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Dog Tooth Problems: Abscesses, Infections, Chips, and More

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Fifty years ago, there was little attention given to the field of veterinary dental health. Fortunately, we have learned a lot since then and made significant advances in veterinary dentistry! 

We now know that approximately 80% of dogs have some degree of dental disease by the time they reach two years of age. Dental disease and dog tooth problems are not only painful, but these issues can also have effects on overall body health. Providing appropriate dental care for your dog can significantly improve your pet’s quality of life.  

Dog Teeth: Understanding the Basics

In order to understand dog tooth problems, it is important to first understand the normal dental anatomy of dogs. Like humans, a dog’s mouth contains a large number of teeth. Each of these teeth are uniquely suited for a specific purpose. 

Incisors, the small teeth in the front of the mouth, are used to nip and bite. The canine teeth, or the “fangs,” are used to tear and shred flesh. The premolars and molars, which are located towards the rear of the mouth, are used to shear and crush food. 

How Many Teeth Do Dogs Have?

A typical adult dog has 42 teeth. The upper left and right sides of the mouth each contain three incisors, one canine, four premolars, and two molars, for a total of 20 upper teeth. The lower left and right sides of the mouth contain the same teeth as the upper jaw, plus one additional molar on each side, for a total of 22 lower teeth.

A typical puppy, in contrast, has only 28 teeth. Puppies have only three premolars in each quadrant of the mouth (not four) and they lack molars. 

Some dog breeds have a tendency to not develop all of their teeth. This is most common in hairless dogs, like the Mexican Hairless and the Chinese Crested, but it may also be seen in breeds such as the Doberman Pinscher and Collie. 

Do Dogs Lose Baby Teeth?

Like human children, puppies lose their first set of baby teeth. Puppy teeth typically begin to come in around 3 weeks of age and most puppies have all of their baby teeth by 6 weeks old. At 3-4 months old, however, puppies begin losing baby teeth. 

By approximately 6 months of age, most puppies have lost their baby teeth and developed a full set of adult teeth. 

How Often Should You Brush Your Dog’s Teeth?

Daily brushing is a valuable method for preserving your dog’s dental health. Brushing removes plaque, which is that fuzzy film that you may sometimes feel on your own teeth if you go a bit too long without brushing. Approximately 24 to 36 hours after plaque forms, it hardens into tartar, which cannot be removed with brushing. In order for brushing to have a significant benefit, you need to brush your dog’s teeth once daily. This ensures that plaque is removed before it hardens into tartar. 

Common Dog Tooth Problems

Side profile of dog teeth

While proper dental care can prevent many canine dental issues, even dogs that are well cared-for may develop dental disease. Food and debris can become trapped between the teeth, leading to infection or inflammation.  

Here are some common dog tooth problems that veterinarians and veterinary dentists see regularly.

Dog Tooth Decay

Fortunately, tooth decay is relatively rare in dogs. While humans often develop cavities as a result of dental disease, dog dental disease primarily affects the gums and tissues below the gumline (periodontal tissues). Regular brushing to remove food debris and bacteria from the teeth is the best way to prevent tooth decay and periodontal disease in dogs. 

Dog Loose Tooth

Loose teeth are a common issue in dogs. Canine dental disease affects the gums and the tissues that hold the teeth in place. As the connections between the tooth and the jaw break down, teeth can become loose. Loose teeth are not only painful for dogs, they can also serve as a source of infection. Therefore, loose teeth are typically extracted surgically. 

Dog Tooth Abscess

A tooth root abscess is a serious complication of dental disease in dogs. In this situation, bacteria invade the jaw bone, gaining access through diseased periodontal tissues or through an exposed tooth pulp. Bacteria proliferate within the bone, resulting in an abscess (pocket of pus). 

This abscess may rupture, draining pus into the mouth or through the skin below the eye. Abscesses are painful and require immediate treatment. Pain medication and antibiotics may provide temporary improvement, but true treatment of a tooth root abscess requires extraction of the diseased tooth. 

Dog Tooth Infection

Even in the absence of an abscess, a tooth infection can have serious consequences. The presence of bacterial infection within the tooth pulp can lead to inflammation and death of the pulp. The tooth may first take on a pink or red color, then become gray as the pulp dies. These conditions can be painful and can pave the way for worsening infection. 

Dog Chipped or Fractured Tooth

While many dental conditions in dogs are caused by bacteria and periodontal disease, even young dogs can experience a chipped or fractured tooth. This is typically caused by chewing on a hard bone or toy. The tooth may become chipped, in which just a surface piece of enamel breaks away, or may develop a more severe fracture. Tooth fractures are painful and predispose the dog to infection. 

A broken tooth should be addressed by a veterinarian. Treatment will depend on the severity of the chip or fracture, as well as which tooth is affected. Extraction is often recommended, but your veterinarian may also be able to refer you to a veterinary dental specialist if you wish to pursue other options. 

Signs of Tooth Pain in Dogs

Dog tooth problems do not always come with obvious signs of pain. Potential signs of dental pain in dogs may include: 

  • Reluctance to chew hard food or treats.
  • Pawing at the mouth.
  •  Increased salivation. 
  • Chattering of the jaws. 

If you observe signs of tooth pain, consult your veterinarian to determine the next steps for your dog. 

Treating Tooth Problems in Dogs

Observing dog teeth

There are a variety of treatments available for dog tooth problems and dental disease, depending on your dog’s condition. In some cases, your veterinarian may even refer your dog to a veterinary dentist for advanced procedures such as root canals and crowns. 

Dental Cleaning

Periodic dental cleanings offer multiple benefits. First, a thorough dental cleaning (performed under general anesthesia) allows your veterinarian to remove the tartar that cannot be removed with brushing. 

Additionally, while your pet is anesthetized, your veterinarian will perform a thorough oral exam. The tissues in the mouth will be visually inspected and dental radiographs may be taken. This allows your veterinarian to find and treat problems early, instead of waiting for your dog to show obvious signs of pain. 

Most adult dogs should receive yearly dental cleanings. Small breed dogs and other high-risk patients may need cleanings as often as every six months. 

Dog Tooth Extraction

When a tooth is diseased, the most practical option is often to extract the tooth. Dogs do not have the same cosmetic attachment to their teeth that we humans tend to have, which means that extractions can often be performed instead of the more complex restorative procedures that are often performed in humans.  

Extractions vary in complexity, depending on the dog and the tooth that is being extracted. Some dog teeth (such as the incisors) only have a single root, which makes extraction a relatively simple process. Other teeth, such as the carnassial teeth (the 4th premolar) have multiple roots and must be sectioned with a drill in order to safely extract the tooth. 

The cost of a dog dental extraction varies, depending on the complexity of the extraction. In addition to the surgical extraction itself, your pet will likely receive a nerve block, pain medications, and antibiotics. 

If your pet is already anesthetized for a dental cleaning, the additional cost for extractions may range from approximately $50 (for the simple extraction of a single-rooted tooth) to $300 (for the complex extraction of a multi-rooted tooth).

Dental Medications for Dogs

Dogs with dental disease, or dogs undergoing a dental procedure, may be treated with several medications. A non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug is often prescribed to control pain and swelling. An oral antibiotic may be prescribed to treat or prevent infection. 

Dog Dental Care: How to Stay Ahead of Problems

Brushing dog teeth

Caring for your dog’s teeth is an important part of keeping your dog healthy. Dental disease is painful, but the bacteria within the mouth can also spread to your dog’s heart, kidneys, and lungs, causing a variety of other issues. 

In order to maintain your dog’s dental health, consider the following: 

Brush your dog’s teeth. Conduct daily teeth cleaning, using a toothbrush and toothpaste made for dogs. If you have trouble brushing your dog’s teeth, talk to your veterinarian about alternative dental hygiene recommendations. 

Have your dog’s teeth professionally cleaned and evaluated. See your veterinarian once yearly and have your dog’s teeth cleaned as needed. Annual dental cleanings are the norm, but your dog may need his teeth cleaned more or less frequently, depending on individual factors. 

Use dental chews and chew toys. Provide appropriate chew toys and dental treats. Chew toys can help minimize tartar buildup, but it’s important not to give hard bones or toys that could fracture your dog’s teeth. 

If you have questions or concerns about your dog’s dental health, talk to your veterinarian. 

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