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News / Life / Clark County Life

Those are some big teeth you have: Vancouver dental specialists perform surgery on Sumatran tiger

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 1, 2024, 6:02am
7 Photos
Veterinary dentist Dr. Alice Sievers, left, was accompanied by her own staff and a team from the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma Jan. 5 as she performed a dental exam and root-canal procedure on Sanjiv, a Sumatran tiger.
Veterinary dentist Dr. Alice Sievers, left, was accompanied by her own staff and a team from the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma Jan. 5 as she performed a dental exam and root-canal procedure on Sanjiv, a Sumatran tiger. (Katie Cotterill/Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium) Photo Gallery

With fewer than 500 individuals left in the wild today, plus a few hundred more in zoos, the Sumatran tiger is a rare and critically endangered species.

Dr. Alice Sievers represents a rare group too. As a board-certified veterinary dentist and oral surgeon, she’s likely one of about 300 people on the planet (that’s her own informed estimation) with the training and skill needed perform a root canal procedure on such an enormous, exotic cat.

A few weeks ago, Pet Dental Specialists, the east Vancouver clinic that Sievers co-owns, took a call for help from Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo regarding Sanjiv, a 12-year-old Sumatran tiger who’d fractured a canine tooth (one of those really long, sharp, scary fangs) on a chew toy. He broke about an inch off the tooth.

“He really did a number on it,” Sievers said.

While Point Defiance has veterinarians on staff, none is qualified to perform more complicated dental surgery, such as a root canal, on exotic animals. That’s why the zoo has cultivated relationships with specialists like Sievers and her professional partner at Pet Dental, veterinary dentist and oral surgeon Dr. Kevin Stepaniuk.

A musk ox named Hudson was Stepaniuk’s first dental patient at Point Defiance in 2015, he recalled. Since then, he and his colleagues have returned there as professional volunteers a handful of times per year to treat animals of all shapes and sizes, from immense tigers all the way down to “tiny little things like meercats and bats,” he said.

“It’s been a great experience all around,” Stepaniuk said. “We’re all motivated by the same mission, which is to care for the animals.”

Dental decision

Sievers was a U.S. Forest Service kid who grew up moving around Oregon until her family settled in Douglas County, she said. While animals were always part of her youth, Sievers didn’t see them as a potential vocation until she majored in biology at Southern Oregon University.

“I realized I really liked my interactions with animals and caring for them,” she said.

Sievers studied veterinary medicine at Oregon State University (and also at Washington State University, through a cooperative program). Since on-the-job experience was mandatory, she grabbed what relevant employment she could and wound up cleaning kennels, the very lowest rung of the animal-care ladder.

Sievers said she was always interested in exotic animals, but as the owner of a general veterinary practice in Ashland, Ore., dogs and cats were her bread and butter for about a decade. Meanwhile, though, she pursued continuing professional education toward a specialization in veterinary dentistry.

“I did not enjoy dentistry and I realized I had to do better,” she said.

Sievers trained as a veterinary dentist for five years while maintaining her general practice, the Bear Creek Animal Clinic in Ashland. Eventually she moved to Ridgefield so she and Stepaniuk — a longtime colleague and mentor, and now her new neighbor — could join forces and launch Pet Dental Specialists in 2022.

“I love doing oral surgery because it has a huge impact,” Sievers said. “It’s more dramatic than anything else I did with animals. People come back after a … procedure saying they have a new and improved relationship with their dog or cat.”

Sievers and Stepaniuk are both certified members of the American Veterinary Dental College, which has about 230 members. There’s a smaller European equivalent. In all, Sievers figures, she’s one of a few hundred people in the world who are qualified to perform dental surgery on a tiger.

Shivers

Sanjiv was 11 years old when he arrived at Point Defiance in December 2022 after a tenure at the Topeka Zoo & Conservation Center, where he fathered four cubs. The plan is for him to father more cubs at Point Defiance, helping his species to survive.

After calling Pet Dental Specialists about Sanjiv, the Point Defiance Zoo forwarded a set of X-rays from his last dental exam, which was conducted under anesthesia by the zoo’s own veterinary team. With X-rays to study, Sievers said, she was able to work out a treatment plan and pack the right specialized equipment.

She went to Tacoma Jan. 5 with Pet Dental veterinary technicians Heather Hagedorn and Taylor Parker and assistant Sharon Ghormley. (Stepaniuk didn’t go.)

Sanjiv is Sievers’ third tiger patient and her sixth large cat, she said. He was already anesthetized into a deep slumber when the Pet Dental Team arrived at the zoo’s on-site medical facility.

Even so, approaching an immense orange-and-black beast of the jungle never fails to bring on the shivers, Sievers said. Sanjiv is nearly 300 pounds of fearsome muscle and bone, approximately 10 feet long and with teeth about 10 times as large as a human’s.

“It’s quite a thrill. His nose is larger than my hand. His tooth is this thick,” she said, forming an OK sign with thumb and forefinger.

The procedure took about 90 minutes, Sievers said. Surgery is a combination of individual focus and teamwork, and Sievers usually talks her way through a procedure so her assistants know exactly what’s going on and what’s likely to happen next, she said.

She’s always watching out for complications like too much bleeding, she said. But Sanjiv’s procedure went fine.

“Nothing weird happened,” Sievers said. The canine was cleaned out, disinfected, refilled and closed up again.

“It is a shorter, less pointy version of what it was,” Sievers said. “Imagine how long his entire tooth was, from crown to tip, before he broke it.”

A human canine is about 9 to 10 millimeters long, about 1/3 inch. Sanjiv’s repaired tooth from the fractured end to its root tip is now 77 millimeters, or just over 3 inches, Sievers said. The unbroken tooth was about 140 millimeters long, or 5.5 inches, making it a perfect natural tool for stabbing your prey in the neck.

But Sanjiv doesn’t hunt live prey at the zoo. He eats meat that’s provided for him but hidden to stimulate his natural hunting behavior, according to zoo spokeswoman Tessa Miller.

While Sanjiv was sleeping, the zoo’s own veterinary staff also took the opportunity to conduct a full wellness exam on Sanjiv, as well as trim his nails.

While the field of veterinary dentistry is growing, Stepaniuk said, it’s not uncommon for zoos to call upon dentists who treat people to work on the teeth of our primate cousins, whose anatomy and dentition tend to be similar to ours. But large carnivorous cats really do need specialized veterinary dentists, he said.

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“It’s a real honor that they trust us when they need help of this type,” Stepaniuk said.

Your pet’s teeth

By the way, Sievers recommends that pet people maintain their pets’ teeth just the way they do their own, with daily brushing and a couple of visits to the dentist per year. Check out the Pet Dental Specialists website for a guide to gently introducing your pet to brushing.


Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Point Defiance Zoo veterinarians can perform dental procedures, though not specialty dental work like root canals. 

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