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Sunday, February 3, 2013 - Page updated at 05:30 a.m.

No pain, big gains as veterinary students practice on robo-pets

By Patrick Cole
Bloomberg News

The dog doesn’t bark, and it doesn’t chase Robo-Fluffy.

Robo-Jerry II, a four-legged robotic dog mannequin, has a mechanical heart and pulse and cost about $35,000 to develop. Robo-Fluffy is his feline counterpart.

They simulate ailing animals, to let students hone their diagnostic skills at the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s new $150,000 emergency and critical-care training facility.

“The goal is to give students a way to practice these emergency situations without hurting the animal,” said Daniel Fletcher, the robots’ developer and the Ithaca, N.Y., college’s assistant professor of emergency and critical care. “They can see real results instead of making a mistake on a real animal.”

Cornell’s new facility and the creation of simulated models of organs at other veterinary schools for medical training draw praise from animal-welfare groups for sparing dogs, cats and other animals from harm and even death.

In recent years, animal-welfare activists such as the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine have asked the University of Virginia to stop using live cats to teach medical residents intubation procedures. Repeated intubations can cause tracheal bruising, bleeding and trauma.

“We’re confident that the time is going to come when there will be no terminal use of animals in veterinary training,” said Dr. John Pippin, director of academic affairs for the Washington-based committee, which monitors animal abuse.

Hundreds of healthy animals at veterinarian schools routinely died after being used to teach surgical procedures such as hysterectomy, said Susan Krebsbach, a veterinarian and a Wisconsin-based veterinary adviser to the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association.

“It’s so encouraging to see the use of these types of tools,” said Krebsbach, a graduate of Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine. “It’s a better way to teach students.”

Before Cornell’s robotic dog was developed, other researchers created low-cost models for student training. In 2007, Rikki Langebaek, a Danish veterinarian, began developing a toy animal for about $150 with simulated organs and blood vessels, for the University of Copenhagen’s veterinary program.

“I wanted to make models that weren’t too expensive, so I used toys with spare parts made of balloons and condoms,” Langebaek said. “Robo-Jerry II is a very advanced model. You really can’t compare the two.”

Dean Hendrickson at Colorado State University College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences co-created an artificial abdominal wall with synthetic skin and muscle that can bleed. The college also is developing simulation models of an animal’s liver, kidney, bladder, stomach and intestines, Hendrickson said in an email.

The American Veterinary Medical Association, of Schaumburg, Ill., still endorses the use of animals at vet schools for training purposes while encouraging alternatives such as robots when possible, said Gail Golab, director of the nonprofit’s animal-welfare division.

“Decisions have to be made when the realistic environment differs from the model itself,” Golab said. “Models don’t bleed, but animals do.”

To create Robo-Jerry and Robo-Fluffy, Fletcher said he purchased dog and cat simulators from Thales & Co. of Van Nuys, Calif., which makes a line of animal mannequins under the RescueCritters! brand.

He developed and inserted artificial lungs and speakers that produce heart sounds and pulses. The robot also has sensors that can detect when a student is putting pressure on its chest.

“The robot has pulses which you can feel,” Fletcher said. “You can hear the heart and lungs as you would with a real dog or cat. It provides students with physiological feedback.”

Students collect data from the dog or cat in 10-minute simulation exercises to diagnose the problem and choose treatment, Fletcher said.

“The advantage of using the robot is that you can’t really anticipate otherwise what it’s going to be like in a critical situation until it happens,” said Sara Buckley, 27, a third-year Cornell veterinary college student.

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