Examining a cat's teeth

Your veterinary staff can help you learn to examine your pet’s teeth safely and comfortably

If you fractured your tooth today, you would not be reading this article—you would be at the emergency room or your dentist’s office seeking relief. Fractured teeth in dogs and cats are not much different than fractured teeth in people.

Although shaped differently, our pets’ teeth are similar to ours and the pain an animal experiences after fracturing a tooth is similar, too. Our pets, however, can’t tell us how much they hurt; they continue to eat, play, and work. Fortunately, fractured teeth can be treated and in many cases fractures can be prevented.

What Causes Tooth Fractures?

Inappropriate chewing behavior in dogs, or accidents in dogs and cats, can fracture teeth. Several popular items purchased for dogs to chew are known to fracture teeth, including meat bones (soup bones or knuckle bones, for example), nylon bones, cattle hooves, and some pressed rawhide chews. Toys such as Frisbees and balls can lead to fractured teeth if they are thrown on hard surfaces like concrete. Dogs that chew rocks also risk tooth fractures. Firm rubber toys that are bendable (eg, Kong toys) are recommended instead of harder chews.

[pullquote_left]Remember, a pet will not usually let you know it is in pain with a fractured tooth. Your dog or cat may adapt by chewing food on one side of the mouth more than the other, or you may notice your dog does not want to chew on its toys.[/pullquote_left]

Problem Behaviors

Two particular behaviors predispose dogs to tooth fractures: cage chewing and separation anxiety. The dog that chews its cage or fence gradually wears away the back surface of its canine (“eye”) teeth, causing them to become thin and weak and at high risk of fracture with continued cage chewing. A dog that has separation anxiety may engage in destructive chewing when separated from its owner and might fracture a tooth with the owner being none the wiser.

Both these common behavior problems can be treated through behavior modification. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian if your dog engages in cage chewing or exhibits separation anxiety.

What Cues Should I Watch For?

Remember, a pet will not usually let you know it is in pain with a fractured tooth. Your dog or cat may adapt by chewing food on one side of the mouth more than the other, or you may notice your dog does not want to chew on its toys. In most cases, however, the pet owner will not notice any behavior change.

It is important to look at the pet’s teeth regularly by gently lifting the lip while the mouth is closed. Check to see if the canine teeth are the same length on both sides. If you are able to see the back teeth, they should look the same on both sides as well. Your veterinary staff can help you learn to examine your pet’s teeth safely and comfortably.

A veterinarian should perform a dental examination as part of a twice-yearly check up, or more often if the animal has a history of inappropriate chewing behavior.

How Does a Fractured Tooth Affect My Pet?

How a dog or cat is affected by a fractured tooth depends on several factors:

  • Depth of the fracture
  • Age of the fracture
  • Age of the tooth

For instance, when the enamel is fractured, the dentin—the main part of a tooth beneath the enamel and surrounding the pulp chamber and roots— becomes exposed. The dentin is porous or “leaky” and sets up the rest of the tooth for infection. A fracture into the enamel and dentin also weakens the tooth. The deepest fractures involve the enamel, dentin, and pulp. These are emergency situations. The pulp, the innermost part of each tooth, contains the blood and nerve supplies. If the tooth fracture involves the pulp, the pet experiences immediate and intense pain. Left untreated, the pulp dies within a few hours to days, and the intense pain subsides. However, infection continues to enter the pulp through the fracture site and eventually can lead to an abscessed root, a draining tract, infection of the jaw, and chronic, ongoing pain. Unlike a broken bone or an open wound, a fractured tooth can never heal or “seal over” and antibiotics cannot cure the infection.

What Should I Do If My Pet Has Fractured A Tooth?

Fractured teeth with pulp exposure need immediate treatment, preferably within 48 hours. Primary teeth will need to be extracted to prevent permanent damage to the unerupted permanent tooth. Permanent teeth with pulp exposures can sometimes be treated with root canal therapy, in a way similar to people. This treatment allows the pet to keep the tooth. Metal crowns (caps) are also available after root canal treatment.

X-rays will be needed to determine the damage to the root(s) of the tooth. If the tooth root is involved in much of the fracture, the tooth will need to be surgically extracted. Treatment, either root canal therapy or extraction, should not be delayed. The “watch and wait” approach prolongs the pet’s pain as infection and damage progress. It is important NOT to wait for drainage or swelling, which are signs of ongoing damage and continued pain. Preventing tooth fractures and treating fractures as soon as they are noticed is the best way to keep your pet pain-free.

Originally published in Pet Quarterly, Vol 5, Winter 2008. Reprinted with permission