Researchers helped pigeons with broken wings fly again using surgical pins made of sheep and dog bone.

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Dog bones could help patch broken bird wings

A broken wing can be deadly for a bird, not to mention heartbreaking for the person who finds the creature flopping on the ground. Now, researchers have developed a new treatment for injured birds using a surprising material: the bones of sheep and dogs.

Bird bone surgery is tricky because avian wing bones are lightweight and hollow. Wildlife rehabilitation facilities often repair breaks with metal bone pins, but they can weigh a bird down and hamper its flight. Often the bird needs a second surgery to remove the pins.

A team of researchers led by Saifullah Dehghani Nazhvani of the Shiraz University School of Veterinary Medicine’s department of surgery in Iran set out to find a cheaper, less invasive alternative. In 40 anesthetized pigeons, they used small cutting tool to make tiny breaks in the birds’ upper wing bones. They allowed 10 of the birds to heal naturally. Another 10 received metal bone pins. In the remaining 20, the researchers inserted tiny, sharp bone pins into the breaks. They whittled the pins from the bones of sheep, sourced from a slaughterhouse, and dogs that had been euthanized because of illness or injury.

After 32 weeks, the 10 pigeons who had received no treatment still couldn’t fly. The 10 that had received metal pins could fly, but they listed slightly to the side with the pin. The 20 pigeons that had received the bone pins flew nearly flawlessly, the researchers report this week in Heliyon. And because their bodies had largely absorbed the slivers of bone, the animals’ wings were not weighed down and they did not need further surgery.

The study is not the first to use bonelike material to patch broken animal bones. Previous teams synthesized pins from hydroxyapatite, a major component in human and animal bones. However, this method is expensive, and the use of material from actual animal bones could make these methods more accessible, says Daniel Calvo Carrasco, a veterinary pathologist at the Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust in Slimbridge, U.K.

Still, there are drawbacks to the new method, says Carrasco, who specializes in avian surgery but was not a part of the new study. For example, vets often fix broken bones with a combination of pins and other implants such as plates and screws, or they use external fixators, which sit outside the animal and prevent the bone from rotating. A single pin might not be enough to secure the bone in some cases, he says. (In the future, Nazhvani’s team plans to develop bone substitutes for the metal plates often used for fractures in larger bones.)

Carrasco says further advances could make pins and other implants made of animal bones a useful technique for avian vets. “This is a great study,” he says. “[It] could potentially revolutionize certain aspects of how we do things.”