can be made from an assortment of materials, including plastic, metal, ceramic and even living cells.

Sound like magic? It’s pretty close! 3D printing has been used in veterinary medicine for everything from creating a prosthetic beak for an injured eagle to creating custom wheelchairs for furry friends with mobility issues.

how it works
3D printing turns the digital into the physical using computer-aided design software. You give the software the specs of what you’re trying to create, and it builds the object with layers of wax, plastic polymers or other material and binders instead of ink. The design file is like a blueprint for the object, and each layer printed is like a thinly sliced horizontal cross-section of the eventual object.

who it helps
3D printing technology has virtually endless applications in veterinary medicine, but two of the most exciting uses are aiding surgeons in preparing for difficult procedures and custom-printing prosthetics and mobility devices for physically disabled pets.

measure twice, cut once
3D printing has the power to revolutionize veterinary surgery because it allows doctors to produce models that exactly replicate injuries or deformities in patients. This can help surgeons plan and practice complicated procedures in advance of an operation, and allow them to avoid contact with critical blood vessels and other tissues. A 3D model allows surgeons to test different approaches preoperatively and can help in determining which solution is optimal for the patient.

Benefits for furry friends include:

  • decreased length of time an animal needs to be under anesthesia
  • shorter surgery times, which decreases the risk of infection
  • improved training capabilities, which leads to better outcomes
  • better and more customized patient care

a leg up
When an animal is born with a limb deformity or loses one to cancer or injury, 3D printing can produce prosthetics and mobility devices that are both inexpensive and completely customizable to the individual patient.

One of those lucky pups is Turbo Roo, a Chihuahua born without front legs who escaped euthanization when a vet tech adopted him and tried to help. After Turbo Roo’s story went viral thanks to the local news, the president of 3dyn in San Diego stepped in to save the day.

He printed a custom mobility cart for Turbo Roo—then made 10 more as Turbo grew into adulthood! 3D printing technology made it possible to create a completely custom device and to replicate it inexpensively each time the pup got bigger.

Mobility carts are just the beginning; 3D printing has helped build dental reconstructions, knee replacements, prosthetic legs, paws and elbows—even a new shell for a tortoise who was badly burned in a fire.

the cost equation
While a 3D printer and its accompanying software can cost tens of thousands of dollars, the models themselves often cost relatively little to make. Since there’s no need for the tools and molds used in traditional manufacturing, there’s less waste and lower fixed costs, which can mean lower prices for consumers.

The drawback is that 3D-printed materials can be less durable than traditionally manufactured devices and prosthetics, and they can take nearly ten times as long to make. And, of course, whoever is making the devices must have an intimate understanding of animal biomechanics to create a device that works comfortably without causing harm or injury (in other words: DON’T TRY THIS AT HOME).

Still, despite the challenges 3D technology presents, the potential it presents for the future of veterinary medicine is promising. It adds a whole new dimension (literally!) to giving pets a better quality of life and healthier futures.

— published in fetch! magazine, the “Safe & Hound” issue

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