Captive orcas were found to have seriously damaged teeth as a result of teeth grinding from frustration and boredom. The sorry state of the marine mammals' oral health raises serious concerns regarding their health and welfare in captivity.
It's no question that animals in captivity lack the stimulation that their wild counterparts do because of the limited amount of space. A new study reveals a rather concerning consequence of orcas' time in captivity. As it turns out, the orcas tend to grind their teeth enough to cause serious dental damage, likely due to boredom and frustration or anxiety.
A study published in the journal Archives of Oral Biology reveals that among the 29 orcas in captivity studied by the researchers, all of them had a form of teeth damage. Among them, 65 percent exhibited moderate to extreme damage to the lower jaws, primarily from chewing on steel bars and concrete. What's more, the damage has been incurred from captivity early on.
Evidently, 61 percent of the killer whales involved in the study had gone to the dentist at some point in their lives to have their teeth drilled. Unfortunately, unlike humans, orcas do not get to have their drilled teeth filled up, but are instead left hollow.
Why Is This Bad For Orca Health?
Drilling an orca's teeth is done when their teeth get so badly damaged that the pulp is exposed, leaving the orca susceptible to bacteria and infection. With the orcas' teeth left hollow after the procedure, they then require daily teeth flushing to keep their teeth free from food debris and to avoid infections. However, having the orcas' teeth left open still leaves them vulnerable to diseases and infections. Further, this leaves the teeth more fragile and susceptible to further breakage and damage.
"Teeth damage is the most tragic consequence of captivity, as it not only causes morbidity and mortality in captive orcas, but often leads to chronic antibiotic therapy compromising the whale's immune system, as we saw recently with the orca known as Kasatka," says Dr. Jeff Ventre, co-author of the study.
With poor oral health and with immune systems more susceptible to bacterial infections, the orcas are left in poorer health such as in the case of the death of Tilikum, the orca made popular in the controversial documentary Blackfish. What's more, compromised health conditions make the orcas poor candidates to be returned to the wild, hence leaving them to the conditions which have led to their poor health in the first place.
Therefore, not only are these conditions extremely painful for the marine mammals, but they also affect the orcas' general health and well-being.
"Compared to free-ranging orca, the teeth of captive orca are incredibly compromised and you just don't see this type or level of damage in the wild," says Dr. Ingrid Visser, co-author of the study who has studied orcas in the wild for more than 30 years.