3-D printed cat skull helps budding vets learn new skills

A woman has her hands on the 3-D printed cat skull which is black in colour and mounted on a wooden frame.

By Sydney Pearce

When engineering meets veterinary science at the U of G, dozens of practice models are developed for learning companion animal medical procedures.

One such model is a 3D-printed model of a cat that permits students to practice tracheal intubation, a procedure that allows (or permits) the delivery of anesthetics and oxygen to the lungs through a tracheal tube.

Many commonly used 3D printers only allow the use of hard plastics. But Claudia Smith, a PhD student from the School of Engineering, infused a variety of soft plastics into her model, to authentically simulate natural intubation and provide enhanced learning.

Intubation is a key curriculum component and an important task performed before surgeries and other procedures. Having practice models prepares student veterinarians for working with live animals.

“Students thoroughly enjoy the opportunity to practice with these models to improve their skills in a low-stress environment,” says Prof. Carolyn Kerr, in the Ontario Veterinary College’s Department of Clinical Studies.

Smith has created other learning tools for OVC, such as model dog legs for practicing intravenous catheterization.

“There are so many non-living models in human medicine, but not many in veterinary medicine,” says Smith. “I’m grateful to be able to add these models, helping students learn more efficiently.”

To create the new cat skull model, Smith first created a complex structure for the printer to follow. Proportions and material softness for each section were then chosen to ensure real feline accuracy.

Three prototypes were tested before the final one was created and adopted by OVC. It was evaluated by professionals, who reported being able to insert endotracheal tubes down the functional mouth and trachea. The model is being incorporated into the curriculum in the winter semester.

Researchers sought feedback from technicians and faculty to improve the model. They were surprised the main feedback comments they received were to create eyelids and ear tips for the model.

Smith attributes this feedback to a theory called the uncanny valley. “This phenomenon is the human tendency to be okay with objects that either look very human and lifelike or not at all human and lifelike,” says Smith. “Because this model fell somewhere in the middle, people felt uncomfortable and therefore wanted small aesthetic changes over everything else. Otherwise, the tool worked great.”

Smith’s dog leg model has already been incorporated into the curriculum at OVC. She hopes the cat head and trachea model will be used and relied on more in future years once she makes the small changes suggested.

Researchers aim to create more 3D models for the OVC to help the world renowned veterinary college remain innovative and successful in its teaching goals.

“We are continually integrating new technologies to best support teaching and learning at OVC,” says OVC dean Jeff Wichtel. “Student confidence and ability is increased, particularly their psychomotor skills, through the use of models such as these.”

Supervisors and collaborators include professors John Runciman, Carolyn Kerr and Deep Khosa. Funding provided by the Learning Enhancement Fund, School of Engineering, and the Ontario Veterinary College.