MADISON, Wis. - Iowa County Deputy Chris DeWitt isn’t used to seeing his partner so lethargic. In fact, he typically has a tough time keeping him still.
Ryker’s been with the force for about a year now. He trains in some capacity every day until his team needs him for a search or a traffic stop.
About a month ago, DeWitt noticed something about his smile.
“His upper canine broke off about halfway,” DeWitte said.
For the average house pet, that wouldn’t be a problem as long as the animal wasn’t in pain. For Ryker, it could mean not doing what he loves doing: protecting people.
“A lot of what he does is his ability to pick it up or want to pick it up, obviously whether it's article searches or he's doing an apprehension,” DeWitte said. “So their teeth health is pretty priority for them.”
That’s what brought DeWitt and Ryker to the UW Veterinary Care Center in Madison. Ryker had a root canal before his doctors and the department decided to put crowns on all four of the K-9s canines.
“We'll talk about the canines being like their fingers, so that's how they pick stuff up, even for a pet-owned animal,” Dr. Amy Thomson said.
Thomson is in her third year of dentistry residency. She came to UW-Madison for the specialized program after realizing just how prevalent tooth problems can be in her field.
“More than 80% of dogs and cats over the age of 3 have periodontitis, so it's a huge need,” Thomson said, “and selfishly, it's really satisfying.”
The UW Veterinary Center offers discounted procedures to law enforcement dogs, which means departments like Ryker’s can afford to get them done and keep the K-9s in service. Nearly 60 service dogs have received that important care.
“It’s amazing the stuff that we can do to hold onto those teeth and preserve them so they can continue to work and save lives and do the things that they do,” Thomson said.
Thomson says most of the literature she and her team study is based on human teeth, not dogs' or cats' teeth. That means the oral surgeries being done at UW-Madison act as research and training, trying to develop best practices for animal dentistry.
“I think there's quite a need and we're learning a lot about the benefits for the oral health, but also how that impacts the rest of our bodies and our pets' bodies,” Thomson said. “So I think it's really starting to grow and evolve, and owners are asking for that and looking for that.”
Right now, two oral surgery tables sit feet away from one another in a cramped space. The team is so backed-up that anyone looking for an appointment, whether they’re a K-9 handler or a normal pet owner, will have to wait until the fall to even get their animal’s teeth cleaned.
The UW Veterinary Care Center is currently fundraising to expand its facilities. The goal is to raise nearly $40 million dollars through its “Animals Need Heroes Too” campaign to build the new center, which would help the dentistry team support more residents, students, and patients.
Just hours later, Ryker’s metal crowns are cemented in and he’s back with Deputy DeWitte. As he loads him back in the squad car, DeWitte is thankful his partner has these specialists so close.
“If you do have a problem, there's a specialist not too far away that can help with the problems,” DeWitte said.
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