Animal Dental Health

Protecting our Animals' Pearly Whites


For humans, regular dental exams are important for maintaining a healthy mouth. The same is true the animals here at the Indianapolis Zoo. Our Zookeepers perform regular checks and, in some cases, daily teeth brushings as part of our animals’ overall care​.

But just like humans, sometimes our animals’ teeth can become damaged and require additional work. Guests can see the results of that at our walrus and elephant exhibits.

Elephants and walrus are among several species with tusks. These overgrown teeth serve various purposes, like digging and defense. Formed of super-strong ivory, animal tusks grow continuously throughout an animal’s lifetime and contain nerves that go all the way back toward the animal’s brain. With such handy and durable tools at their disposal, walrus and elephants get a lot of use out of their tusks. But all that wear can occasionally cause damage.

Often, juveniles will incur tusk breakage soon after their tusks first start to grow in. Just like a teething infant, growing tusks can be painful for young animals and sometimes they will rub their tusks on objects or the ground to try to relieve the soreness. And as animals adjust to having these new facial features, they occasionally bump their tusks into things.

Although animal tusks are very hard and durable, they can still fracture or break, which can be problematic if left untreated. But here at the Zoo, our veterinarians can treat our animals’ pearly whites to prevent additional issues.

Guests can see these treatments on several of our playful young elephants. Elephant tusks are modified incisors and, like all animal tusks, they contain a pulp cavity at the base that recedes as the animal grows; however, the pulp tissue is very close to the end of the tusk in young elephants.

Our active youngsters use their tusks to dig, push objects around and explore their world. For instance, our young male, Kedar, likes to test his strength by sparring with other elephants or pushing large tree trunks. When all that play starts to wear down the ends of their little tusks, our veterinarians apply metal caps over them to protect the pulp tissue until the tusks grow out a little more.

To repair a damaged tusk, our staff consults with a dentist, who makes impressions of the tusk and places it using dental cement to make sure it fits perfectly. The whole process is painless for the animals, though it requires a lot of patience and cooperation.

In addition to our elephants, guests can also spot tusk caps on our 4-year-old Pacific walrus Pakak, who was found to have a small fracture in his pearly whites. Eventually, as Pakak’s tusks grow and strengthen, he won’t need his caps anymore and they’ll be removed.

In the wild, walrus use their tusks to break through the Arctic ice to hunt. They also utilize these overgrown canine teeth to pull their big, blubbery bodies out of the water and onto the ice, which is why walrus are known as “tooth walkers.”

While both male and female walrus grow tusks, guests may notice that our adult female walrus, Aurora, is missing hers. When she was younger, Aurora had problems with tusk injuries and infections, so veterinarians decided to remove her tusks to prevent additional issues.

Our keepers work with our walrus and elephants each day, examining their mouths and cleaning their tusks to make sure they’re healthy.

So the next time you visit our walrus or elephant exhibits, see if you can spot our animals’ tusk caps.

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