Oct. 16, 2014

A Jaguar Needs a Root Canal? The Dentist Is In

by Sue Russell

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Ten years ago, Brook Niemiec got a call that sent him into the jaws of a jaguar. Workers at a remote wildlife sanctuary in Belize had found the cat suffering from a badly healed broken leg and unable to hunt. When they rescued the feline, they discovered that some of his teeth were broken and bloody. Niemiec, one of about 120 board-certified veterinary dental specialists in the U.S., agreed to fly in and help.
 
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Operating conditions were less than ideal. There was no electricity, nor were there x-ray machines, drills, fluids, or emergency drugs. “They had some sedatives, antibiotics, sutures, and a blow dart gun, but that’s it,” Niemiec remembers. Fortunately, he had packed an anesthesia vaporizer, a dremel from Home Depot, and some other tools. After sedating the cat, named Xibalba, he got to work.
 
Peering inside the mouth, Niemiec found an oral mess: five broken teeth amid a web of exposed nerve and root canals, all coated in blood. The cat’s dental problems were “very severe,” he recalls. “Over time, bacteria [can kill] the tooth because it’s exposed. Then it becomes a bacterial superhighway, taking the bacteria from the mouth, through the root canal, and into the bone where [they cause] infection.”
 
Xibalba needed five root canals, which Niemiec performed over two surgeries. Ninety minutes into the first operation, the cat’s heart and breathing rates rose, signaling that he was waking—“that and the fact he lifted his head and looked at me,” Niemiec remembers. They had run out of oxygen, and Xibalba was no longer receiving anesthesia. “He was pawing at me as I was smoothing out the root canal fillings.”
 
At the end of the second surgery, Niemiec got another shock when Xibalba went into cardiac arrest and stopped breathing. After several failed attempts to revive his patient, Niemiec tried a quick yank—on the cat’s testicles. “He was awake, just like that,” says Niemiec. His work done, Niemiec flew back home to Southern California, after what remains his most memorable veterinary dental experience. “It was a heck of an adventure,” he says. What's more, Xibalba fully recovered.
 
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Most of Niemiec’s “clients” tend to be domestic cats, dogs, and other pets, but once in a while he tends to less traditional patients. In the past 15 years, he’s treated at least 70 exotic animals in zoos and other facilities, ranging from a silverback gorilla, a cougar, and a bear, to a slow loris and even a thespian lion that performs in Hollywood.
 
Niemiec first became interested in working with animals as a kid growing up in Orange County. When he was three, he watched a veterinarian at his grandfather’s dairy farm save a dying cow suffering from eclampsia, or milk fever, and thought, “I want to do that!”
 
In high school, Niemiec’s periodontist uncle nudged him toward his specialty. “I said, ‘You’re crazy,’” recalls Niemiec, “‘No one does dentistry on animals.’ He said, ‘Not now, but they will.’ I think he saw my potential for thinking outside the box.”
 
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Historically, fixing animals’ teeth fell to human dentists, periodontists, or endodontists who adapted or jerry rigged equipment designed for human dental work. For instance, pioneers in veterinary dentistry “had to solder extensions onto human root canal files to make them long enough to do police dogs’ root canals,” says Niemiec.
 
Veterinary dentistry emerged as an organized medical specialty in the mid-1970s, gaining more traction in the late 1980s, when the Academy of Veterinary Dentistry and American Veterinary Dental College were established, the latter of which provides formal credentialing in the field. 
 
Zoos today typically employ several staff veterinarians, but they might call on specialists like Niemiec for particularly tricky surgeries. Karl Hill, currently an associate veterinarian at the Los Angeles Zoo, has in the past called Niemiec to perform root canals at various Southern California zoos, “because he does them all the time,” he says. “He’s much better and also much faster at it.” 
 
While digging into the teeth of an exotic animal might seem daunting, “for me to go work on a lion or a tiger or a jaguar, it’s another day at the office—just bigger equipment,” says Niemiec.
 
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One challenge in treating any kind of animal—be it a wild jaguar or a pet dog—is identifying dental problems in the first place. Animals are adept at masking pain and illness, according to Niemiec. For example, “Zoo animals don’t change their behavior when they have serious dental problems,” he says. “And they rarely stop eating.”  
 
As a result, maladies can be advanced when discovered. And “untreated dental problems,” says Niemiec, “have been linked to fractured jaws; eye loss; oral and systemic cancer; heart, lung, kidney, and liver disease; as well as strokes, heart attacks, and diabetes.” 
 
The majority of his zoo cases involve broken teeth from cage- and fence-chewing, as well as oral cancer. In the latter scenario, surgery is an animal’s best defense, according to Niemiec. “We’ve done some pretty aggressive surgery,” he says, “and [the animals] generally do well with it. If you get to it early and cut it out, cancer actually can be cured in the mouth.” 
 
While Niemiec considers his forays into the field a highlight of his work, he’s also proud of his more traditional practice, which has grown to include eight clinics and a thriving veterinary dental training center. But regardless of where he’s working, Niemiec’s motto is the same for patients large and small, domestic and exotic. “Fix the teeth,” he says, “and they’re like whole new animals.”
About Sue Russell

Sue Russell writes about forensic science, criminal justice, health and medicine, and whatever else piques her interest. She is the author of Lethal Intent, a biography on serial killer Aileen Wuornos.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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