By now, the heartwarming video of Derby the dog running for the first time in his life thanks to 3D-printed prosthetic legs has officially gone viral. But Derby, a rescue dog who was born with disabled and deformed front legs, isn’t the only one excited about his fancy new limbs. While 3D printers have been used to make replacement limbs for humans, Derby is the first animal to be successfully outfitted with 3D-printed prosthetics. His ability to run marks a huge step forward for the small but remarkable field of animal prosthetics.
Derrick Campana — who helped create Derby’s new legs with designers at the 3D printing company 3D Systems — has been a trailblazer in that field for the past decade.
A certified orthotist, specializing in the creation and use of corrective braces and artificial limbs, Campana had worked only with human patients until about 10 years ago. But when a veterinarian brought a dog in need of a prosthesis to the facility where Campana was working, he discovered he could apply the same technology that he’d mastered on people to help animals. He also soon learned there was a market for animal prosthetics and orthotics that hadn’t really been tapped. So Campana founded Animal Ortho Care in Chantilly, Va., one of the first companies to make orthotics and prosthetics specifically for animals. Today, Campana told Yahoo News, Animal Ortho Care is one of five such companies in the world, seeing between 200 and 300 animal patients each month.
A few months ago, Derby became one of those patients. Tara Anderson, an employee at the South Carolina-based 3D Systems, had been fostering the disabled dog, and after a failed attempt to help him walk with a cart, she enlisted a couple of her colleagues to help make Derby some prosthetic legs. Accessing 3D printing technology was no problem, but none of them were experts in prosthetics. That’s where Campana came in.
“We were really interested in the case because we always wanted to incorporate 3D printing into our business,” he said. Though 3D printing technology has been available for a while, he explained, some of the materials and tools that work for making human prosthetics aren’t totally compatible with animals. For example, the technology used to easily scan a person’s leg is not as accurate when scanning a leg covered in fur. For Derby, Campana said he molded a fiberglass cast and scanned that into the 3D printing system.
“In the future, hopefully we can just scan the leg directly,” he said.
While 3D printing technology is bound to see furry-friendly advancements in its future, creating the perfect prosthetic is only half the battle when the patient is an animal.
“We can make a perfectly well-fitted device, but from there it takes the whole team — the veterinarian, physical therapist, the owners — to teach the dog how to use it,” Campana said.
Not every dog is a good candidate for a prosthetic. Some have been holding up their injured or missing leg for so long that retraining them to step down is very difficult.
“Derby was a hard case, but he was a good candidate because he really wanted to use his legs,” Campana said, explaining that even though he didn’t have paws, Derby still attempted to use his small forearms to get around, despite not getting very far.
“When any patient comes in here using his stump, bringing it down, that really increases the chances of success,” he said.
Campana said he’s already been in talks with 3D Systems about further collaborations. As for Derby, Campana hasn’t seen the dog since he started using his prosthetic legs, but, like nearly 3 million others, he has seen Derby’s video.
“He’s running great,” Campana said. “We’re really excited.”