9 Awesome 3D-Printed Animal Prosthetics

3D printing is revolutionizing a lot of industries, but perhaps no other use of the technology is quite as fascinating as its use in medicine. While its applications in human medicine are amazing, we can't help but be enthralled when we see animals getting a new lease on life thanks to a little 3D printing. Here are a few stories of animals who were saved thanks to the new technology.

1. Fred the Tortoise

Fred is a female red-footed tortoise from Sao Paulo who was injured in a forest fire that destroyed most of her shell. Rescuers thought the poor tortoise looked like Freddy Krueger, hence the not-traditionally-feminine name. By taking pictures of her shell from all angles and comparing them to a healthy tortoise, veterinarians were able to create a 3D model of a shell, which they then printed in four individual pieces from a corn-based plastic. It took 3 months all together for the shell to be made into a reality and, unfortunately, Fred came down with pneumonia just after her surgery. Fortunately, she survived the ordeal and artists began to come forward offering to help paint the rescued animal's shell so she looked like a traditional, healthy red-footed tortoise. The team took their time to ensure they could find the right paint that wouldn't damage the shell or present a health risk to poor Fred.

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Eventually, Fred will need a new shell, but for now, she's cruising in style and couldn't be happier with her new mobile home.

2. AKUT-3 the Sea Turtle

In 2015, a loggerhead sea turtle, scientifically named AKUT-3, was found in Turkey with a damaged jaw that left it unable to eat on its own in the wild. He was quickly taken in by the Sea Turtle Research, Rescue and Rehabilitation Center at Pamukkale University and the director of the center immediately recognized that 3D printing might be the turtle's best hope. The center then partnered with BTech Innovation and used CT scans to create a 3D model of the turtle's damaged jaws, which allowed for a custom-fitted implant made from 3D printed titanium.

3. Beauty the Bald Eagle

Bald eagles use their beaks to clean themselves, eat, and drink, so when poor Beauty was discovered in a dump in Alaska with her beak shot almost all the way off, rescuers knew they needed to act quickly or the bird would starve.

X-ray images were taken of the eagle to help create a 3D model of Beauty's face and a prosthetic was then modeled based on this model. While the prosthetic might not be strong enough to let Beauty survive in the wild, it was enough to let her eat, drink and clean herself again.

4. Derby the Dog

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Derby was born with deformed front legs and suffered from very limited mobility before he was put under the foster care of Tara Anderson, an employee at 3D Systems. Tara took advantage of her position to help get Derby up and running again. The pup's first pair of 3D legs looked like a modified set of wheels and was designed to get Derby used to being off of the ground, without giving him too far to tumble if he did take a spill. When it came time to create a more permanent option that would allow him to stand as high as a normal dog his size, the original design just couldn't maintain proper balance, so the team went back to the drawing board. The end result was a slightly strange looking set of plastic booties in a modified figure-8 shape. He may look a little strange running on his big plastic legs, but now he walks and sits just like any other healthy pup.

5. Philip the Duck

Apparently ducks have won the 3D prosthetic lottery because while researching this article, I immediately found many different stories of ducks that had lost their feet and were saved by 3D printing. It seems their highly specialized feet are all too easily damaged.

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Perhaps the most notable story was that of Philip from Wisconsin, who lost both of his feet due to frostbite. That meant he needed two new feet in order to survive. Philip may appreciate getting to walk again, but the poor duck probably has no idea that he was about an hour away from being euthanized before the prospect of 3D printed feet saved his life. 

6. Tieta and Grecia the Toucans

Toucans don't just have their big beautiful beaks for looks, they actually help with temperature regulation, mating, foraging and eating. But in 2015, not one, but two different toucans lost half of their beaks and were saved thanks to the use of 3D prosthetics. Replacing a toucan beak is no easy task, the beaks are both strong and lightweight, helping the animals regulate their temperature while allowing them to pick fruit from fragile branches.

While the 3D beaks are a lifesaver for the rescued toucans, the sad part is that these animals can never be released into the wild. On the upside, they can find other animals in the sanctuary to mate with and the pair can raise chicks that could be set free at some point. Who knows, maybe Tieta and Grecia could become mates, loving on each other's 3D beaks.

7. Bagpipes the Penguin

Since penguins can't fly, their feet are particularly important to their mobility. So when Bagpipes lost his foot after a fishing-line accident, rescuers noticed he kept suffering from pressure wounds after trying to get around on his little stump. His 3D replacement was designed by Dr. Don Clucas, a senior lecturer in design and manufacturing from the University of Canterbury. He said that trying to get a scan of the active penguin's foot was the hardest part of the whole project.

While his first foot improved the situation, the team was already dedicated to finding an improved version that would truly mimic Bagpipe's natural foot and stay on his existing limb better. In the meanwhile, the prototypes would be printed in a plastic material, but once they found a perfect fit, the team said they would print it using a rubber material so Bagpipe could have a better grip on slippery ice.

8. Holly the Horse

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Holly suffers from lamintis, which causes pain and inflammation between the hoof and bone. When her veterinarian saw a news article about a team printing 3D, custom-fitted shoes for a racehorse, he thought that might just be the solution to Holly's problem. "The new shoes will work to redistribute weight away from the painful areas of the laminitic foot and give Holly, and horses like her, the chance to recover," Veterinarian Wells-Smith said.

9. Hiss Majesty the Lizard

Hiss Majesty is a semi-aquatic caiman lizard who lost his rear leg to cancer. The 16 year old lizard had quite the loving family at his home in Chicago's Shedd Aquarium, including a team of 3D designers, veterinarians, and animal specialists. While Hiss was quite a patient medical patient and sat perfectly still as his good leg was set in molding materials, finding a 3D prosthetic to perfectly fit the lizard's strangely shaped legs wasn't easy. In fact, his medical team tried more than ten designs with no success.

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So why was the team so dedicated to making more 3D models even though Hiss seems to be pretty comfortable with his latest prosthetic? Because Hiss is an incredibly patient lizard and his keepers are hoping that their research could help other lizards in the future -including those who might not be so patient and might not do as well with the team's earliest models. And, there's always the promise of the team to change the lizard's name to Bionic Hiss Majesty once they find the perfect fit.

Perhaps one of the coolest things about these stories is that when one animal is saved with a 3D printed part, it makes it drastically easier to help future animals suffering from similar injuries. Who knows, in the future, maybe animals with injured limbs can be helped just by vets turning on their computer, downloading a file, modifying the plans and printing out a prosthetic.


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