A normal dog has 42 teeth that sit in perfect alignment ensconced in the bone of the jaw. These teeth are made up of three layers: enamel, dentin, and cementum, the toughest of which is the pearly enamel. The hard exterior of the tooth belies its soft interior which is made of blood vessels and nerves keeping the tooth alive.
There’s obviously a lot more going on than just that but, for the purposes of this blog, let’s focus on the structures listed above.
What can go wrong?
Aside from periodontal disease, dogs commonly suffer from dental malocclusion and fractures.
Let’s start with malocclusion. The prefix “mal-” means “wrong” while the word “occlusion” refers to the way teeth come into contact with teeth from the opposite jaw.
There are two types of malocclusion:
- Dental – this means that the jaw sits normally (no overbite or underbite) but the teeth are sitting abnormally
- Skeletal – this means that the teeth are sitting normally but there’s an overbite or underbite
Dental malocclusions can be caused by having baby teeth (also known as deciduous teeth) that just won’t fall out. As a general guideline, if there are any baby teeth hanging around past the age of 6 months, they aren’t coming out. Ever. This is easily fixed, though, at desexing, your veterinarian will probably recommend extraction.
Spot the baby tooth!
More rarely, dental malocclusions can also occur when there are just too many teeth! This is called “supernumerary teeth”. The teeth tend to push each other around and – more often than not – they start to grow the wrong way! How do we fix it? We pull those extra teeth out and hope that they haven’t done too much damage already!
Why do we care about malocclusions? Teeth poking the wrong way, such that they are rubbing on other teeth or poking into gums and other soft structures, can cause pain and discomfort. Very bad malocclusions can cause teeth to poke holes into the soft palate which can lead to the formation of oronasal fistulas (holes which connect the mouth to the nose in the worst way).
Skeletal malocclusions are most often seen due to genetic factors. Think of bulldogs, for example, with those massive underbites. That said, trauma can cause the jaw to shift and cause malocclusions in that way.
For mild dental malocclusions – especially if we detect them early – we commonly recommend ball therapy. Dogs are given a rubber ball that fits just nicely into their mouth to play with. The hope is for the ball to push on the teeth that are leaning too far into the mouth, so they become more normally occluded.
Choosing the right size is important!
It is very, very important to use a durable rubber ball and not a hard ball. We’re counting on the repetitive action of chewing on the ball to push the teeth outward. As such, a hard ball, like the classic tennis ball, can damage the teeth. (Squishy tennis balls for dogs, though, are okay!)
When ball therapy isn’t an option, our only options are (1) extraction of the offending teeth or (2) referral to a veterinary dentist. Veterinary dentists are specialists who can perform something known as crown height reduction which means the teeth are burred down to the level of the pulp (which is made up of nerves and vessels), so they can’t cause any issues. The pulp has to be dressed and restored and the teeth will have to be closely monitored with dental X-rays.
Enamel is pretty darn tough. It’s known to be harder than bone – heck, it’s known to be harder than steel. BUT there’s a key difference between steel and enamel. Enamel is brittle. For that reason, in the battle between bone and enamel, bone often wins.
Fractures are usually caused by trauma, be it from bones or from a motor vehicle accident. Why do we care? Because fractures HURT. You try eating with a broken tooth. I can barely cope with my gingivitis. Dogs are often very tough and you might scarcely notice a reduction in appetite but that doesn’t mean it isn’t painful.
Furthermore, because the pulp is exposed, you have a new gateway for infection. The last thing you need is an abscess in your dog’s jaw as well.
This is the main reason we advise owners to stay away from anything that is too hard for teeth. Deer antlers are notorious for breaking teeth as are those huge thigh bones you can get from the butcher. (For our guide on bones, check out this blog!) Your dog is NOT a wolf. Be gentle with your dog’s teeth. They will live far longer and will require their teeth for a much longer time than the average wolf.
If the damage has already been done, the only thing we can do is to pull the teeth out. Your dog will be a million times more comfortable with that terrible tooth out AND you can prevent further issues in the future. However, if you’re keen on saving the tooth (especially if it’s a big tooth like the canine), we will refer you to a veterinary dentist who can perform specialist procedures like root canals.
Prevention and detection are key to maintaining your furbaby’s health and happiness. Granted, there are some things we can’t do anything about, like malocclusions – some dogs are just born that way – but there are ways to prevent malocclusions from becoming a problem. Other things, like fractures, you can absolutely can and should prevent!
Dental questions are often best discussed with your veterinarian because they can assess your dog’s teeth in person! Have general questions? Leave them in comments!