Some patients shudder when they see a dentist.
Dr. Curt Coffman’s patients growl. Or bark. Some even roar.
The Ahwatukee man is a veterinary dental specialist, whose patients range from typical domestic pets to intimidating creatures that live behind bars.
He has treated thousands of animals in his career. He began in 1993 as a primary care vet after graduating from the University of Missouri and then went into dentistry beginning in 2000 with a five-year residency.
As a managing partner of Arizona Veterinary Dental Associates, he helps run three clinics in the Valley and a fourth in Tucson. He also is one of only about 150 veterinary dentists in the country.
In his business, he typically treats dogs and cats with gum disease, abscesses and other oral maladies that require his expertise.
But he also often works pro bono at the Phoenix Zoo and other animal habitats, addressing the oral diseases and injuries of lions, tigers, apes, cheetahs, bears and even lizards.
“We try to save the teeth, especially in the zoo animals. If they can’t chew, they can’t eat,” he explained. “Their teeth are really important for their nutrition. The family dog or cat can eat whatever. Zoo animals typically cannot.”
Recently, Coffman’s work for zoos and in other areas of his profession prompted the Arizona Veterinarian Medical Association to name him Veterinarian of the Year.
“Dr. Coffman is well known to the veterinary community,” the association said. “He not only is an esteemed practitioner, he is an enthusiastic educator, selflessly giving of his time to train veterinary professionals to achieve excellence in patient care.”
Long active in the association and an organizer of its annual Dental Extravanganza, Coffman also “has made exceptional contributions to the veterinary community and the profession,” the group said.
Those included continuing education programs for general practice vets, who by basic training can take care of animals’ dental needs like teeth cleaning.
“I was surprised by the award,” said Coffman, who is a member of the board of directors for the American Veterinarian Dental College and author of numerous publications.
A 16-year resident of Ahwatukee with his wife, Realtor Stephanie Coffman, and their three dogs, Coffman said he had wanted to become a veterinarian since he was a child.
“As a kid, I always had pets and horses and dogs and liked science,” he said. “I intended to do research in vet school and when I got to the clinical part, I found liked the interaction with pets and people and people more.”
In his regular practice, he typically treats ailments like periodontal disease and tooth and gum infections in domestic animals, mostly cats and dogs.
Typically, such ailments don’t come to anyone’s attention until they’re examined by a general practice veterinarian during a routine physical.
“It’s very subtle,” Coffman said. “Animals hide their oral pain very well, and you don’t notice it unless you’re alike to look into their mouths and see an abscess or see a swelling or they don’t eat.”
Many times, his patients develop those conditions because their owners are put off by the cost of teeth cleaning.
“I understand many people don’t like the cost, but a lot of dogs can really benefit from having their teeth cleaned annually,” he said. “It’s important that their plaque is removed. You can control it to some degree with the appropriate kind of food, brushing their teeth. But that is no substitute for a professional cleaning.”
The treatments required by the exotic animals are a whole different story.
Most often, Coffman treats injuries, such as broken teeth, that often result from fights. And they can require crowns, fillings or even some general jaw repair.
Often, their oral discomfort is noticed by their zookeepers. Because zoo attendants “are really attuned to those animals” because they typically are assigned to just one breed, they become more attuned to the animals’ habits and notice if their charges are chewing differently.
The biggest animal Coffman has treated is a lion, though he admits he won’t be surprised some day if he’s asked to visit an elephant or other similarly sized creature.
It’s not as if any of those exotic patients are reading a magazine when he greets them.
Usually, they’ve already been are under anesthesia , Coffman said.
“We’re fortunate to work with a lot of competent zoo veterinarians,” he said. “By the time we see them, they’re pretty much asleep.”
Nevertheless, he’s careful, wearing thick rubber gloves as he prods inside their mouths. “I wouldn’t want a lion to bite down, he said, adding:
They can bite down when they’re asleep. Fortunately, I’ve never had one wake up.”
Coffman said the majority of his exotic cases require only one visit.
Among them was the sea otter that had a cracked molar and couldn’t eat its clams. Coffman resolved that problem with a root canal.
But his most unusual patient didn’t even have teeth.
It was a gila monster.
A wildlife rescue group found the critter and a subsequent examination revealed it had a fractured jaw.
Coffman had to treat it gingerly, given its poisonous nature.
But in the end, Coffman accomplished his mission – and one satisfied gila monster became a fan.