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Sniffing out dental care

Canine dentistry

TAMHSC-BCD vet Dr. Bonnie
Bloom has placed two upper
canine crowns for Neeko, a
dual-purpose patrol dog with
the Rockwall County Sheriff's Office, who
is a patient at Bloom's private practice.

Photos by Steven Doll

When it comes to caring for the teeth of Dallas-Fort Worth’s most powerful canine allies, TAMHSC-BCD veterinarian Bonnie Bloom is ‘top dog’

In his working days, Mint was a bomb dog with an impressive résumé, worth more than some people make in a year. The glossy-coated, black Labrador retriever once spent his days aboard Queen Elizabeth II’s yachts — had even been knighted by the monarch herself — before heading west to become one of Fort Worth’s first four-legged members of the North Texas Joint Terrorism Task Force.

Then there’s Neeko, the dual-purpose patrol dog with the Rockwall County Sheriff’s Office who — to put it bluntly — bites too hard for his own good.

Where did their handlers take them when faced with potentially career-ending dental emergencies? To Dr. Bonnie Bloom, primary vet at Texas A&M Health Science Center Baylor College of Dentistry. When Bloom is not peering into the mouths of animals at the Dallas and Fort Worth zoos, she is at her home base of I-20 Animal Medical Center in Arlington, Texas, where she works as one of the only metroplex vets specializing in veterinary dentistry.

If Bloom were to make one wrong move — incorrectly extract one tooth — it could impact the ability of her canine unit patients to sniff out drug caches, apprehend criminals and uncover explosive substances. How’s that for pressure?

Neeko, Rockwall Sheriff's Office dual purpose patrol dog
Top: A closer view of Neeko's silver crowns
Bottom: Dr. Bonnie Bloom, the college's primary vet, is based at I-20 Animal
Medical Center in Arlington, Texas (photo courtesy I-20 Animal Medical Center)
Dr. Bonnie Bloom, TAMHSC-BCD primary vet

Mint

Lt. David Kuhnell, now retired from the Fort Worth Fire Department, first met Bloom around eight years ago when he desperately needed her expertise. He had taken Mint – along with Chip and Bracken, two other bomb dogs from England – to a veterinarian’s office for a routine teeth cleaning.

Bomb detection canines require good teeth; without them, their keen sniffing abilities decline at an alarming rate.

Kuhnell, as a handler, was allowed to be with the dogs through the entire procedure. The veterinarian told him Mint had a smaller tooth wedged behind the canine.

“The doc said, ‘I’m going to go ahead and take it out, so it doesn’t fall out,’” says Kuhnell, who then watched a nightmare unfold.

“He actually took a tool, and to me, it looks like the same tool you’d fix a tire with; you stick it in, turn it and then pull it out. He was using the tool and actually pushed the tooth through the sinus cavity. I’m standing there with a $30,000 dog about to go berserk. I was making calls, thinking, I cannot lose this dog now.”

Thoughts of the high expectations for Mint raced through Kuhnell’s mind. After all, this was a dog that had patrolled the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, not to mention the streets of Northern Ireland.

Kuhnell found out about Bloom during one of those harried phone calls, and when Mint slowly surfaced from the anesthesia, Kuhnell loaded the bleary-eyed lab into his car — still with ‘tooth in nose’ — and took off for Bloom’s office.

“She did a terrific job,” Kuhnell says of Bloom. “Other than a sore nose for a week, Mint was back up and running pretty quick."

Bloom offers her own account of the day’s events.

“I was so upset and crying through the surgery, as I thought the dog was going to lose his sense of smell,” says Bloom. “This dog's livelihood depended on his nose, and I needed to get the tooth out without damaging his sense of smell. Somehow we managed it, and he went back to work.”

Mint worked until 2009, performing security sweeps for first lady Laura Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney, and attending President Barak Obama’s inauguration. He even sloshed through the swamps and piney woods of Texas in the wake of the Columbia Space Shuttle crash in early 2003, sniffing for explosive material in the wreckage.

Mint passed away in November 2010 at the age of 13, but Kuhnell continues to take Chip and Bracken to Bloom for their total health needs.

“I just think that people don’t make the connection between tooth health and nose,” Kuhnell says. “You’re talking about parts per million the dogs are trying to pick up. When you’re talking about that minute amount, it is amazing how the handlers need to know more about the animal’s dental care and oral hygiene.”

Neeko

Neeko is a hard-hitting, dual-purpose patrol dog with a grip rivaling that of an East Texas alligator. During one Wednesday night training session with the Dallas Police Department, the now 5-year-old German shepherd’s zeal nearly got the better of him.

Neeko broke his upper canine.

“I was so nervous because he’s such a good dog,” recalls Neeko’s handler, Canine Deputy Hank Havens with the Rockwall County Sheriff’s Office Drug Interdiction Unit. “This was a lot of money we’d invested. Anything can shorten a dog’s career, and it happens so often. I thought, Sure enough, this is going to be it; it’s going to be his teeth.”

It was a distressing twist of fate for Neeko, who has one crucial role in addition to his ability to detect drugs: He can bite on command. It’s necessary in the field for apprehending criminals and vital in training when he uses that ferocious grip to hang from objects at bite school.


“I couldn’t believe that they could put a tooth in his mouth that’s hung in there, as much as he twists and grinds. We’ve been to several schools where all you do is bite for a week. I’m just amazed.”

—Canine Deputy Hank Havens


Those iron jaws are now crowned with silver.

“I had heard of Dr. Bloom, and I got a really good recommendation from Texas A&M that they use her,” Havens says. “I called her up, and she immediately got to work. I brought Neeko in, she looked at his tooth and about half of it had broken off. She had to do a root canal, and she cleaned it up. They fitted a mold of his tooth and installed the crown. It’s been great; it’s hung in there.”

Neeko now has a matching silver crown on his other upper canine, which, not surprisingly, he also chipped doing what he loves most — his bite work.

“Both teeth are very important to apprehending suspects,” say Havens. “If we couldn’t have gotten those back in working order, that would have been terrible for his career here.

“I couldn’t believe that they could put a tooth in his mouth that’s hung in there, as much as he twists and grinds. We’ve been to several schools where all you do is bite for a week. I’m just amazed.”

Monza

Then there’s Monza, a 9-year-old Belgian Malinois — the same breed used in the capture of Osama bin Laden — who spends her days patrolling the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport as an explosive detection canine. Canine Handler Bomb Technician Michelle Tye is with Monza all day, whether they’re searching cargo areas, inspecting unattended bags or just patrolling terminals for public visibility.




“Canine oral health can be much more than bad breath. The teeth have the obvious function of chewing food, but there’s much more to the picture.”—Dr. Bonnie Bloom

Tye and other canine handler bomb techs have a contract vet for routine cleanings, but for oral health issues above and beyond the ordinary, they go to Bloom, who knows all too well the considerable impact oral health can have on a dog’s sense of smell.

“The teeth and roots can be very close to the sinuses, and in many cases, disease can spread into the nose and sinuses,” says Bloom. “We have bomb-sniffing and drug-sniffing dogs as patients, and keeping their mouths and teeth healthy is vital for these dogs to perform optimally at their jobs.”

What’s more, the teeth and mouth can be involved with systemic disease that impacts the heart, liver, kidneys and other organs.

“Canine oral health can be much more than bad breath,” says Bloom. “The teeth have the obvious function of chewing food, but there’s much more to the picture.”

Tye understands the risks, which is why she takes Monza for a teeth cleaning up to two times a year.

“Any kind of bacteria or infection is going to disturb that area,” Tye says. “It’s all connected.”

While Monza hasn’t experienced any career-ending emergencies, Bloom has done her fillings when, like Neeko, she broke one of her canines.

“They’ve been perfect ever since,” says Tye, who adds her observations from the experience.

“Especially with working dogs, sometimes vets are a little more timid. Dr. Bloom went right in and was comfortable,” says Tye. “She was caring, and it seemed like she was a caring person to the animals.

“I appreciate that because I’m with my dog 24/7. The bond there is unbelievable, so we want to have vets that actually really care about the animals, and she really does.”

Canine Deputy Hank Havens and Neeko, the Rockwall Sheriff's Office dual purpose patrol dog
Neeko with his handler, Canine Deputy Hank Havens