Teeth are very important for the health and well-being of all animals, not just cetaceans. Vital tools, they're used in the first stage of digestion, breaking down food and preparing it to enter the stomach. In carnivorous animals, such as cetaceans, they're used to capture and kill prey. So obviously marine parks will do everything they can to make sure the teeth of their whales and dolphins remain pristine and in-tact, right? Well, it's a little more complicated than that.
Cetaceans regularly become bored by their sterile environment. Living in an empty blue box isn't exactly stimulating, so often times these animals will look for ways to supplement their boredom. In captivity, cetaceans can be observed chewing and biting on tank walls and gates, an abnormal and destructive behavior that can result in severe tooth damage. Whales and dolphins will also execute a behavior called "jaw popping", a display of dominance to other animals that involves an individual popping their jaw at another through a gate. During this they can sometimes close down on the barrier, causing breakage. All of these behaviors are very harmful to the animals because when teeth chip and break, it exsposes the pulp, which opens the door to painful infections. To combat the threat of this, trainers will drill the animals teeth down and remove the pulp in a modified pulpotomy, though unlike the version done on humans there is no pain medication used. After the procedure the animals must have their teeth flushed out daily by trainers, because when the holes are blocked by food then the holes have created a direct root for bacteria to enter the bloodstream. Even though they do this, animals can still easily develop illnesses because of the open bore holes, and often times when the teeth are flushed blood and debris will come out of them. SeaWorld and other marine parks call this "superior dental care."
Photo credits: Keto and Tilikum Express the Stress of Orca Captivity.
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