Dental care is a very important component of maintaining the health and welfare of the animals at the Detroit Zoo. Many of the animals in our care live longer than they would in the wild, and we need to ensure that they maintain healthy, strong teeth throughout their lifespans.
Some of our patients are cooperative; for example, the polar bears and chimpanzees have been trained to open their mouths wide for a quick visual exam, and the seals allow us to brush their teeth daily to reduce tartar build up. But it’s not always that easy – our patients all have very different mouths, and some teeth are easier to see than others. During every health check, we make sure to do a thorough dental exam.
Most of our carnivores and reptiles have mouths that open wide and teeth that are easy to examine. Aardvarks, kangaroos and pigs are examples of animals that have elongated, deep mouths that are very hard to visualize, but we use a variety of tools to get the job done. A laryngoscope with a very long blade or small endoscope can be used to see in the dark, tight spaces inside the mouth, such as with a Meishan pig. Pigs can develop dental problems as they age, so it’s important to check each tooth and treat any potential problems early.
Our patients also have different kinds and shapes of teeth. The teeth of carnivores and herbivores are shaped differently, and their structure can vary as well. We look up the dental formula (how many incisors, premolars and molars a species has) and anatomy of the teeth before exams, and we have developed a new dental exam form to help us identify the teeth and record any problems we find. For example, beavers have front incisors that grow continuously, and we check their teeth frequently for overgrowth.
Some of our patients have very, very large teeth, like Kisa, a 13-year-old female Amur tiger. During Kisa’s most recent health check, we were able to see that there was swelling around her lower left canine tooth. We scheduled an exam with our visiting veterinary dentist, Dr. Ben Colmery. He made a small incision along the side of the tooth and found an area where the enamel had eroded away. This type of enamel resorption is common in older domestic cats, and has been seen in our geriatric zoo patients as well. If left untreated, serious problems can develop that can make it necessary to extract the tooth. Dr. Colmery smoothed the lesion and applied a special paste to help stimulate healing. We also scaled and polished all of her teeth to remove tartar and plaque.
Our goal in the animal health department is provide the best possible care to all of the wonderful animals that live at the Detroit Zoo. We work to understand the kinds of health problems found in zoo animals, and to prevent these problems whenever possible. Finding dental disease and other health problems early allows us to be proactive in our efforts to maintain excellent health and welfare.
– Ann Duncan is the director of animal health for the Detroit Zoological Society and oversees the Ruth Roby Glancy Animal Health Complex at the Detroit Zoo.