Dental Disease in Captive Orcas
IAAAM Archive
Sharon Hoffman
North Florida Veterinary Dentistry
Jacksonville, FL, USA


Dental disease involving the pulp is not uncommon in captive orcas and is also present in wild orcas. One trainer, having worked with upwards of fifteen orcas over seventeen years, estimates that 30% of orcas he worked with in captivity had dental problems. These whales have lived in France, California, Texas, New York, Ohio, and Florida. Some were bred in captivity and some were captured from the wild. As part of this study, several orca skulls (both captive and wild) in museum collections were studied.

In captive orcas, once the tooth has been damaged and the pulp is exposed, the management option that has become customary is to "drill" the pulp cavity open further to allow drainage and flushing of the exposed pulp. The exposed pulp cavities become contaminated with food and other debris from the pool water. Some of the teeth respond with pulpal hyperplasia and others progress to osteomyelitis with chronic draining pulp canals.

Management options for the exposed pulps, some of which are vital and some non-vital have been tried. Root canal therapy is not an option due to the open apices in captive orca teeth. Apparently, this option has been tried in spite of the apical anatomy, without success due to the inability to control hemorrhage. Local anesthesia nerve blocks have not been perfected and lengthy procedures are not preferred.

Vital pulp therapy may be an option for some orcas that have acute pulp exposures and no preexisting osteomyelitis. Dental materials that can be applied during a short procedure are being developed and will be available for application in select cases of orcas with vital pulp exposures.

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Sharon Hoffman