Killer Tooth Ache


Photo by I.N. Visser, Orca Research Trust

A new study investigating the teeth of captive orca has found every individual studied had damaged teeth.

“Given how big the root of an orca’s tooth is, and that orca have a nervous system similar to ours, these injuries must be extremely painful,” said Dr Ingrid Visser, a New Zealand scientist who has studied orca in the wild for more than three decades.

“You just don’t see this type or level of damage in the wild,” she said. “We know that confining them in tanks is bad for the animals and this research now gives us some hard numbers to illustrate just how their health and welfare is compromised.”

Photo by I.N. Visser, Orca Research Trust

Dr John Jett, an ex-orca trainer said, “We investigated 29 orca owned by one company held in the USA and Spain. Every whale had some form of damage to its teeth. We found that more than 65% possessed moderate to extreme tooth wear in their lower jaws, mostly as a result of chewing concrete and steel tank surfaces.

“We have (also) documented that tooth damage starts at a very early age in captivity and that all the orca in the study have issues with their teeth. Teeth are incredibly important to the overall health of an animal.”

Overall the researchers found more than 61% of the orca have ‘been to the dentist’ to have their teeth drilled. Officially termed a ‘modified pulpotomy’ a hole is drilled into the tooth to extract the soft pulpy tissue inside. But unlike us, the resultant hole is not filled or capped but left open for the rest of the animal’s life, requiring daily flushing with chemicals to keep the teeth empty of food and bacteria in an attempt to manage ensuing infection.

Photo by I.N. Visser, Orca Research Trust

Dr Carolina Loch, a scientist at New Zealand’s Otago University specialising in the dentition of whales and dolphins, said “A drilled tooth is severely weakened and if any other trauma occurs, fractures will happen. We have documented more than 60% of the second and third teeth of the lower jaws were broken and this high number is likely linked to the drilling.”

Dr Jeff Ventre, an ex-orca trainer and now a medical doctor said “teeth damage is the most tragic conse- quence of captivity, as it not only causes morbidity and mortality in captive orcas, but often leads to chronic antibiotic therapy compro- mising the whale’s immune system.”

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