Animal Dentist

Jamie Berning keeps animals’ teeth healthy and strong

RON MAGILL/ZOO MIAMI

CHOMPER CHECKUP: Jamie Berning gives a gorilla a dental exam at the Miami Zoo.

People aren't the only ones who visit the dentist for a checkup. Pets and zoo animals also need to get their teeth cleaned or repaired from time to time. Veterinarians perform routine dental exams on animals to make sure their patient’s mouths remain healthy. But if they encounter a serious tooth problem, they call in a dental expert like Dr. Jamie Berning.

Berning is a board-certified veterinary dentist. There are only about 200 of these specialists in the world. Zoos around the country rely on Berning to perform oral surgeries on their animals. And when she’s not extracting a tooth from a lion’s mouth or performing a root canal on a gorilla, she treats household pets at her veterinary clinic in Columbus, Ohio. Berning spoke with Science World about her work keeping animals’ teeth in good shape so they can keep doing what they do best: chomp, chew, growl, and roar!

What does a veterinary dentist do?

A certified veterinary dentist is a veterinarian who specializes in animals’ oral health. To become certified, you need additional training in dentistry after graduating from veterinary school.

Because I work at my clinic as well as in zoos, there’s a lot of variety in the type of work I do. One week I might be doing routine cleanings on dogs and cats. The next week, I might teach an orangutan to pose for mouth X-rays or examine a red panda for gum disease. I also perform surgeries to remove or repair damaged teeth.

Over the past three years, I’ve cared for more than 50 species of animals, including porcupines, polar bears, cheetahs, squirrel monkeys, and sea lions—just to name a few!

RON MAGILL/ZOO MIAMI (ALL IMAGES)

BIG-CAT CLEANING: Berning cleans a jaguar’s teeth at the Miami Zoo.

How did you get into this field?

I’ve always loved animals, and I’ve wanted to be a veterinarian since I was 5 years old. My dad and brother are both dentists who treat people, so I grew up being familiar with human dentistry. I realized that veterinary dentistry would let me improve animals’ lives in a different way than being a typical veterinarian.

Animals don’t always show obvious signs of dental problems, and they can’t speak to tell people when something hurts. Vets often refer to dental pain as “silent suffering.” By fixing or removing a problem tooth, we can relieve an animal’s pain. Then the animals start to act more like their normal selves.

What are some differences between veterinary and human dentistry?

The biggest difference is that animals often won’t sit still like people do at the dentist. For most procedures, animals are put under anesthesia, which means they’re given medicine that makes them fall asleep and numbs any pain. That way, the animals won’t move around as I’m working, and everyone remains safe.

Another difference is that human teeth don’t vary much from person to person. But when it comes to other animals, no two cases are the same. Animal teeth can be extremely different from species to species. Some bats, for example, have teeth so tiny you can barely see them. Bears, on the other hand, have enormous teeth. To work on all of my different patients’ mouths, I need really small instruments, as well as tools nearly five times as long as what you would use for a person.

RON MAGILL/ZOO MIAMI

TINY TEETH: Berning checks the sharp teeth of an otter.

What advice do you have for students interested in this career?

You have to be dedicated and willing to study hard, because you need good grades to get into veterinary school. Once you start working, you have to be creative. Every mouth is different, so you’ll need to be able to think of new treatments for all kinds of cases.

Of course, loving animals is an important trait for any veterinarian. But remember, most animals come with human companions, from pet owners to zookeepers. So, you can’t love only animals—you have to love people too.

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