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Shotgun on standby as dentist gives root canal to tiger

Most of us get apprehensive going to the dentist, but imagine trying to give root canal to a tiger.

That's what the day job involves for veterinary dentist Matthew Oxford who is one of the most experienced clinicians treating zoo animals.

As part of the Zoo’s rigorous safety protocols, a keeper with a shot-gun was also in attendance - which the zoo joked brings a whole new meaning to the phrase 'armed to the teeth'.

The patient is Paignton Zoo’s 11-year-old male Sumatran tiger Fabi, who is over 2 metres long and weighs over 100 kilograms. 

Zoo spokesman Phil Knowling said:  "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.

"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.

Vet Jo Reynard added: "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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