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Fixing a tiger tooth
dentist working on tiger
Veterinary dentist Dr. Kevin Stepaniuk gets to work on Kirana’s canine.

If you’re an apex jungle predator, it’s pretty important to have strong teeth. So when Kirana, one of the four Sumatran tigers at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, needed some work on a fractured canine last week, she had a team of 12 veterinarians, veterinary dentists, technicians and keepers to take care of her.

“Can I get a number five surgical round bur, please?” called Dr. Kevin Stepaniuk, reaching one hand while the other held aside a massive orange lip.

Stepaniuk, a visiting veterinary dentist who attends to Tacoma zoo patients a couple of times a year, had traveled from Vancouver, Washington with his team to do periodontal work on Kirana’s upper right canine. It had a crown root fracture – not uncommon in powerful chewers like tigers – which they’d noticed while giving her a root canal. Two procedures was too much for one anesthetic timeframe, so the team was back for part two of the work: fixing the fractured tooth to prevent infection and allow her to eat normally.

Helping her vets

suturing tiger gum
Suturing up Kirana the tiger’s gum to reduce the pocket.

The procedure had started with Kirana voluntarily offering her hip for the general anesthetic injection before being driven to the zoo’s veterinary hospital. (As with most zoo animals, Kirana’s keepers regularly work with her to take part in her own health care, training natural behaviors that help with monitoring and treatment.)

Then Kirana’s care team ¬– veterinarian Dr. Kadie Anderson, veterinary intern Dr. Lauren Mulreaney, veterinary technician Sara Dunleavy and vet tech intern Jordan Butler, assisted by four keepers – swung into action. Blood pressure cuff on Kirana’s foreleg, IV in a back leg, blood oxygen monitor on her long pink tongue and an endotracheal tube to monitor her breathing.

veterinarians around tiger
Kirana’s veterinary care team in action.

Stepaniuk, assisted by Dr. Alice Sievers and two dental technicians, began prepping Kirana’s tooth. Working carefully around the tongue monitor and tube, they examined her mouth, measured pockets, scaled away plaque.

Sievers snapped some x-rays with a hand-held tool, and the two dentists conferred around the images on a laptop. Further down the tiger’s soft, stripy flank, Dunleavy drew a blood sample, while keeper Ryan Clifton began cleaning Kirana’s claw sheaths.

File, chip, stitch

cleaning tiger claws
Cleaning claw sheaths is included in Kirana the tiger’s dental procedure.

Finally, it was time to mend the tooth itself. Working with various tools, Stepaniuk filed off chipped fragments, smoothing it all down and double checking his work with more x-rays.

“It looks pretty good,” he said to Sievers.

After checking the earlier root canal work, it was time for sutures, closing Kirana’s wide pink gum neatly around the one-inch tooth. Sievers painted on a sealant, then gave all the teeth a polish – just like a human dental clean.

“For the next 10 days, make sure she just gets meat – no bones or fur,” Stepaniuk advised Anderson and the keepers before wiping Kirana’s mouth clean.

As Stepaniuk’s team began packing up, seven of Kirana’s care team gathered around the edges of the flexible stretcher she lay on. Monitors were unplugged, the cuff came off, and the doorway was cleared.

Back to the bedroom

dentists check tiger xrays
Dr. Stepaniuk and Dr. Sievers, veterinary dentists, check Kirana’s x-rays.

“One, two, three!” called Clifton, and as one they lifted the stretcher edges and carried the sleeping tiger back out to the van, to be driven back to her bedroom for recovery.

“It’s great to be working with specialist veterinary dentists,” commented Anderson. “We can keep Kirana’s tooth healthy as long as possible, which allows her to eat normally and show normal tiger behavior.”

“And it’s fun for us to do dental work on these big guys,” smiled Sievers. “We love it.”

lifting tiger on stretcher
Kirana’s team get ready to lift and take her back to her den to recover after dental surgery.