How 3D printing is revolutionizing veterinary medicine

How 3D printing is revolutionizing veterinary medicine

By Sushil Paudyal

3D printing, also known as additive manufacturing, is currently impacting several industries due to its flexibility and cost saving potential allowing it to create a solid object of virtually any shape. It allows permits using a variety of starting materials that include plastic, metal, ceramic, and even living cells.

One field that has recently turned its attention to 3D printing is Veterinary Medicine. Currently, there are at least 8 Colleges of Veterinary Medicine that are incorporating 3D printing technology into their programs as both a cutting-edge teaching and clinical tool.

3D printed surgical models:

UC Davis and Auburn University are two schools in the lead that have been using the 3D printing technology for veterinary surgery. 3D models allow surgeons to physically hold and examine the skulls and bones in their hands. They can measure the deformity directly, perform preoperative morphological assessments and communicate more effectively with the owners of the patient. Implants can then be directly matched to the organs.

At Penn State, students and faculty are also using 3D printers to construct models that precisely replicate injuries or deformities of animals. After veterinarians transform CAT scan findings into a format that the 3D printers could recognize, the models can be printed and help students and vets practice surgical procedures in advance of an operation. The researchers are even tinkering with full-color models that should allow for testing new approaches that avoid contact with critical blood vessels and other tissues.

Both UIUC College of Veterinary medicine and Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine have been using 3D printing to teach the next generation of surgeons on bone fixation. In addition to surgical planning and visualization for students and practitioners, it has also helped with  owner education.

3D printed canine masks:

Masks help heal the wound from surgery and recover from the fracture and damage to bones and joints. Canine face-masks developed by UC Davis faculty members with 3D printing align perfectly with the contours of the dogs face and act as a support structure for the bones to heal. The masks act like a regular cast but on a unique and challenging structure such as a face, where the bespoke design allows it to keep the bones in place while they heal.

3D printed animal prosthetics and orthotics:

Bone and limb models can be used for more than just practicing. Like in humans, prosthetics are becoming common in veterinary medicine with even commercial companies stepping onto the 3D-printing field.

In December of 2014, 3D Systems announced they had successfully outfitted a dog, named Derby, with 3D printed prosthetics. The canine suffered from a congenital deformity characterized by no front paws and small forearms. The prosthetics enabled Derby to walk and even run freely. Buddy Byrum, the Vice President of Product and Channel Management, 3D Systems said,

“The beauty of 3D printing is that if the design needs to be adjusted, we don’t have to wait for time-consuming and expensive traditional manufacturing processes, we can simply print out a new set…3D printing allowed for the creation of complete prosthetics printed in a single build, custom-fit to Derby.”


Source: 3D Systems Corporation


At North Carolina State University, a rescued labrador, named Jack, got two 3D printed titanium prosthetic limbs fitted in his hind legs. Jack lost his back paws when he was a puppy. According to an article published in 3D Printer World,

“By using a 3D printer, NCSU Assoc. Prof. Dr. Ola Harrysson was able to attach tiny beads to the metal that helped Jack’s bone attach itself to the prosthetic. It’s something he doesn’t think he would be able to do without a 3D printer.”

Canines are not the only animals benefiting, at Penn State, Pete, the parrot got a 3D printed prosthetic leg that is helping the parrot to walk again. An interdisciplinary team of veterinarians and 3D printing expert researchers in Brazil have been successful in implanting a prosthetic titanium beak on a blue macaw. In March of 2017, a Turkey-based company, BTech, specialized in 3D printed implants for humans successfully 3D printed a prosthetic jaw for an injured sea turtle. The titanium jaw permitted the injured turtle to eat again.


Source: PennVet


Medicine practice has always struggled with moral and philosophical quandaries, and veterinary has not been an exception. 3D printing potentially made it harder by helping shift the balance on what previously was simply not medically feasible. Now, more than ever, the question is identifying where the line should be regarding what is possible vs what is ultimately right for the animal.

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