A Useful Partnership in Exotic Animal Dentistry Between the University of Louisville and the Louisville Zoological Garden
American Association of Zoo Veterinarians Conference 2002
Elizabeth R. Hayden, BS, RVT
Louisville Zoological Garden, Louisville, KY, USA


The partnership between the University of Louisville and the Louisville Zoological Garden began four years ago in an effort to teach senior dental students the ability to apply the knowledge of their field of study into an animal model. The zoo agreed to this partnership in order to foster a positive relationship between the zoo and future professionals and to create a unique partnership between institutions in the community. Through this partnership we are able to provide a high level of quality dental care for our collection animals as well as begin to fulfill the mission of the zoo, which is to better the bond between people and the planet.


The dental program is one of the first programs in the United States to be involved with a zoo on a preventative rotation. The zoo originally approached Dr. Thomas J. Cark (who has volunteered his services for the past 20 years) about the possibility of a class in which students could help aid in the preventative dental treatment of the zoo’s animals. Dr. Clark and the dental students are responsible for the patient’s preventative dental exam, which includes prophylaxis (cleaning, polishing, and evaluation), extractions, root canals, and performing computerized digital x-rays.

The Class

This elective course described as “a didactic and clinical training experience facilitating the dental care of exotic animals in a zoo setting” has quickly become one of the dental school’s most popular electives since its inception in the spring of 1999. It is open to senior dental students and dental hygiene students, which are those students who have completed their third-year dental and first-year dental hygiene program, respectively. The class is an elective offered in the spring term and goes from approximately early January until mid-March and is worth one credit hour. Prior to students making a zoo visit, zoo veterinarian Roy Burns, and University of Louisville Dental school faculty present a series of seminars and lectures. These lectures discuss the role of the zoo as not only an entertainment venue, but also as a place for education, conservation, and research. Extensive discussions of comparative dental anatomy and zoo remote immobilization and anesthesia are also covered. The object of the class lecture is to inform and educate, as it is important to prepare the class for what might be seen during a veterinary procedure so as to prevent confusion or misconception.

The Zoo

Following a four-week lecture period, the zoo becomes the classroom for clinical training in exotic animal dentistry. Veterinary staff will typically immobilize two animals at the same time and run two procedures concurrently. Animals are immobilized by remote anesthesia and brought to the Animal Health Center for their dental and preventative health exam. At the Animal Health Center, animals are intubated and put on isoflurane gas anesthesia. Once the animal is stabilized, only then are students allowed access to the patient. Students generally have only one rotation through the clinical aspect of the exotic animal dentistry class. There is a new rotating group of six to ten students present at each procedure; students take turns cleaning and polishing teeth and assisting the dentist if restorative procedures such as root canals, crowns, and extractions are required. Continuity is provided by the veterinary staff, zookeepers, and complete computerized records, as well as the presence of the two professors, Dr. Thomas J. Clark, clinical professor, and Susan W. Grammer, associate professor, who are present at every procedure involving their students. During the dental cleanings, veterinary staff are able to complete the preventative health exam. During this exam, blood and urine are collected, radiographs and blood pressures are taken, and ECG, ultrasound, and a complete physical exam are performed. Once the dental and preventative health exams are complete, the patient is recovered.

Pros and Cons

One of the major issues is always time. We are under certain time constraints since we are working and coordinating procedures with another organization. Our annual dental and preventative health exams must be performed in a three-month period, whereas typically we could complete the exams within a one-year period. We are limited to one day per week (typically Wednesdays) as opposed to being able to choose the most convenient day. Also, on the day of the procedure, the staff and students from the university only have a window of about two hours in which they are available to participate in the procedure. Students and staff generally arrive between 9:30 am and 10:00 am and need to leave the zoo by noon in order to attend afternoon classes.

Therefore, we need to carefully plan our time so the dental class participants can have access to the first patient by 10:00 am to begin their part of the dental exam and at the same time, have enough time to complete the dental on the second patient. Two procedures are generally run concurrently in order to assure that all animals on the rotation schedule can be accommodated during the months of January through March.

In order for us to work safely with two animals, veterinary and animal staff departments need to be fully staffed. Two animals also generate twice the lab work, supplies, clean up and care. Other than veterinary and animal staff, there are two university faculty professors, six to 10 students, and on many occasions, special guests and/or media. Dealing with all of these elements as well as performing our own roles in the procedure can be difficult to juggle. The major “pro” within all the “cons” is, of course, the strong relationship being built between the university and the zoo, as well as the quality of dental care this program provides our collection animals.


So, why do we participate in this program? Our mission as a zoo is to better the bond between people and the planet and through this program, we are able to do just that. As students are exposed to a unique and different side of a zoo facility they typically leave with a more positive view of animals in captivity, as they witness firsthand the level of commitment and interaction between zookeepers and the animals in their care. They are also impressed with the amount and level of quality medical care the animals receive under the supervision of a dedicated veterinary staff. The hope is that as future medical professionals, this positive feeling will translate into something productive in the future, whether it be with our zoo or another community zoo; as a medical professional sharing their expertise with another medical community; or as an interested member of the zoo with a renewed interest, appreciation, and understanding for the endangered species of the world. If we can leave these unique zoo visitors with a positive feeling towards the animals they are caring for we have accomplished a portion of that mission.

Most importantly we receive specialized dental care from truly dedicated professionals who are proud of their profession and want to give back to the community and the earth by helping to enhance and prolong the health of endangered species. It is truly a mutually beneficial relationship for all those who participate, and it is our job to help nurture that relationship and help it grow into something larger and global.


Speaker Information
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Elizabeth R. Hayden, BS, RVT
Louisville Zoological Garden
Louisville, KY, USA

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