3D printing is one of the most versatile technological innovations of the century. Its utility goes beyond crafting helmets for your hamster or replicating a movie-quality Star Trek phaser for your Halloween costume. The tech is being applied to almost every field, from medicine to transportation, manufacturing to education. Now the ground-breaking process has found its way into veterinary medicine, helping rehabilitate animals that may have otherwise been euthanized. These unusual cases are likely to become more common as the technology becomes more widely available.
Sonic the Bionic Kitten
Sonic the Bionic kitten was just four months old when he was fitted for a 3D-printed prosthetic leg. A bone deformity left him with a severe limp that was likely to lead to further disfunction later in life. In many cases, a deformity as severe as Sonic’s would have few treatment options. Fortunately, the Denver Animal Shelter works closely with students from the Art Institute of Colorado to create 3D-printed prosthetics for patients in need.
The team started the process by analyzing Sonic’s movements to determine his natural gait. The sprightly kitten was then fitted with a plastic prototype, which was continuously refined to create a comfortable, functional fit. The final prosthetic was 3D printed from carbon fiber to create a durable, resilient structure that would stand up to Sonic’s active lifestyle.
Hiss Majesty the Lizard
Customization is vital for these cases, as further evidenced by the story of Hiss Majesty the lizard. The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has been home to Hiss Majesty for more than sixteen years. When he lost his leg to cancer, 3D designers and veterinarians at the Aquarium joined forces to create a custom prosthetic. The team used lightweight silicone to give the aging lizard a flexible limb that wouldn’t impede his natural movements. Researchers used a similar approach when tackling the unique case of Mr. Stubbs, the tailless alligator.
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Mr. Stubbs the Alligator
In 2013, authorities intercepted a semi-truck full of illegally-poached exotic animals. Among the rescued animals was Mr. Stubbs, an American alligator with a badly damaged tail. The Phoenix Herpetological Society took Mr. Stubbs into their care and fitted him with a prosthetic appendage based on a cast from a similarly-sized alligator. However, each alligator’s tail is unique to the individual. As such, the clunky cast based on another alligator’s dimensions wasn’t much help to Mr. Stubbs. Now, five years later, advanced 3D printing technology has enabled researchers to create a custom-fitted tail based on Mr. Stubbs’ exact body metrics.
Seemore the Sea Turtle
3D printing isn’t just for appendages, as evidenced by the perplexing case of Seemore the sea turtle. The plucky turtle was happily swimming through the surf when she was struck by a boat propeller. Her injuries resulted in “bubble butt syndrome,” a life-threatening condition that prevented her from diving underwater.
A team of marine biologists at the Minnesota Aquarium fitted Seemore with weights to help her dive, but the weights had to be continually replaced as she shed her scutes (the plates on her shell). The replacement process was stressful and researchers understood they would have to come up with a better long-term solution for the 100-pound turtle. Undergraduate students from the University of Minnesota turned to 3D printing to create a resilient exoshell for Seemore. Though they are still experimenting with the final prosthesis, their prototypes are showing remarkable promise.
The practice is still in its infancy, but as the tech becomes more widely available more practitioners may start to implement 3D-printed prosthetic programs, giving even more animals a second chance at living a full life.