Time to end Animal Cruelty in the Dental Profession?

Reading a recent article in my favorite orthodontic journal I was shocked to see graphic photos of a dog’s skull dissected to the bone. I wondered if this experiment was really justified. If the dental profession is truly concerned about its public image then the animal studies better have some massive benefits besides giving authors a chance to say their work has been published. It would be a touchy subject…but similar to an endodontist I like touching nerves.

The study was investigating the effect of a couple types of orthodontic implants (TADS) on the jaw bone and comparing inserting them with and without pre-drilled pilot holes. The original article is titled ‘Microdamage of the cortical bone during mini-implant insertion with self-drilling and self-tapping techniques: A randomized controlled trial’ – ((Am J Orthod Dentofacial Orthop 2012; 141:538-46). I never can keep the two types straight, but the scientists made this article unforgettable.

Many readers including PETA would have likely suggested the whole group of researchers from Connecticut and Indiana should be put on trial. Their null hypothesis was that neither technique of implant insertion would have an effect on cracking of the bone. My concern was one or more dogs (hounds as they were referred to in the study) were rounded up, tortured and killed for science. After going back and skimming the whole article I discovered twelve of man’s best friends were slaughtered for this experiment.

We may have all been irritated by a neighbor’s dog barking through the night and thought ‘if he doesn’t shut up I’m gonna kill him.’ In this case the motivation was simply to test a hypothesis with little real world benefit. Pamela Anderson who likely doesn’t read dental journals would be steaming up in her red bathing suit if she could understand the perversity behind our profession’s ‘Mengelish’ experiments.

The researchers were not studying if TAD’s caused cancer or other serious complications. They were not studying a relationship to anything related to clinical performance, which we are easily capable of doing on humans, perhaps with compensation. It was a study that was not thought through. People (or dental students) willingly participate in studies all the time and this one could have easily been completed on a few fresh pig heads while their loins roasted in the oven. Many experiments do not have to be done on live animals (who are usually used as pets).

Being a loose cannon you’d think I would run to the groups who are dedicated to animal protection and serve up some humans.  Impossible. It was only a few weeks ago on a mountain weekend getaway when my wife pulled me into a store for ‘a look’. She wanted to give me a fashion show and in the end I was pulling out my credit card for a sheared beaver…the third fur in the last 12 months. Within that same time I picked up some thick silvery baby seal boots in a Quebec City snowstorm. My wife would also remind me of the time I pushed her pug into the trunk of my new BMW for a short drive to the vet, rather than have his hair contaminate my plush interior. A splash of red paint or critical comment or risk of such leaked atrocities could be argued would keep most sane folks off the keypad.

Hypocritical as it is to now write about this, I also enjoyed a tender beef steak on the weekend. We all break rules of some kind but it may even give me more inspiration to dissect this topic as I come clean about my own transgressions. While I am splitting hairs on this theme, I still encourage you to consider the risk-reward of animal studies and not simply look at this as a black/white issue or worry we can’t talk about it because it will tarnish the profession’s image.

Aware that dentists can be painted with good or bad strokes by each other, the public or the media the profession seems to bite its cheek and tolerate some unusual activity. It is also possible to ‘get away’ with things because we talk in jargon and may be able to fool laypersons as easily as a computer geek talks us into an extended warranty and a few extra gigs. We even fool ourselves and build massive educational cults based on conjecture and the rants of gurus who have sprung from dark places. The animal rights consultants likely didn’t see through the jibber jabber of the groups plea for the death penalties of the animals that should have been spared.

Our profession attracts certain types of intelligent people that enjoy inflicting pain. As children we all do stupid things to small animals and sometimes each other. Two brothers once sadistically tortured me, tying me up and roasting me over a hot gas furnace. They later grew up to become ‘almost normal’ health professionals and they sometimes laugh in reminisce (while I wait for the right moment to extract revenge).

True psychopaths are a small statistical part of any group but we still need to use caution to avoid entertaining activities that could be misconstrued. The researchers in this group may not have been aroused by their exploits (like the recent body part-mailing killer recently captured in a worldwide manhunt). They may not have even aware that their study was of little value. The true value may have been to simply highlight the fact that many animals are suffering at the hands of scientists fixated on finding answers to questions that can be uncovered differently or don’t really matter in the real world.

In dental school I can still recall how one of our elderly clinical instructors paused over a few of us and our slack jaw dento-forms in the back row of operative class. He wondered why I was wearing black leather pants in the clinic…did I own a motorcycle? (No). Then he described doing physiology tests in dental school on live dogs which were later killed. It was obvious that although years had passed and he felt it was a useful learning tool, he was uneasy about it. Like this study in the orthodontic journal, and others going on right now across the world, in some of the cases we don’t have to keep doing this to animals to know the truth.

The dental profession is advancing at light speed with the help of motivated individuals, manufacturers and the needs/wants of the public. Perhaps it is time for researchers to re-think what animal interest groups would say to ensure studies do not cross the line into blatant animal cruelty. The profession needs to watch its step.

Michael Zuk dds

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