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How brilliant veterinary feats are advancing our medicine

This article was published in SBS Science in October 2017.

 Image courtesy of Fitzpatrick referrals

Image courtesy of Fitzpatrick referrals

Animal prostheses are leading the way in human medicine, too.

Cutting-edge medicine isn’t just reserved for people – we humans are just as keen on saving the limbs and lives of our beloved pets. In fact, some of the most advanced prosthetic techniques have originated in veterinary clinics.

Here’s a closer look at some of the lucky animals who have benefited from innovative surgical treatment and the latest medical technologies.

Prosthetic paws for fluffy friends

When a faithful companion loses part of a limb, be it because of their accident-prone nature or a serious disease such as osteosarcoma, they may be a candidate for a PerFiTs (Percutaneous Fixation to Skeleton) prosthetic implant. This type of implant is an exclusive speciality at Fitzpatrick Referrals, an innovative vet surgery set up by veterinary orthopaedic neurosurgeon Professor Noel Fitzpatrick in Surrey, UK. 

Animals fitted with prostheses such as these are able to avoid complete amputation and therefore maintain many aspects of their pre-surgery lifestyle – just like Pixie and Archie, two of Fitzpatrick’s patients.

PerFiTs are small, but packed full of highly specialised medical technology. Special coatings on the implant allow the patient’s bone to incorporate into the metal of the implant, so it becomes incorporated into the patients’ very skeleton. The part of the prosthesis which gets walked on – and thus worn down – can be easily removed and replaced, just like the sole of a shoe.

Wheel that’s one way to go about it

Slow and steady wins the race, but defenceless tortoises can be unfortunate victims of predator attacks – and may lose the use of their legs as a result.

Zoo staff and pet owners alike have been pretty innovative when it comes to improving the quality of life for these poor critters.

A female Indian star tortoise in India was fitted with a prosthetic set of wheels after losing her leg to a mongoose attack – and staff now say she’s the fastest-moving of her 14 neighbours.

Unlucky Septimus the tortoise had his legs gnawed off by rats while he was hibernating – but now he’s mobile again thanks to his new wheels, which came from a model aeroplane kit. Apparently he can even move backwards – something he wasn’t capable of before his life-changing surgery.

Jumbo-sized challenge

Before Dr Therdchai Jivacate and his team intervened, Mosha the three-legged elephant could walk – but her future looked bleak. The strain of her unbalanced gait on her skeleton was causing her spine to bend, and this would have eventually prevented her from being able to walk.

When Mosha was first fitted with her prosthetic limb, after she lost part of her leg when she stepped on an old land mine, she weighed in at 589kg. That’s about the same as 36 cocker spaniels (just like Archie, our PerFiTs friend). Constructing a sturdy prosthesis for Mosha was a challenge then, but now she’s reached her adult weight of 2041kg, it’s a whole new ball game.

A whole team of engineers and vets are now responsible for taking care of the Asian elephant, as they work to continually design new moulds as Mosha grows and her prostheses wear out. 

Wobblers syndrome

Spondylomyelopathy, or Wobblers syndrome, is a condition seen in dogs as well as horses and is caused when instable vertebrae of the neck cause spinal cord compression. It is thought to be an inherited condition in dogs, and it is most commonly seed in Great Danes (like Ellie) and Dobermans.

Patients with Wobblers syndrome have an unsteady gait (hence the name) as well as reduced proprioception – meaning they have a poor awareness of their own body parts and the strength required for their movement. You might have experienced this sensation yourself - in humans, excessive tiredness can often bring on temporarily reduced proprioception.

Wobblers Syndrome can sometimes be corrected by a surgical technique honed by Fitzpatrick, who is also known as the 'bionic vet'. Adjacent vertebrae can be distracted (i.e. stretched) by placing a titanium bolt between the bones, and additional stability can be provided using a plate-and-screw system.

Shelling out for Fred

When Fred the tortoise lost 85% of her shell in a bushfire and nearly starved to death, a local group of entrepreneurs stepped in to give the little reptile a second chance.

The group of vets, along with a dental surgeon and a 3D designer, worked together to design, build and fit Fred’s new shell, which is made from the same material used by most desktop 3D printers.

Unsurprisingly, 3D printing also has great potential for use in human medicine. While people have already received 3D printed prosthesis, other active areas of research for the technology include drug manufacture, patient-personalised anatomical models for surgical preparation and even bioprinting real tissues and organs.

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