Thursday, 13 June 2013

Treating sloth bear teeth in Agra, India


Rachel Perry BSc, BVM&S, MANZCVS, MRCVS

What did you do at work today? I treated sloth bear teeth in India! It’s not every day that your hear that! I was invited by my veterinary dentist colleague, Lisa Milella, to join her and a “human” dentist, Paul Cassar, on their next trip to the Agra Bear Rescue Sanctuary in India. The sanctuary is run by Wildlife SOS, and funded by International Animal Rescue and Free theBears.

Over the last ten years Lisa and Paul have visited to inspect and treat the bears’ teeth within the sanctuary, and provide veterinary dental education for the Wildlife SOS vets.  Of course I jumped at the chance to be involved in such an exciting project!


What is a sloth bear?


The sloth bear (Melursus ursinus) is an insectivorous species of bear found within the Indian subcontinent. They were originally classified as sloths due to the length of their claws, which can grow to 7cm! They are stocky, with a long shaggy black mane and a white ‘V’ shaped marking on the chest. They weigh between 60-150kg, and have a life expectancy of 20-25 years. They are omnivorous, and love fruits and honey, but they consume a lot of termites and ants and are very well adapted to these! Their sense of smell is tremendous, enabling them to locate termite nests. They expose the nests with their long claws, and then blow out the dirt and suck out the termites with their lips like a vacuum cleaner nozzle. Sloth bears are classified as ‘vulnerable’ and protected under CITES regulations. They are threatened by habitat loss, and sometime hunted due to destruction of crops of aggressive behaviour. They are also poached from the wild and sold into a number of cruel industries: bear bile farming, bear dancing, bear paw soup and bear baiting. 

What’s a dancing bear?

Sloth bears have also traditionally been used as dancing bears, the practice of which dates back to the Mughal era. The Kalandar people have been historically associated with dancing bears. Cubs would be bought or poached, and then “trained” to become dancing bears to entertain people and earn money for their Kalendar master. To make them safer and easier to handle, young cubs would have their teeth broken with a hammer, and a rope or ring placed through the nose and muzzle with a hot poker. This inevitably led to numerous painful problems with the mouth and teeth. Broken teeth would be excruciatingly painful, and would quickly become severely infected, with root abscesses. The bear’s natural defence mechanism against the pain of the rope through his nose is to rear up on its hind legs with its forearms outstretched, which was sold as ‘dancing’. The rope (attached by a ring pierced through the soft muzzle of the bear) would often cut into the eyes causing pain and blindness. Bears also became blind due to malnutrition. This barbaric practice was outlawed in 1972 but there were still around 800 bears on the roads between Delhi, Agra and Jaipur in the late twentieth century. International Animal Rescue has worked closely with Wildlife SOS in producing a phenomenal sanctuary in Agra, housing nearly 300 bears. The charities have not only rescued bears and given them the veterinary care they require, but helped support the Kalandar people by educating and providing employment to ensure that their livelihoods were safeguarded.

Lisa and Paul have made several visits to the sanctuaries over the last ten years, donating valuable dental equipment and instruments, as well as educating the Wildlife SOS vets in how to detect and treat dental problems in the bears. The keepers have also been trained to examine their bears’ mouths and detect any tell-tale signs of infection or pain. Many bears have received vital dental treatment already, and this trip’s mission was to re-check some bears that had already received treatment, and treat new bears. It was a real honour and privilege to be able to go out with Lisa and Paul to help International Animal Rescue and Wildlife SOS provide the dental treatment the bears need.

Anesthetising the bears

A blow dart was initially used to anesthetise the bears, which were then transferred into the hospital via a stretcher. Once in the operating theatre, they had a tube placed down the airway to allow delivery of oxygen and anaesthetic gases, which is very similar to dogs and cats.We don’t normally have to blow-dart dogs and cats though!
Transferring the sedated bear
I then placed a tube down the anaesthetised bear’s airway. The bear had its vital signs monitored throughout the anaesthetic, and was placed on intravenous fluids.

Once anaesthetised, the bear’s mouth and teeth were thoroughly examined, and dental radiographs taken. Again, very similar to what I do when I examine dog and cat patients! The bears suffered from different types of painful dental problems. Some of the bears’ teeth had been damaged by their original owners for the purposes of dancing; the canines would be broken off with hammers. Not only is this painful, but also allows infection to enter the root and cause an abscess. Sometimes the teeth were pushed further into the jaw, creating deformed teeth trapped within the bone. Teeth would also wear down naturally due to the ‘sand-blasting’ effect of sucking up termites.
An extracted canine tooth and abscess

Some larger teeth could be saved by performing a root canal procedure. This is similar to the procedure performed in humans, dogs and cats. The inside of the tooth is filed and disinfected before a sealer is placed inside the tooth, and then a filling placed in the crown of the tooth. Silver (amalgam) fillings were used in the bear’s teeth because this is a strong filling, and unlikely to wear down. Other teeth could not be saved and required extraction. This was not an easy procedure due to the size of bear teeth! A surgical extraction technique was performed involving raising a flap of gum and removing some of the bone overlying the tooth using special drills. Large, bear-sized equipment was also needed!

The bears all made very smooth recoveries from the anaesthetics, and their ages ranged from 1 ½ - 30 years old! The bears that have received dental treatment will all undoubtedly be feeling much better. The sanctuary allows them to live peaceful, safe lives in comfort. They have huge amounts of space to perform their natural behaviours, have climbing frames to exercise, ponds to cool off in and tree trunks hiding honey! They also receive care and love from their keepers, and veterinary attention from the Wildlife SOS team. I was so impressed with not the only the facilities, but the care provided to the bears. The whole team (vets, keepers, security guards, the cook) is committed to saving and helping their beloved Indian sloth bears. It is evident in the way they talk, and carry out their daily work. Providing such immaculate care for the bears is expensive. I have made a donation which will help the bears for a short while, but to continue providing such exceptional care, the sanctuary requires regular donations. Please consider making a one-off or regular donation to help this incredible project. Every little really will make a big difference.


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