SINGAPORE - Being bitten is par for the course in her line of work.
"Once a bunch of skin on my finger got torn off... there was blood," confesses our interviewee casually, as she sits in a room with pictures of lions and crocodiles on the walls.
But Dr Ong Yean Sze is not an animal feeder or a zoo worker - she is a paediatric dentist, or one who specialises in dentistry for kids, and the animals are there to make the place friendlier for her patients.
Her clinic, Kids Dental World, sees patients of all ages, with the youngest being just two weeks old, and the oldest a special-needs patient in his 40s.
"My youngest patients don't even have teeth," she laughs. "Parents bring their babies to me because they're worried about unusual bumps in their kids' mouths."
Contrary to popular belief, she claims her littlest patients are the easiest to treat. "They just lie there in their mummy's arms while I talk to the parents," she says with a smile.
It is the toddlers who are the difficult ones, with most of the biters falling in this category.
"I'm not frustrated with them, most kids don't know any better."
Last week, it was reported that one in two children in Singapore has one or more rotten teeth by the time they start primary school.
In response, Dr Ong points the finger at three culprits: Parents not weaning their kids off milk bottles early enough, not enough fluoride in toothpastes, and lack of adult supervision when kids brush their teeth.
"Formula milk has a high sugar content," she explains. "As for fluoride content, some parents are misinformed by what they read on the Internet about fluoride causing health problems. Always check with your dentist to be sure."
In fact, a lot of her work actually deals with making sure parents follow her instructions on how to take care of their kids' dental health.
"I always spend a long time educating the parents on what they need to do. But some parents delegate the care of their kids to maids or grandparents, and that's when the problem starts."
For parents who are, well, recalcitrant, Dr Ong has a trick up her sleeve - photos of junior's teeth decaying over time. "That really convinces them," she says.
The mother of one has been in this line of work for 20 years, and seen many different patients come and go. Some of her patients are all grown-up now but they still come back to visit her.
She laughs as she recalls: "There's this one guy who used to come wrapped up in a blanket with his dad. Nowadays he comes with his girlfriend!"
Over the years, she has seen her practice change .
"In the past, we would have to just talk to the kids during the examination... now we have 3-D TV, and I'm really grateful for it," she remarks.
Her waiting area today also contains an Xbox 360 and a Kinect.
Despite all these advances in technology, however, Dr Ong says what really matters is making the patient feel at ease around you.
"Being their friend is important... once they start telling you about their friends, their cats and dogs, you know that they're ready (for you to examine them)," she says.
Take a seat in this dentist's chair and you'll come face to face with Mr Tickle (an electric toothbrush), Mr Sunshine (her lamp) and Mr Thirsty (a suction hose).
There is also one prop which has remained constant throughout her career: A faded pop-up book with pictures of animals inside.
"All these years, it has never failed me. I will read to the kids and when they see the animals open their mouths, they will open theirs too," she says.
Her patients love laughing gas, she shares with a laugh. "It makes them feel happy and relaxed, sometimes even after I'm done, they'll say, 'More, more!'"
At the end of the sessions, well-behaved patients can look forward to unique presents such as a bracelet made of (fake) teeth and tiny toothbrush-shaped erasers.
And what of her personal hygiene and family's dental health? Does she ever not practice what she preaches? "Never," she says firmly.
Seeing this reporter's sceptical expression, she explains: "After seeing the consequences of tooth decay for 20 years, you definitely don't want it to happen to you."
Secrets of the trade
1 Bonding with the kids is important. Smile, be gentle, stoop when you talk to them - it's the little things that count.
2 You need to remove the fear of the unknown. Explain to the kids what's about to happen, sometimes using pictures or playful explanations.
3 A cheap way to avoid a trip to the dentist? Minimise the contact time food and drink has with your teeth. So don't sip your Coke.
This article was published on May 18 in The New Paper.Get The New Paper for more stories.