Tango and Onyo, the 17-year-old African lions at the Potawatomi Zoo, had successful physical exams, dental exams and cleanings last week.

The dental work was performed by Colleen M. Turner, DVM. Dr. Turner operates a veterinary dentistry practice and is an assistant professor of equine dentistry at Michigan State University. Although her focus is in equine dentistry, she has experience working with local zoos on wild equids and other animals.

“I am incredibly lucky to be able to work on these lions and to be so close to such huge, beautiful carnivores,” says Dr. Turner. “To examine their mouths, including the 4”-5” long canines, and to help ensure their better health and comfort, is a great privilege.”

Dr. Turner was assisted by the Potawatomi Zoo’s veterinarian, Audrey Siegrist, DVM, and vet tech, Tracy Uyhelji, along with several of the zoo keeper staff.

“Since both of the lions are elderly, we wanted our dentist to examine their teeth along with routine wellness exams and lab work that we only perform while they are under anesthesia,” explains Dr. Siegrist. “Our lions willingly accepted us giving the anesthesia by hand injection through the cage bars thanks to the work their keepers do with daily training. This means the lions were able to feel relaxed as they went under, which is safer for the procedure.”

In addition to cleaning the lions’ teeth, the staff took x-rays of both lions’ mouths and performed ultrasounds of Tango’s abdomen and heart, which required shaving some of his fur.

“Some of my favorite days are those spent at the zoo,” concludes Dr. Turner. “The teamwork required to smoothly operate on a lion is awe-inspiring,” she explains. “A lion’s bite force is, compared to the other big cats, relatively weak, approximately 650 PSI versus more than 1000 PSI. This could be attributed to the fact that lions live in prides, so the ability to kill their prey singularly is not as important to the lion’s survival. However, this bit of trivia is of little comfort when my hands are in an adult male lion’s enormous mouth! Thank you, amazing anesthesia staff!”

Although the lions show signs of their age and have some age-related conditions, they are doing well and are scheduled for a special enrichment at 12:00 pm for World Lion Day on August 10.