Dogs and Tech – How Science is Giving Man’s Best Friend the Good Life

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Dogs are man’s best friend.  And now, they will be our best friends for much longer.  Our canine friends are now benefitting from some amazing medical breakthroughs. Read on to find out how Scruffy is living the good life.

Science boffins all over the world have done amazing things for human beings. And now, they are doing amazing things for dogs… These lucky pups are living their best lives because of some very inventive people. Here are some stories from the cutting edge of animal medicine.

VR Examinations

Sara Farthing is a first-year student of Veterinary Medicine at Virginia Tech. While doing clinical exams on dogs, she had trouble picturing the canine’s lungs and the way the heart is positioned inside the chest. So she walked across the room and slipped on a virtual reality (VR) headset. Suddenly, she could see a large picture of a dog’s lungs and skeletal structure floating in mid-air in front of her. She said, “I literally stood inside the rib cage.”

All of the organs are on show in a VR exam

All of the organs are on show in a VR exam

The aspiring small animal veterinarian was using a new technology available this semester at the college that brings a dog’s anatomy to life.

The VR experience was created by Thomas Tucker, an associate professor in the School of Visual Arts at Virginia Tech. It shows the organs inside the skeletal system of a mid-sized dog. By moving and clicking a button, users can see layers of tissue, zoom in on certain organs, and step into parts of a virtual dog’s body. There is no other way to study a dog’s organs and bone structure as intensively.

The software that runs this tech is called Unreal Engine, used by video game developers. The project received a $3,000 grant from the University Libraries Open Education Faculty Initiative. This requires the software to be publicly released under an open license for use by other universities and veterinarians.

This is one view of the virtual image of a dog that users see when they put on the VR headset. Credit Virginia Tech

This is one view of the virtual image of a dog that users see when they put on the VR headset. Credit Virginia Tech

“This open-source tool brings forward the ability for students to develop a better spatial understanding,” said Anita Walz, a librarian at Virginia Tech. “If this can help them learn faster or more thoroughly, I think it’s really exciting.”

Kathryn Strait, a first-year veterinary student, put on the VR headset to study where a dog’s heart and lungs are located. “It’s helpful to have a 3D understanding of how each organ relates. You can see how the spleen wraps around on the left side and how the heart is oriented.”

Eventually, there will be more VR sets for lab work, plus more VR equipment in the library for students to use anytime. Tucker is developing an augmented reality (AR) dog that would be available as a smartphone app. The AR dog was presented at a veterinary conference recently and there was much interest. More funding is needed, however, to make the AR project a reality.

Canines are only the beginning for Tucker. With additional grant money, he said he’d like to develop VR versions of other animals, such as pigs and cattle.

Virtual Reality exams of dogs are now possible

Virtual Reality exams of dogs are now possible

For now, VR is changing the way that Virginia Tech veterinary students like Farthing are learning. Recently, as she gazed at a dog’s lung structure with the VR headset, she said she could picture where to place her stethoscope. “I have a mental image now,” said Farthing, who in the future plans to work in a small animal veterinary practice alongside her mother, who is also a vet. Tech holds amazing hope for sick animal everywhere, and VR examinations are only the beginning!

Titanium for a Superdog

A 3D-printed titanium bone implant is giving a senior rescue dog a new lease on life. This is thanks to a team of vets from The University of Queensland and engineers from RMIT University.

Seymour has gone from a sick rescue dog who was ‘on his last legs’ to a happy pooch who enjoys sunbaking on the deck.

Seymour has recovered well

Seymour has recovered well

Seymour was presented to Dr Jayne McGhie at UQ Vets Small Animal Hospital by his rescue adopter Sonya, looking to investigate options for a leg that may have been broken for many years. Said Dr McGhie, “When Seymour first arrived in my care he had many problems – including severe skin disease, serious dental problems, dry eye, bilateral patella luxations and evidence of osteoarthritis in both elbows and in his right hind leg which required surgical intervention.”

In the absence of standard solution Dr McGhie contacted Professor Milan Brandt, Technical Director of the Advanced Manufacturing Precinct at RMIT University in Melbourne. Postdoctoral researcher Dr Darpan Shidid also donated his time and expertise to help.

They drew on their current research on new generation implants for human bone disease. And, they came up with a custom-made, lattice-based titanium implant for Seymour. To make it, they used a 3D metal printer at the Precinct, a business incubator for promising startups in Brisbane.

Said Professor Brandt, “After examining Seymour’s CT scans, we designed a robust lattice structure that would support his weight. We attached it to a custom-designed plate fitted exactly to his misshaped bone. The lattice fills the bone defect to restore the femur to its normal length and alignment. And, it allows growth of new bone as the femur heals – eventually the implant becomes a part of the healed bone.”

The bone being healed

The bone being healed

 

Once Seymour had recovered from his skin and dental diseases, Dr McGhie and her team performed the advanced surgical procedure to install the implant. To encourage bone growth into the lattice, a bone graft was harvested from Seymour’s shoulder. This was mixed with canine demineralised bone and Seymour’s own platelet-rich plasma. Then it was pressed into the lattice of the bone plate. The lattice and the plate were then placed into the bone defect of Seymour’s left femur and secured in place.

The osteoarthritis in Seymour's hind leg has been repaired

The osteoarthritis in Seymour’s hind leg has been repaired

After his successful surgery, Seymour was sent home to recuperate with foster carer Sonya and her family. “Seymour is such a remarkable little dog and despite all the challenges he’s faced, he’s never stopped being loving and happy. We’re so happy with his recovery – he can do his excited twirls for food without a limp, and we can take him on walks with our other dog, Cash.”

Since then, Seymour has had routine check-ups and thanks to RMIT University and the specialist surgeon team at UQ VETS, he is doing very well.

A New Prosthetic Leg for a Shelter Dog

Over the other side of the world in Novosibirsk, Russia, there are also a lot of exciting developments in animal medicine. Russian scientists and veterinarians have developed a hind leg prosthetic for pets, which ensure a full recovery after surgery. But the most interesting thing about this prosthetic, is that it doesn’t get taken off. It is fused to the bone and becomes a permanent part of the animal’s body.

This is Shans the dog with the hind leg implant. Credit The Best Pet Clinics. Novosibirsk.

This is Shans the dog with the hind leg implant. Credit The Best Pet Clinics. Novosibirsk.

Shans the dog lost his leg due to an accident and was the first patient of the new technique. Initially, vets conducted a computed tomography scan of the patient’s hind legs. Then they made a 3D model of the prosthesis. The main part of the prosthesis is made from a titanium-nickel-vanadium alloy.

Says Prof. Sergey Tverdokhlebov, “When we received the implant, our task was to apply a calcium phosphate coating on it. This is necessary to ensure the integration of the implant with the bone. This material deceives the body to perceive the implant as its own. Due to this, the pet has complete freedom of motion after the surgery.”

Shans the dog feels well and uses the prosthesis 100% of the time. Shan is currently being looked after by the Varezhka charity fund and waits for his forever home.

Digitise Your Dog Into A Computer Game

Researchers from the University of Bath have developed motion capture technology that enables you to digitise your dog. This is all without a motion capture suit and using only one camera.

The software could be used for a wide range of purposes. This could be anything from helping vets diagnose lameness and monitoring recovery of their canine patients, to entertainment applications. Now, it will be easier to put digital representations of dogs into movies and video games.

You can digitise your dog using only one camera.

You can digitise your dog using only one camera.

Motion capture technology is widely used in the entertainment industry. Actors wear a suit dotted with white markers which are then precisely tracked in 3D space by multiple cameras taking images from different angles. Movement data can then be transferred onto a digital character for use in films or computer games.

Similar technology is also used by biomechanics experts to track the movement of elite athletes during training. Or, to monitor patients’ rehabilitation from injuries. However, these technologies – particularly when applying them to animals – require expensive equipment and dozens of markers to be attached.

Enter computer scientists from CAMERA, the University of Bath’s motion capture research centre. They digitised the movement of 14 different breeds of dog, from lanky lurchers to squat pugs, which were residents of the local Bath Cats and Dogs Home (BCDH).

Wearing special doggie motion capture suits with markers, the dogs were filmed under the supervision of their BCDH handlers. They did a range of movements as part of their enrichment activities.

This data was used to create a computer model that can accurately predict and replicate the poses of dogs when they’re filmed without wearing the motion capture suits. This model allows 3D digital information for new dogs – their shape and movement – to be captured without markers and expensive equipment. Now, only a single RGBD camera is needed. Whereas normal digital cameras record the red, green and blue (RGB) colour in each pixel in the image, RGBD cameras also record the distance from the camera for each pixel.

Dog owners can make a 3D digital representation of their pet!

Dog owners can make a 3D digital representation of their pet!

PhD researcher Sinéad Kearney said, “This is the first time RGBD images have been used to track the motion of dogs using a single camera. This is much more affordable than traditional motion capture systems that require multiple cameras. This technology allows us to study the movement of animals, which is useful for applications such as detecting lameness in a dog and measuring its recovery over time. For the entertainment industry, our research can help produce more authentic movement of virtual animals in films and video games. Dog owners could also use it to make a 3D digital representation of their pet on their computer, which is a lot of fun!”

The team has also started testing their method on computer-generated images of other four-legged animals including horses, cats, lions and gorillas, with some promising results.

Professor Darren Cosker, Director of CAMERA, said, “While there is a great deal of research on automatic analysis of human motion without markers, the animal kingdom is often overlooked. Our research is a step towards building accurate 3D models of animal motion along with technologies that allow us to very easily measure their movement. This has many exciting applications across a range of areas – from veterinary science to video games.”

The future looks bright for our animal companions, thanks to some very smart and dedicated boffins. Thank you, scientists, and our companions thank you as well!

How else is tech reimagining pet lives? Check out this whole pile of crazy. 

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