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Facts About 3-D Printing for Pet Prosthetics

Artificial limbs for dogs was once a crazy idea but now we know that prosthetic devices provide a great quality of life to handicapped pets who might have been euthanized just a few years ago. The art of designing these life-enhancing limbs has been made possible by experts in the field of veterinary orthotics and prosthetics, but as more dogs make headlines with 3-D printed prosthetics made by non-vet techies, we wondered:

Can a DIY approach to pet prosthetics be around the corner?

3-D prosthetic dog

Derby, the Cyborg Dog. Photo:

To answer our question we turned to Martin Kaufmann, founder of OrthoPets Veterinary Orthotics and Prosthetics, an industry leader since 2004. Kaufmann applauds the many ways 3-D printing is being used, but when it comes to applying it to veterinary orthotics and prosthetics, he believes the technology isn’t ready for prime time. Here’s why:

3-D printed materials are less durable.

Standard artificial limbs are made with ultra durable polypropylene plastics and carbon fiber material. Kaufmann explains that current materials used in the 3-D printing process cannot match the durability, strength, and diversity of modern prosthetics. Since most prosthetics need to have the possibility of shape modification after the first fit, they must be made with pliable but durable materials that can be modified to perfection – something that isn’t currently possible with 3-D printed materials. He explains that if a 3-D printed prosthetic doesn’t fit, a new one must be printed, thus driving up costs and time.

3-D prosthetic dog

Derby’s 3-D prosthetic. Photo:

3-D printing is time consuming and costly.

“3-D printing takes extraordinarily longer to fabricate a simple part when compared to traditional fabrication techniques,” Kaufmann says. “Standard fabrication techniques can take up to two hours to complete. A 3-D printer can take upwards of 12 to 16 hours to print one part.” This makes it cost-prohibitive for the average pet prosthetic buyer.

Additionally, only when an artificial limb is worn for the first time will a prosthetist know if it works safely, comfortably, and biomechanically appropriate – if the fit is wrong, costs escalate even higher. “A single part with only prototype-grade material in 3-D printing could run upwards of $700 to $800,” adds Kaufmann. “To accomplish the same type of printing with material that only slightly resembles the strengths and qualities of polypropylene prosthetics will cost upwards of several thousand dollars.” This is based on the cost of an advanced industrial 3-D printer, he explains.

Kaufmann with Tripawd patient.

Kaufmann and happy Tripawd patient.

Not enough vet experts are applying the technology.

“The field of orthotics and prosthetics has its roots in the artisan craftsman such as blacksmiths and leather trades,” Kaufmann says. “Computer aided drawing and designing is bringing the level of accuracy out of an art form into the realm of mechanical precision,” he adds, but “the dangerous area in this discussion is when somebody is designing and printing a device who has no training, education, or skills in this area.”

Without extensive studies in animal biomechanics and veterinary science, a well-intentioned techie can inadvertently do more harm than good when creating artificial limbs for animals. The creator must have an intimate understanding of animal biomechanics in order to create a prosthesis that works safety and comfortably without causing harm and injury.

OrthoPets Tripawd patient

Pet prosthetics expert Kaufmann works with new patient.Photo by Rick Wilking/Reuters

Another veterinary expert agrees wholeheartedly with Kauffman. In his new book “Dr. Petty’s Pain Relief for Dogs: The Complete Medical and Integrative Guide to Treating Pain,” renowned veterinary pain management expert Dr. Mike Petty shares his insight on 3-D prosthetics for pets:

“Anyone can make a prosthetic — no one needs a license to do so. I have seen videos of people who have absolutely no rehabilitation training or veterinary experience make prosthetics using 3-D printers. They proudly post videos of their dogs running around. Some people see these as heart-warming stories, but I see dogs with body mechanics that are almost as bad as before they got their 3-D printed legs. I am sure these amateur prosthetic-makers are well intentioned, but they are doing those dogs a disservice because of their lack of body biomechanics.”

3-D printing will certainly evolve into exciting possibilities nobody ever imagined. But for now, the average pet parent who wants a 3-D prosthetic or orthotic device for their handicapped pet should first understand that the difference between advanced computer aided prosthetic design and 3-D printing is the quality, strength, and durability of the materials. Parents must proceed with caution, or stick to current production processes developed by the experts like OrthoPets.


Recommended Reading:

OrthoPets talks about prosthetics and braces for three-legged dogs and cats.
All Tripawds News posts about prosthetics, braces and orthopedics for amputee pets.

Find qualified professional animal orthotic and prosthetic designers.


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