Becoming a veterinary dentist

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Dr Peter Kertesz

Runa Mowla-Copley interviews veterinary dentist Dr Peter Kertesz, about how he got into the profession.

This year marks the 30th birthday of Zoodent International, a unique specialist dental service available to zoo and wildlife veterinary surgeons in the treatment of non-domestic animals. Its founder, internationally-recognised expert Dr Peter Kertesz, has been making headlines in the national press for decades now.

I first came across one such headline in 2008 when the BBC reported the case of Pertinax, a silverback Western gorilla weighing 179kg, undergoing extraction of the root of a fractured canine at the highly skilled hands of Dr Kertesz. Ever since then I have followed Dr Kertesz’s fascinating career with much enthusiasm and it was a privilege to finally meet him.

So what drives Peter to put his hands into the jaws of a tiger?

  1. Peter, how did you get involved in zoo dentistry?

In 1978, a local vet, Dr Bruce Fogle, asked me to operate on a domestic cat with dental problems. I did and after that experience I told myself ‘never again!’ It was incredibly hard work and very challenging.

Then my own cat broke her tooth and Bruce told me that I would have to treat her myself and he would anaesthetise the animal for me. At that point I promised myself that if I was going to treat animals, I would do it properly. That meant being better equipped and more prepared for animal dentistry than anyone else in the world.

In 1985 a fortuitous encounter at a veterinary conference in Florida led me to Andrew Greenwood, co-founder of the International Zoo Veterinary Group based in the UK. And so Zoodent was born.

  1. You still treat patients at your practice – are there many parallels with human dental disease and its treatment?

The problems are similar. It is not the physical exercise of dentistry itself that is different.

Of course, there are huge dimensional differences as well as that of regional anatomy. The most important difference is the ethical considerations in the treatment of animals.

Peter stresses it is important not to anthropomorphise. It is really about putting the animal’s needs and interests above all. We are not aiming for aesthetics or functional priorities. The priority is a healthy and pain free oral environment. There can be major risks involved in administering general anaesthesia and thus the need to avoid multiple GAs. Radiography, for instance, is an exception, not the rule. The team cannot afford to waste anaesthetic time – even a root filling of a 120mm long canine or the extraction of such a tooth would not take more than 30 to 40 minutes.

  1. Are you involved in the design of the zoo dental instruments?

I am personally involved in the design and development of the instruments I use. It has taken me years and years to build a collection of very sophisticated kit. I have drills custom-made that are species-specific.

  1. Tell me a little about the team you work with?

For standard work – tigers/walruses/gorillas – I normally travel with my nurse Monika.

The zoo often has an in-house veterinary team to take care of the anaesthesia. If the zoo doesn’t have an experienced vet, I normally recommend one.

There are zoos in some parts of the world that have no access to vets with the experience that often goes with this kind of work; in those cases we will travel to the zoo with a specialist vet. If I’m working on an elephant, my engineer Gary will travel with us – this is because the equipment is particularly heavy and sophisticated.

Peter treats his (human) patients normally Mon-Thurs in Mayfair and Fridays are devoted to zoo dentistry.

  1. As a leading authority on veterinary dentistry, what are the most recent developments in zoo dentistry?

Cutters have been developed for internal sectioning of elephant tusks – it’s taken three years to develop.

Amalgam has been replaced with glass ionomer cement. Innovative partnerships with technology means we are constantly looking at ways to improve and enhance the welfare of zoo animals.

  1. Are there any downsides to veterinary dentistry?

The highs are high and the lows can be very low.

Not long ago we were working in a remote part of the world, and a walrus had septicaemia from two massive dental abscesses. The poor animal suffered an embolism and died on the operating table. It was devastating and very sad for us all.

  1. And finally what advice would you give any young dentist wishing to pursue a career in veterinary dentistry?

Clinical experience is very important, but the ability to think laterally, in a very practical way and have sound mechanical engineering knowledge is essential.

One must be prepared for all eventualities, understanding the true dental needs of the animals go a long way. My advice is get 10 years’ experience in human dentistry even before you consider treating a different species.

After that gain seven-eight years practise treating small domestic animals before embarking on zoo animals.

Have a great team and never skimp on the cost of the most appropriate equipment for the job.

What really comes across during my meeting is Peter’s deep respect for the animals he treats. He is utterly dedicated to his work and at all times the well being of the animal is paramount.

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