A bear of a toothache

A team of UCalgary Vet Med experts travels to B.C. to help solve a grizzly dental problem. 

By Collene Ferguson
Faculty of Veterinary Medicine


Knute, a grizzly bear at the B.C. Wildlife Park in Kamloops, was not a happy bear. Pain from a damaged and infected canine tooth was keeping him up at night. 

So staff at the wildlife facility, looking to help the eight-year-old bear, contacted Dr. Alfredo Romero at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM). Romero, who teaches diagnostic imaging and large animal surgery, and his wife Dr. Jean-Yin Tan, a veterinary internal medicine expert, were keen to help. They teamed up with UCVM’s Dr. Nigel Caulkett, a world-renowned expert in wildlife anesthesia, and his wife, Joan Caulkett, an animal health technician.


Knute the grizzly bear and his root canal rescue team, from left, Nigel Caulkett, Alfredo Romero, Jean-Yin Tan, Teresa Jacobson and Joan Caulkett. Photos courtesy Jean-Yin Tan
Knute the grizzly bear and his root canal rescue team, from left, Nigel Caulkett, Alfredo Romero, Jean-Yin Tan, Teresa Jacobson and Joan Caulkett. Photos courtesy Jean-Yin Tan

The Caulketts frequently work together on wildlife projects including polar bears and black bears. “It’s not uncommon to end up anesthetizing animals on our vacation,” Nigel Caulkett says. “It happens a fair bit.” 

Rounding out the contingent to help Knute were three B.C. veterinarians including Dr. Teresa Jacobson, who performs large animal dentistry, and staff at the wildlife park.

With all the experts in place, the bear’s grizzly tooth problem was ready to be tackled.

“One of the things that made this go so smoothly was that the zoo keeper had trained the bear to present his shoulder at the cage bars for injections so we didn’t have to use a dart rifle,” says Nigel Caulkett. “The bear just came up and she used a long syringe to give him the drugs. He was asleep within a few minutes.”


Alfredo Romero appears confident the bruin is fully anesthetized.
Alfredo Romero appears confident the bruin is fully anesthetized.

With Knute anesthetized, the next step was for Joan Caulkett to put in an intravenous catheter and endotracheal tube so the bear could be given gas anesthesia and supplemental oxygen during the procedure.

 “That was little tricky because the scope we usually use was too short so she actually had to put her hand right into the bear’s mouth to put the tube in, so she wanted me to be absolutely sure he was well anesthetized at that point.”

Because of Nigel Caulkett’s expertise in anesthetizing wildlife, he knew the right drugs and right doses to put the 250-kilogram bear under for just the right amount of time — preventing issues such as a lengthy recovery time or a sudden unexpected recovery. And with his extensive backcountry experience, working on bears with minimal equipment and often using a dart gun from a helicopter, this controlled, well-organized surgery didn’t cause him much stress.

“Honestly, I’ve anesthetized so many bears that I don’t really worry too much about the drug affects because they tend to be quite safe. So for me it was little less stressful than anesthetizing a sick, geriatric dog, just because the risk to the animal was a lot lower.”

With Knute fully anesthetized, the team hoisted him onto a surgical table and Alfredo Romero was able to take X-rays.  

“We didn’t know the full extent of the tooth damage because having the bear under general anesthesia was the first opportunity anybody had to actually get a good closeup view,” Romero says. “So we got a good look at what was happening and saw that half the tooth was there but it was cracked below the gum line and there was a crack in one of the adjacent teeth as well.  Dr. Jacobson decided that to preserve as much of the tooth as possible, the best thing to do was to remove one of the incisors and do a root canal on the remaining portion of the canine tooth.” 

Romero has done surgery on a tiger, a zebra and a camel, but this was the first time he’d worked on a grizzly bear.  

“During my residency we had a tiger that had choked and so we had to do surgery. It was pretty similar in the amount of precautions we took, lots of safety measures and the risks were fairly equal.  If he wakes up, we’re all in trouble.”

When the root canal was finished, Caulkett says bringing Knute back around went smoothly.

“We turned the gas off and let him breath off some of the gas. Then we gave him a reversal drug for his injectable drugs and he was up and standing within about 20 minutes.”

With the procedure over and the bear recovered, the UCVM team carried on with their vacations. To round off their holiday in Vancouver at the end of the week, Romero and Tan will make a pit stop in Kamloops to do a followup check on Knute.



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