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Calgary Vet Students Learn Basic Skills On Simulated Animals

The University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM) has teamed up with Veterinary Simulator Industries (VSI) of Calgary, to develop a unique line of realistic animal models to help students learn basic clinical skills and gain confidence before trying their hand on live animals at veterinary clinics.

The new company was spawned quite by coincidence, when UCVM s dean, Dr. Alastair Cribb, happened to ask his neighbour, Russell Gray, about the possibility of constructing an attention-grabbing, interactive model that people of all ages could use at UCVM s promotional and educational events.

Not everyone has a neighbour with 25 years experience creating props for movies and television and educational displays, who happens to have a business partner with a knack for building animals.

Gray admits it s an odd skill set, but with input from the UCVM vets, he and his partner, Bryan Pfahl, have made some ground-breaking advancements in the field of veterinary simulators an industry they never even knew existed!

Their first attempt a bovine rectal palpation simulator in the fall of 2008, was all it took for faculty veterinarians to see the possibilities.

Drs. Gordon Krebs and Gordon Atkins have had significant input in developing the bovine simulators, while Dr. Emma Read is similarly involved with equine models.

The vets had the idea that they could be built and knew what they wanted, but they lacked the fabrication experience and knowledge of materials, how they react when used together and their availability, Gray says. Both of us know what will survive when a calf has to be born, not once, but maybe 15 times a day!

Building a model begins with sculpting the full-sized figure, then layering it with rubber jacket in preparation for a fibreglass covering that becomes the casting mould from which copies of the animal are made, including details such as removable side panels and working udders. Once the fibreglass mould is removed, the model is fitted with the pelvic simulator, a soft panel insert with the vulva and anus for palpation training, and a pneumatic, inflatable cradle to mimic the uterus, onto which model calves can be positioned to simulate different types of calving problems. The finished models are found in the large animal lab at the university s Clinical Skills Building and on the Internet at

Gray and Pfahl formed VSI Ltd. and completed their first prototype model of a Holstein cow early in 2010, followed quickly by an interactive equine simulator and prototype dystocia calf. The latest models of an Angus cow and a Hereford cow emerged from the mold in time for UCVM s first beef cattle conference in May of this year.

While the cow models are rigid, the 60-pound calves are pliable with a skeleton, moveable joints and a skull with moveable jaw, teeth, soft palate, tongue, esophagus and soft eye sockets. The hooves are durable enough to withstand repeated chaining during simulated deliveries.

This summer VSI was completing an equine colic simulator, which is a soft, inflatable model of the gastrointestinal tract that fits inside the abdomen. The company has also created artificial wounds that can be placed on the leg as well as suture training pads that simulate real flesh.

All of the materials used are scrubbable so they can be fill the udders with milk, or hang intestinal or reproductive tracts in proper position.

The payoff

Gord Krebs, a clinical skills instructor at the UCVM, has designed a research project to validate the effectiveness of simulators as an educational tool, but expects it will take several years to complete.

Even so the use of simulators in veterinary schools is gaining momentum throughout the world, fueled by increased regulation regarding the use of healthy animals in educational settings and the challenge surrounding their purchase, maintenance and disposal.

More importantly, Krebs says simulators offer students a chance to learn practical skills without the fear of injuring an animal or being injured, and they can practise their skills as often as they want.

In the first year students can get right into learning skills such as how to run needle drivers, tie sutures, insert catheters, and deliver calves without yet having to know exactly why or when they will need to use the skill, Krebs explains. If they learn how to do the skill with their hands, when they get into a live animal situation they will have confidence in knowing they can perform the skill and can then concentrate on all of the other aspects.

The horse model and bovine rectal palpation simulators can be used for realistic examinations so the students can see how a technique is done as the instructor demonstrates it.

The VSI automated milking parlour, Jenny the dog, Gerry the cat, and Lucky (a 1,300-pound horse model used for mock horse trailer accidents) are examples of some of the most advanced physical simulators at UCVM. Other smaller models include a jugular vein consisting of surgical tubing covered with hide and hooked to a corvay to simulate blood pressure; a bovine abdominal tract that allows students to move the various parts around; surgical tubs with fur-lined lids with small cutouts through which cadaver parts are retrieved; and lambing tubs to birth lambs through an inner tube.

UCVM doesn t have a haptics simulator, however, they are common in Europe. These sophisticated machines allow students to see in 3D with their fingers, Krebs says. Students place their hand into a glove and the computer provides resistance to the hand to make the examination feel like the real thing even though there are no physical animal parts involved.

Krebs says, in a way UCVM has been compelled to advance the use of simulators because there is no teaching hospital associated with the college. It does, however, maintain a herd of 20 cows, horses, dogs, cats and a llama. Sheep and swine are brought in as required and poultry labs are conducted in co-operation with two nearby veterinary clinics. Once the students become proficient on the simulators they progress to minor surgery on live animals.

Practical experience in all areas of veterinary medicine is also gained through the Distributed Veterinarian Learning Community program, whereby students in their first, second and third years spend two weeks working with veterinarians throughout Alberta. In fourth year they spend 40 weeks in the Distributed Veterinary Teaching Hospital program to learn advanced and specialized skills.

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