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A tiger at Paignton Zoo in Devon has had a root canal – performed by one very brave veterinary dentist…

The patient is Paignton Zoo’s 11-year-old male Sumatran tiger Fabi, who is over 2 metres long and weighs over 100 kilograms. A Sumatran tiger has 30 teeth, including four very long canines. Canine teeth are important for biting, tearing and eating meat, for jaw architecture and display. As the adult breeding male tiger, animal staff want to make sure he’s in the very best of health for the future.

The man going into the tiger’s den is veterinary dentist Matthew Oxford. Matthew, who treats his animal patients at a number of clinics in London and across the south coast, is one of only a handful of veterinary dentists in the UK. He is also one of the most experienced clinicians treating zoo animals.

Tigers can easily damage the tip of a tooth fighting, playing or chewing on hard objects such as bones. Root canal treatment is required when teeth are fractured, exposing the pulp, the soft sensitive tissue in the middle of the tooth. The procedure removes the bacteria and pulp from the chamber in the centre of the tooth and then fills the teeth with inert material.

The off show dens at the Paignton Zoo tiger enclosure are designed to allow this kind of veterinary care without having to transport the animal. Space is tight, however; essential people on hand include three vets, three vet nurses, two big cat keepers and senior animal staff. 

Vets and keepers created a makeshift operating theatre in the largest tiger den the day before the procedure, making a surgery table out of hay bales and tarpaulin and moving in their anesthetic equipment. Matthew Oxford brings his own specialist surgical kit and hand-held radiographic apparatus. Everything is extremely well organised and no one trips over anything.

As part of the Zoo’s rigorous safety protocols, a keeper with a shot-gun is also in attendance, bringing a whole new meaning to the phrase armed to the teeth…

Paignton Zoo vet Jo Reynard administers the anesthetic through the steel mesh of the den wall. Fabi is exceptionally calm and lies down for the injection – it’s testament to his nature and his relationship with Zoo staff. He receives the same care as any human patient; there’s a breathing tube to deliver anesthetic gases and carefully-administered fluids and pain relief. He’s kept warm with an electric blanket and a duvet. Vet nurse Kelly Damon monitors the anesthetic to keep both him and the staff safe throughout the 2 ½ hour procedure.

Matthew starts by taking x-rays, and finds that the lower canine teeth are fractured, the pulp has died and tooth root abscesses have started to develop. Complete root canal treatment is required in order to avoid having to extract these extremely large teeth. The canines are 8 centimetres from crown to root, some of the largest cat teeth that Matthew has ever worked on. In comparison, human teeth may be 2 to 2.5 centimetres, and even the largest domestic dog teeth are only 4 to 4.5 centimetres long.

Once the procedure is completed, Fabi is carried, still soundly asleep, to a warm pen with lots of fresh clean straw. Within a few minutes he’s raised his head and is looking around. After fifteen minutes he’s sitting up, totally unaware of the team that has provided his dental care. There’s CCTV 24 hours a day in the tiger den, but Fabi receives special one-on-one observation while he’s recovering. By the next day he seems back to normal.

Vet Jo Reynard: “Life in the Paignton Zoo veterinary department is always interesting, but a bilateral tiger root canal treatment is a challenging procedure. The fact it went so incredibly smoothly reflects the great team spirit among vets, keepers, curatorial staff and outside experts.”

Paignton Zoo Environmental Park Curator of Mammals Nic Dunn said: “Fabi is getting on now and it is not uncommon to see signs of wear and tear in an older cat. For tigers, the teeth and claws are very important pieces of equipment and so we need to make sure they are well looked after. Whilst Matthew was performing the dental work it also gave us the chance to give Fabi a full health check and we were pleased to see that he was in great health. We even wrapped his paws in bubble wrap and cut off sleeves from a zoo keeper’s old jumper to make sure he didn’t lose heat through his extremities during the long procedure!” 

 

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