Having the keeper armed with shotgun at close quarters was one of the vital safety protocols that had to put in place when veterinary dentist Matthew Oxford worked on the 220lb Sumatran tiger at Paignton Zoo in Devon. Eleven year old big cat Fabi needed the dental work after damaging his lower three-inch, flesh-ripping canine teeth, leaving him facing the agony of suffering painful abscesses. To make things more comforting for the 11 year old critically endangered tiger, Dr Oxford and the zoo team created a makeshift operating theatre out of hay bales and tarpaulin in the zoo’s largest tiger den.
It meant the dentist, two vets, three veterinary nurses, two big cat keepers and senior zoo staff found things a little tight for space during the two and a half hour procedure, but it spared Fabi the stress of having to be moved from his comfort zone.
Video footage from the zoo released today shows Dr Oxford, one of only a handful of veterinary dentists in the UK, carrying out the delicate surgery after x-rays reveal how Fabi’s lower canine teeth have been fractured, damaging the soft pulp and allowing root abscesses to start developing.
It means the teeth – four times the length of a human’s canines – have to cleared of decay and then filled with an inert material.
The zoo says Fabi’s calmness during the early stages of the operation is testament to his nature and relationship with staff.
Having been given an anaesthetic through the steel mesh of the den wall, he lies down and is kept warm with an electric blanket and duvet while he is given fluids and pain relief.
A breathing tube is used to deliver anaesthetic gases.
“As part of the Zoo’s rigorous safety protocols, a keeper with a shot-gun is also in attendance,” explained an official as the zoo gave details of the successful operation.
Having been carried from the makeshift theatre still asleep to a warm, straw-filled pen, Fabi was raising his head and looking around within minutes.
A quarter of an hour later, he was sitting up under the watchful eye of 24-hour CCTV and one-on-one observation.
Zoo vet Jo Reynard, who administered the anaesthetic, said: “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.”
Besides having dental work, being under anaesthetic also allowed the zoo to give Fabi a medical MOT.
Paignton Zoo Environmental Park Curator of Mammals Nic Dunn explained: “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.
“While 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.”