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Veterinary Dentistry is still a very young speciality

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Dr. G. Steenkamp BSc, BVSc, MSc
Faculty of Veterinary Science, University of Pretoria


What does the welfare of a captive carnivore entail?
Animal welfare includes not only a lack of inflicted pain and stress, but also an adequate level of wellbeing, which includes good mental and physical health. Most would agree that animals have feelings like fear, frustration, boredom and aggression. It has been proposed that 'animal welfare' is rooted in feelings and that these have evolved to protect the animal's primary needs.

Thus, if an animal feels well, it is faring well. A feelings-based approach to welfare research typically measures behavioural outcomes and behavioural signs of fear or frustration. Such research has led to the conclusion that animals have fundamental behavioural needs that they must be allowed to satisfy.

AfriCat and the Ann van Dyk Cheetah Centre (TAVDCC) in South Africa are two progressive thinking centres caring for cheetah and other carnivores. Welfare and clinical health of the animals at these centres are non-negotiable.

Providing a healthy living environment for large carnivores in temporary or permanent captivity is fundamental to minimising illness and injuries and enhancing their welfare. The animals at AfriCat’s Carnivore Care Centre are housed in spacious enclosures of between twelve and fifty acres in a natural, stress-free environment. They are fed a well-balanced diet and vitamin and mineral supplements are used to prevent deficiencies. The animals are observed on a daily basis to monitor their wellbeing and condition, allowing for a quick response and treatment for any illness or injuries should they occur.

Our Annual Health-Checks on the large carnivores at AfriCat, are headed by veterinarians from Namibia and South Africa. In-depth health examinations are carried out on all the captive and rehabilitated carnivores. All the cats are darted and then taken to a well-equipped, newly built AfriCat clinic for their evaluations. (The new clinic was kindly sponsored by long-time supporter and cat lover, Mr Jim Maltman.)

All animals are vaccinated and treated for both external and internal parasites. They are also weighed and measured in an ongoing research project to be able to accurately determine the body mass index of captive and free-roaming carnivores. This research enables us to determine optimal body weights for the captive animals.

Most importantly, each cat receives a thorough dental examination. I count myself fortunate to have been part of both these centres’ health monitoring programs since 2002. During this time I have looked at more than 650 cheetahs’ mouths and have learnt a thing or two about them. It has also been fascinating to see the difference between the two centres.

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Cheetah dentition
Three different types of teeth all work together in a big cat's mouth to enable a rapid eating style. The large pointed teeth, the canines, also known as eye teeth or fangs, are designed for gripping and holding, and help the cat to suffocate its prey. Cheetah’s canines are small compared to those of other big cats because everything about cheetahs is designed to enhance their amazing running speed. Running fast requires large amounts of oxygen, and the cheetah’s large nasal passages don’t leave much space for long canine roots.

The front teeth, known as incisors, are used for quickly skinning the prey. This helps the cat to get access to the protein-rich flesh as fast as possible. Finally, behind the canines are the carnassials, also known as pre-molars or back teeth. The carnassials work in a scissor-like fashion to help shear off large pieces of meat, which are then often swallowed whole.

A big cat’s teeth are not the only tools it has in its armoury when it comes to eating swiftly. Big cats have a rasp-like tongue covered in small hard spines called papillae. These give the tongue a sandpapery quality which helps to remove the meat from the bones.


Dental care

In southern Africa we still find many clients that believe that wild animals and even their pets do not suffer from dental or oral health problems and therefore do not require treatment. Others may concede that in captivity, carnivores may develop some disease due to the diets we feed them or experience trauma to their teeth from biting enclosure material like fences and metal feeding bowls. In more than 12 years of studying cheetah teeth and mouths, we have been able to diagnose more than 22 different pathologies or anomalies in their mouths. I will endeavour to highlight some conditions and also dispel some myths in the next few newsletters.

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Caries in cheetah
I have found no evidence of caries in cheetahs. This is a condition that we as humans know too well. Primates (like us) and some carnivores (like dogs) and even hyrax (in captivity) have been diagnosed with caries. This is a decaying process of teeth due to the acid that is produced by bacteria living off easily fermentable sugars. Teeth become demineralised and then form cavities that may penetrate to the pulp (blood vessels and nerves on the inside of the tooth) and are painful and may eventually lead to the loss of a tooth.

In cheetahs we do however see tooth resorption that may be due to inflammation around a tooth or may occur for no apparent reason. The latter type of resorption is often seen in domestic cats and the reasons for this still elude us.

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Carious lesion of the 1st and 2nd molars of the upper jaw in a dog.
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Tooth resorption in the front root of the 4th premolar tooth in the lower jaw of a cheetah.


Excessive tooth wear
Throughout the years it has been quite evident to me that the cheetahs at AfriCat exhibited more wear on their teeth than the ones at TAVDCC, which could cause early loss of teeth as the animals grew older. Initially I had to do several root canal treatments on the teeth, only to find that later, the restored tooth still wore down to a level where it was not functional anymore. I had a theory that the sandy soil which Namibia is blessed with was part of the problem.

When wild cheetahs feed on prey they often enter the abdomen (stomach) and hind quarters after tearing the skin in these areas. The skin of the prey is generally not moist and hence very little sand/gravel will be trapped in the hair. When being fed pieces of meat in their camps, captive cheetahs often take the piece of meat out of the bowl and then find a preferred spot where the meat is consumed. In doing so the meat comes into contact with the soil and soil particles stick to the food. As the cheetahs then consume their food, the sand particles acts like coarse sand paper and lead to increased wear of their teeth. We tried to remedy the situation by using a donation of conveyor belts from Rössing Uranium mine - Swakopmund. By utilising these belts we can now create feeding areas in the camps where the cheetahs can lie and eat meat that is not contaminated by sand.

Sand is well known to cause excessive wear on teeth and it is most commonly seen on dogs’ canines. In dogs obsessed with tennis balls, the sand that gets trapped in the fur of the tennis ball can lead to excessive wear of the canines

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Cheetah eating meat that is soiled with sand.
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A Jack Russel terrier obsessed with tennis balls clearly shows the flattened tips of the crowns of the canines as well as the premolar teeth visible in this photograph.


Determining age from tooth wear

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The question of whether one can accurately determine the age of cats by photographs of their teeth is one that fuels many debates. Dr G Steenkamp of the University of Pretoria considers this question:
'Logic dictates that an animal’s teeth should be white and pristine at time of eruption and as they grow older will show a yellowish brown discolouration (just like humans). Furthermore, logic dictates that new teeth should be nice and sharp and as time elapses and they are used to kill prey, masticate etc. they will wear down or have fractures which will distinguish them from the teeth of younger cats. One would also expect young animals’ gums (gingiva) to be attached at the normal enamel interface of the teeth, but that with age and disease around a tooth, this would lead to the 'gingiva' receding and exposing more of the root.'

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Above - Comparing a 6 year old leopard to a 14 year old


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'Although all of these principles are true, the process does not happen in a predictable manner so that we cannot accurately determine ages. The wearing away of teeth may be affected by many factors which vary with animals from differing areas. This also goes for differences in prey. In conclusion, all you can tell from pictures like these is that an animal is young or old, but the exact age would be a guess.'
[Dr Gerhard Steenkamp will endeavour to highlight some conditions and also dispel some myths in the next few newsletters that will be posted on this site over the coming months as his research project develops.]


Between 1991 and 1995, Dr Philip Stander conducted research on estimating the age of leopards in the field. Nineteen leopards in Namibia (including 13 individuals of known age) were monitored at one year intervals to record age and tooth wear. However, he found that estimating the age of animals in the field using tooth wear criteria may be subject to error as a result of variations between individuals, habitats and populations.

The study found that at the age of two years, leopards had fully developed dentition. Wear started with the incisors and canines, and spread to the premolars and molars. Above the age of three years, male leopards showed higher frequencies of enamel flaking and canine fractures than females. By the age of 7 + years the teeth of leopards showed extensive wear, discolouration and flaking of enamel layers.

Sexual dimorphism was present in both body size and the size of teeth. Male leopards were larger and heavier than females. Both maxillary and mandibular canines in males were longer than in females. The extent of tooth deterioration after the age of four years was also different between the sexes.

Although females showed similar tooth wear and discolouration to males, their teeth were less prone to flaking of enamel layers and to broken canines. At an estimated age of four years, five out of seven males had one broken canine, and by the estimated age of five to eight years, all four males had at least one broken canine. Females appeared less prone to tooth breakage as only one out of six females between the estimated ages of two to seven years, had a broken canine tip.

Both sexes had the same feeding habits in terms of prey species, but males consumed more food than females (unpublished data). The discrepancy in fractured canines may be explained by the fact that the smaller females with smaller teeth, compared to males, exhibit greater precision when feeding and are less prone to injurious contact with bones.

The leopards in Namibia showed a similar sequence of tooth eruption to lions and tooth wear followed patterns that have been recorded for lions, spotted hyaenas and some canids in studies conducted elsewhere. Incisors and canines were the first teeth to show wear. There are, however, considerable variations in tooth eruption and wear. Dr Stander states that while ageing criterion is an important tool in wildlife studies and management, the level of error in most systems for estimating age needs to be considered.


Field age determination of leopards by tooth wear by Dr. P.E. Stander (PDF)


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