Paralyzed Dog Runs Again with Aid of 3D Printed Spine Model


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Whether it’s to make surgical guides, implants, or wheelchairs, 3D printing has been used numerous times to help paralyzed pets walk again. Recently, a TikTok video of a previously paralyzed dachshund went viral, which showed how a 3D printed model was used to help the dog recover.

According to owners Olivia and Allison, two-year-old Lily suffered a spinal injury in 2020 that left her paralyzed, but none of the veterinarians in Northern Virginia they consulted with were very optimistic about her chances. They didn’t expect the dog to walk again without pain, if ever, and surgery, while possible, was very risky.

“We got her there and that was probably the most anxious I’ve ever been like in my entire life– just waiting,” Allison said. “I just, like, shoved her through the doors, like, to the vet doors, and was, like, just take her in. And we were just hysterical. They took X-rays of her spine and saw that she had a fractured vertebra. And you know, right away they were kind of like, you know, we can’t do anything for this. This is way out of our league.”

Allison Smith holding Lily

The local emergency animal hospitals and private practice veterinarians were not equipped to help with such a severe case, and referred them to veterinary specialists at the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine. The trio drove five hours to meet with Dr. Avril Arendse, clinical instructor of neurology and neurosurgery, who had the necessary resources, technology, and team members to help Lily. But it would be pretty risky: the complex surgery has a 25% mortality rate, and there was only a 50% chance that the dog would have a normal life and walk again without pain.

“Because of fractures like this, you need staffing and other kinds of specialized equipment like MRI and CT. We needed at least two to three people during the surgery, scrubbing in to help physically. You need multiple sets of hands that can be physically involved in the surgery,” Dr. Arendse said about the difficult procedure.

“It’s one of the things that, honestly, I’ve gotten to do here at the veterinary teaching hospital that I didn’t get to do in private practice because of the resources and other expertise that we have available.”

It was a big decision for Lily’s owners to make, but they were hopeful, and trusted the specialists.

“Doctors said, you know, she can be medically managed. But she can also have surgery. So we were like, okay, and you know, if she’s medically managed she might be in pain the rest of her life. But if she has surgery she might die,” Allison said.

“The thought of just losing her would just, it was so painful. But then we were like, what kind of life is that for her if she’s in pain every day? And because especially if we had the option to do something about it.”

Dr. Avril Arendse, clinical instructor of neurology/neurosurgery, holds the 3D printed spine.

Like many other veterinarians, Dr. Arendse turned to 3D printing to help a canine patient. The team used a printer to make a physical model of Lily’s spine, which allowed them to practice setting the pins that would be used to fix the dog’s fracture before they even went into the operating room. In addition to relying on CT scans and an MRI for pre-surgical planning, they were also able to manipulate and view her spine from every possible angle with the 3D printed model, which was extremely beneficial given that if they made one wrong move in the OR, Lily may never walk again…or even wake up at all.

Luckily, the surgery was successful, and a lot of that was due to the 3D printed model of the pup’s spine. Six months post-op, you’d never know that the dog had been seriously injured, and the surgical team couldn’t be happier with the outcome.

“Postoperatively, Lily was doing just as well as preoperatively, and that’s what we want to see,” Dr. Arendse said. “Sometimes it can be worse after the surgery, but she was already a little bit better and much more comfortable after.”

In fact, the veterinary specialist and Lily’s owners say that she might be “doing a little too much.” Allison said the young dog is “invincible” and “so funny to watch” when she joyfully runs around.

“But that’s okay. I’m glad she’s, I’m glad she feels as good as she does,” Dr. Arendse said. “So yeah, yeah, it makes me very happy.”

Allison and Olivia were so thankful to the veterinary team for what they did that they decided to make a TikTok video sharing Lily’s story with the world. Thousands of viewers were touched by the heartwarming tale, which showed clips of the dog at the beginning of her paralysis and ended with video of her running full speed down the road on her little legs. In the now-viral video, Lily’s owners also expressed their appreciation for Dr. Arendse and her team’s hard work, and urged viewers to “thank a Vet today for all they do for animals and those who love them.”

@ohkaytacos Please thank a Vet today for all they do for animals and those who love them. #SnowballFightAgainstHunger #colbyscrew #VirginiaTech #dog #puppy #fyp ♬ original sound – Maria Clarin

Allison said, “Lily can run pain-free, and she can play, and she can jump and race in the wind; all because one courageous veterinary surgeon believed in herself and her team.”

This story shows how important it is for medical professionals, for both human and animal patients, to continue investing in innovative tools and technology, like 3D printing, to achieve the best possible surgical outcomes.

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