Nobody likes a cavity. Whether it’s the toothache that comes at the onset or the drilling that’s necessary to fix one, cavities are a nuisance – and an extremely common one at that, at least for humans.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that about 90 percent of Americans aged 20 or older have had at least one cavity in their lives, while 1 in 4 Americans between the ages of 20 and 64 currently have a cavity.
The prevalence of cavities among humans, however, does not translate to their canine best friends. A 1998 study in the Journal of Veterinary Dentistry found that of the 435 dogs whose dental records were reviewed, just 23 (or 5.3 percent of dogs) had cavities.
That said, they can still be irritating and painful problems for a dog and potentially expensive ones for a dog parent. Here’s everything you need to know about canine cavities.
What Is a Cavity?
“Cavities” is the more colloquial word for a problem in the dental community known as “caries.” According to a paper in The Canadian Veterinary Journal, the word “caries” is Latin for rottenness.
Dr. Amy Stone is a clinical associate professor at the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine. She describes cavities as “resulting from bacterial decay of the tooth structure due to the release of acids from oral bacteria digesting carbohydrates on the surface of the tooth.”
As the decay continues, small holes form on the hard surface of the tooth, which expands and goes deeper over time if left untreated.
Can Dogs Get Cavities?
Dogs can get cavities, but dogs do not get cavities as frequently as humans. While the process by which cavities develop is the same between dogs and humans, there are several reasons why they don’t happen as often in dogs.
“Human saliva is more acidic, human teeth have many pits and fissures (whereas dog teeth are mostly conical), and there is more space between dog teeth to prevent food trapping,” Dr. Stone says. “These differences mean the bacteria species that most commonly cause caries are not as prevalent in the canine [mouth].”
Stone adds that there isn’t a breed- or age-specific predisposition to developing cavities, though they don’t appear to be a problem in deciduous (or “baby”) teeth, which suggests they’re typical among dogs who are more than a year old.
Because of the way a dog’s mouth is structured, cavities are most common toward the back of the dog’s mouth – specifically on teeth called maxillary molars. Dr. Stone says these teeth have thinner enamel, as well as pits and grooves that allow cavity-causing bacteria to thrive.
Causes of Cavities in Dogs
Cavities do not come about because of another illness or condition. Nor are they simply the result of a lack of dental care or cleaning, Dr. Stone says. “It’s more about the diet. If dogs eat fruit, honey, cookies made for humans, or sweetened peanut butter, they are more likely to develop them.”
This is another reason why humans get cavities far more frequently than dogs do – the food we eat contains much more sugar, both natural and added.
The other common cause for cavities in dogs, Dr. Stone says, is dry mouth. Also known as xerostomia, dry mouth is simply a lack of sufficient saliva. When it comes to dogs, slobbering, of course, can be a nuisance for their parents, but it actually helps with their oral health. Like human saliva, the canine variety contains various antibacterial compounds that can help neutralize the bacteria that cause cavities.
Signs of dry mouth include bad breath, inflamed gums, and a cracked tongue. Dry mouth may be a side effect of different medications, including cancer treatment and antihistamines.
How to Treat Cavities in Dogs
Canine cavities are diagnosed by a veterinarian or veterinary dentistry specialist, though pet owners may pick up on some of the signs and symptoms at home. These include bad breath, abnormal chewing, dropping food from the mouth, reduced appetite, swelling around the mouth, and of course, discoloration on your dog’s teeth or the appearance of a small, dark spot on the tooth.
“Caries can be treated with fillings or sealants if they are caught when they are not deep into the tooth structure,” Dr. Stone says. “Otherwise, extraction is needed, except in some cases when a root canal may be appropriate. That should be determined by a veterinary dental specialist.”
That determination will primarily be based on the severity of the decay and status of the tooth or teeth in question.
How to Prevent Dog Cavities
The best canine cavity prevention tip, Dr. Stone says, is to not feed your dog sugary foods, like those listed above.
“Some animals will develop cavities anyway,” she says. “However, following this suggestion will not allow the precursors to be present.”
Brushing your dog’s teeth regularly will lead to a decrease in bacteria in the area where the gums meet the teeth, which Stone says may help somewhat with the prevention of cavities, though it is more critical for preventing periodontal disease, which is not only much more prevalent than cavities in dogs, but also one of the top two diagnoses for dogs (alongside obesity, she says).
To help with gum disease, and potential caries as well, your veterinarian may recommend a full dental prophylaxis, which is a combined cleaning and full oral examination under anesthesia.
Before your dog can be anesthetized, your veterinarian will need to determine that your dog is physically capable of undergoing anesthesia, Stone says. This is typically done with a full physical examination that includes monitoring vital signs and by checking a blood sample to make sure your dog’s heart and internal organs are healthy for anesthesia.
“Once under (anesthesia), a full oral exam, dental radiographs, ultrasonic scaling of the teeth to remove the bacteria above and below the gumline, and polishing with fluoride paste will occur,” Stone adds. “This is the one opportunity that we have to put fluoride on the tooth surface to help protect the tooth from cavities. It’s not safe to use fluoride in dog toothpaste when doing normal brushing because dogs swallow the toothpaste and that much fluoride can be toxic.”
While cavities are not prevalent among dogs, they do exist, and provide one more reason to keep up on the home dental care and get your dog’s teeth checked by a veterinarian at least once a year.