Canine Dental Issues and Care

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Much like their human companions, dogs have two sets of teeth that appear at different stages and are divided into four types:

Incisors: the smaller teeth in the very front of the mouth between the canines are used for grasping food and retaining the tongue.
Canines: these four long, dagger-like teeth are used to grasp and tear food.
Premolars: located in the space between the canines and the large molars are used to shear or cut food.
Molars: the most caudal teeth, are used for grinding food and only appear as adult teeth.
The first set — known as deciduous, milk, or baby teeth — consists of 28 teeth which erupt the during first six weeks of life and are swiftly replaced. Different breeds will teeth at different rates, but most dogs have their full complement of 42 adult teeth by 8-9 months.

Regular oral inspections and tooth brushing can help you to be aware of the normal state of your dog’s mouth and recognize any issues as they arise. Dogs often need to be treated for the following issues:

Malocclusions
Occlusion refers to the normal alignment or “bite” of the teeth. The upper incisors overlap the lower incisors, the lower canines fit between the incisors and upper canines, and the premolar and molar crowns interlock in the back of the jaw. It should be noted that some breeds, particularly the flat-faced type, have a different bite pattern that is considered normal for their breed.

Malocclusion indicates an abnormal tooth alignment of skeletal or dental origin. Skeletal malocclusion refers to issues stemming from structural problems of the jawbone. Dental malocclusion refers to one or more teeth being out of proper alignment often due to retained deciduous teeth. Malocclusions often cause damage to the soft tissues (gums, cheeks, tongue, lips) as well as chipping, rubbing, and other damage to neighboring teeth. Treatment generally includes extraction, orthodontic work, or surgery on the jawbone to create room or realign the bones.

Tooth Resorption
A common oral abnormality in dogs, tooth resorption is not typically seen on the surface though up to 50% of canine x-rays show some level of resorption. The lower premolars are usually affected, but any tooth is susceptible to lesions. Without x-rays, resorption won’t generally be noticeable unless pain, bleeding, difficulty eating, and excessive salivation alert you to a dental issue.

Your veterinarian will assess the progress of the resorption and recommend treatments that may include extraction or root canal for advanced cases. If the tooth is not badly eroded or the oral cavity has not yet been exposed your veterinarian may choose to wait before taking action as some cases resolve on their own. Be sure to follow up as recommended in all cases.

Dental Diseases
Dental issues are one of the most common causes of health problems and additional veterinary visits. 80% of all dogs over the age of three suffer from an active dental disease. The accumulation of plaque and tartar cause periodontal pockets and receding gums around the root of the tooth. The inflammation and infection that follows, called gingivitis, can eventually work deep into the tooth socket. This periodontal disease leads to destruction of the jawbone, loss of teeth, and potentially fatal infections.

Some plaque and tartar are removed naturally by the tongue and through the chewing activities your dog engages in enthusiastically, but most is retained right next to the gumline. As plaque thickens on the tooth it mineralizes and creates tartar. While plaque can be scrubbed away, tartar cannot be removed through regular brushing, it requires sedation and scaling at the veterinarian’s office.

Retained Deciduous Teeth
Teething is an almost constant process between two and eight months of age. The puppy’s body resorbs the roots of the deciduous set to allow the adult teeth to push out the smaller teeth and take their place. You may find the rootless teeth in your puppy’s bedding, on the floor, or in the food dish. However, many puppies swallow their baby teeth while eating, harmlessly through the digestive system.

When a tooth root is only partially resorbed the adult tooth behind it will often erupt at an abnormal angle or position. This can cause pain, broken teeth, infection, and hinder proper jawbone formation and growth. All of these complications can lead to a refusal to eat and life-long pain and dietary difficulties.

Your veterinarian may recommend removing the baby tooth to allow the adult tooth room to grow into the correct position. Early intervention is necessary to prevent painful complications and further malformations. Delayed intervention often requires additional extractions, orthodontic treatment, and possible surgery.

Inspect your puppy’s mouth weekly during teething to follow the process and see if any teeth are retained. The upper canines are the most commonly retained teeth, followed by the lower canines and incisors.

Caring for Your Dog’s Teeth
Taking a preventative view of dental practices will help insure a healthy mouth and a longer life for you canine companion. Regular inspections of the mouth at home, veterinary visits, and daily tooth brushing are all a part of responsible dental hygiene. Daily or twice-weekly tooth brushing will take patience and persistence to establish, but the earlier you can accustom your dog to this practice, the easier it will be.

Toothbrushes and specialized toothpastes have been developed for the unique dental needs of your dog. NEVER use human toothpaste, baking soda, or any other “home remedy” to brush your dog’s teeth! These can be dangerous and cause internal damage if swallowed. Your veterinarian can guide you to the best brushes and cleansers for your dog’s specific needs. There are a lot of flavors available as well to suit your dog’s palate.

Kitty Hawk Animal Hospital recommends that you accustom your dog to dental care as soon as you adopt it, or when the first teeth erupt in puppies. Gently rub a cloth or just your finger on the outside of a few teeth. Build up gradually to brushing the whole mouth. Don’t worry about the tips or inner surfaces of the teeth unless your dog is very cooperative, the abrasive surface of the tongue generally keeps them clean anyway. Most dental issues originate on the outer surface.