As owners of two cats and two fairly rambunctious dogs, my husband and I have paid our fair share of visits to the veterinarian. Most of the time, it’s only for their annual check-ups, but we’ve had a few scary trips over the years, like the time the dogs got into the Halloween candy or when one of the cats, unbeknownst to me, licked up some baking soda that had spilled on the counter and started foaming at the mouth. Recently, our ten-year-old boxer Mickey had to have surgery to get an infected skin tag removed, along with a couple of teeth, and so was stuck in a soft e-collar for a few weeks. I was a nervous wreck while he was in the operating room, but everything turned out fine – the procedures were fairly minor. But that’s not the case for all furry patients, which is why doctors who operate on animals, just like doctors who operate on humans, like to plan out their surgeries ahead of time if they can.
That’s why the surgeons at the University of Tennessee Veterinary Medical Center have an in-house 3D printing facility, where they use 3D printers to create models in order to practice complicated procedures before they begin.
UT veterinary surgeon Dr. Kyle Snowdon said, “We’ll basically have everything done on the model, know exactly how our surgery is going to go before we go in the OR and do anything on our actual patient.”
“It’s almost a cheat code for surgery sometimes, it makes it very nice for us to go in there and for our plan to work well.”
First, they take a CT scan of the animal’s body part or organ they’re going to be operating on, and then they put their Ultimaker 3 to use creating a 3D printed replica.
Dr. Snowdon said, “Just like they would animate a Pixar movie, we can move things, we can cut them, we can physically do our surgery before physically doing anything outside. And then we can actually print the bones out and do our surgery again before doing anything on the animal.”
Thanks to 3D printed surgical planning models like these, before the animal comes in for surgery and gets on the operating table, the veterinary surgeons have had the chance to plan out, and even rehearse, complicated procedures and operations.
In addition to planning out and practicing surgeries, Dr. Adrian-Maxence Hespel, UT veterinary radiologist, uses MRI and CT images to create 3D printed models to teach students about animal anatomy; this is a practice we see often in the world of human surgery as well.
According to Dr. Hespel, “Having that plastic model in your hand really makes it click.”
Using 3D printing technology to plan out surgeries ahead of time can mean major cost savings for the patients – in this case the patients’ owners – in addition to getting them out from under anesthesia more quickly as well.
“When you are in surgery and the patient is under anesthesia, you can actually decrease the surgery time. Decreasing surgery time means you could decrease amount of complication,” Dr. Hespel said. “The longer a patient is under anesthesia, the more complication you could potentially have. Because the use of anesthesia requires the use of drugs, drugs are expensive,” explained Dr. Hespel. “If we are able to do a fair amount of pre-planning and pre-surgical while the patient is not under anesthesia, then we can reduce the cost and the complication rate for the patient, and that’s very gratifying.”
The veterinarians also use 3D printing technology to explore different ways of treating animals – Dr. Snowdon and his team recently worked with Zoo Knoxville to create a 3D printed facial prosthetic for a black-breasted leaf turtle named Patches who had an infected puncture wound on her face. Thanks to the prosthetic, Patches was able to eat normally again.
“Its being creative. Giving us another tool to fix problems that before we just kind of accepted. Where it ends up is anybody’s guess, but it will continue to evolve over the next couple of years,” said Dr. Snowdon.
To see more of the 3D printing work the UT veterinarians are doing, check out the video below.
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