A dentist with experience in both human and veterinary fields has carried out a career first by operating on a primate in pain.

An x-ray showing the infection. Image: Alex Smithson.
An x-ray showing the infection (click to zoom). Image: Alex Smithson.

The gorilla with toothache could have been a headache for all involved – not just the poorly primate, but for vets at Bristol Zoo too, who duly called in a qualified dental surgeon.

Alex Smithson, a dual qualified veterinary surgeon and human dental surgeon, was enlisted when the zoo’s veterinary team saw signs of infection in the 36-year-old western lowland gorilla’s mouth during a routine health check.

Unusual achievement

Dr Smithson had carried out dental work on pet and zoo animals in the past, but never a gorilla. However, he can now add the unusual achievement to his CV and said he was “delighted” to have been able to help.

He said: “Romina is the first gorilla I’ve treated and I definitely drew on my experience with human patients. It all went very well thanks to the care of the Bristol Zoo staff and the whole team should be praised for their dedication to her welfare.”

The two-hour procedure saw gum overgrowths trimmed and three teeth extracted while Romina was under general anaesthetic.

Day of firsts

Romina the western lowland gorilla under general anaesthetic, with a bandage to protect her eyes from light flashes. Image: Alex Smithson.

While she was out for the count, Dr Smithson took the opportunity to conduct a full dental examination and a series of x-rays, with the portable machine loaned for free by Processing Imaging Equipment Services and processed by Grieg Durrant.

In a day full of firsts, the operation also marked the first time the zoo had asked a dual qualified vet and human dentist to treat any of its animals. The decision was taken because gorilla’s mouths are very similar to human, they explained.

Zoo vet Rowena Killick said: “We were extremely impressed with both Dr Smithson’s work and how streamlined the portable x-ray system made the procedure.”

A team of Bristol Zoo’s keepers, veterinary nurses and vets were on hand to ensure all was well. Romina recovered well from the operation and now has a clean bill of health.

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