You might think your dog’s teeth are a lot stronger than yours, but cracked and fractured teeth in canines is not uncommon. Know what signs to watch out for, and how to prevent problems.
Many people tend to take their dogs’ dental health for granted until a problem arises, such as cracked or fractured teeth. Adult dogs have around 42 permanent teeth, so there are a lot of sites in the mouth where trauma can occur from the actions of chewing, playing or navigating the environment. Let’s start with some dental health basics.
Different types of teeth
There are three types of teeth in your dog’s mouth.
- The incisors are single-rooted teeth located in the front of the mouth. They serve to grasp food and objects, and also permit self-grooming to remove an ecto-parasite (flea, tick, etc.) or substances that may stick to the hair (sap, etc.). Because of their conformation and single-root attachment to underlying bone, incisors are prone to becoming mobile (loose) due to periodontal disease.
- The canine teeth (“canines”) aren’t exclusive to dogs, despite their dog-specific name. The canines are fang-like teeth that grasp and tear food and other materials. As the canine teeth are longer than other teeth in the mouth, they are often prone to trauma and fracture. Like the incisors, the canines have a single but longer root that provides a sturdier attachment to the underlying alveolar bone.
- The premolars are located behind the canines. They have two or three roots, providing firm attachment to the alveolar bone, and serve to tear and masticate (chew) food and hold objects. My go-to veterinary dental specialist, Dr. Anson Tsugawa, states that “the largest of the chewing teeth, the maxillary (upper jaw) fourth premolar tooth, also referred to as a carnassial tooth, is the tooth that is most often fractured. This tooth is the third from the last tooth in the upper jaw, and has a crown shaped liked a sideways number four.”
A dog’s tooth has many parts:
Crown — the part of the tooth that is visible above the gumline is called the crown and is the most susceptible to fracture. The crown is coated by a thin layer of enamel, a very hard substance that protects the deeper layers of the tooth.
Dentin — the dentin is comparably as strong as bone, can sense cold, heat and touch, and lies deep under the protective enamel.
Pulp — The central part of the tooth is the pulp, which is composed of blood vessels, connective tissue and nerves. The pulp is the most sensitive component of each tooth.
Root — The root serves to anchor the tooth to the supportive alveolar bone via the periodontal ligament, and is not visible to the naked eye unless there’s been severe trauma or recession of the gingiva (“gums”).
Periodontal ligament – This ligament firmly attaches teeth in their sockets to the underlying alveolar bone (mandible and maxilla).
Gingiva (gums) — The oral cavity is lined by a thin layer of vascular tissue that protects the bone. It’s called the gingiva, and is seen immediately adjacent to all teeth unless disease has caused recession (movement away from the teeth or bone) or trauma has torn it free.
Cusps — The tips of each tooth, which come to a rounded or sharp point, are called the cusps.
Two primary types of tooth fracture can potentially affect your pooch. Complicated fractures are the more concerning type because the pulp cavity is exposed, causing greater likelihood of pain, bleeding and translocation of oral cavity bacteria into the bloodstream.
Uncomplicated fractures don’t expose the pulp cavity and may not require repair or tooth extraction. But they should still be assessed by a veterinarian.
Clinical signs of fracture
The clinical signs of a fractured tooth may be obvious or subtle. depending on their type and severity. Following are some common signs:
- You may be able to see your dog’s fractured tooth when the mouth is open or if the muzzle or cheek margin is pulled back. Always be gentle when exploring your dog’s mouth, considering the likelihood of discomfort associated with tooth fracture.
- When the pulp cavity is damaged, mild or severe bleeding can occur depending on the severity of the fracture. Blood may drip from your dog’s mouth immediately post-fracture, or be seen when food, a toy or a treat is chewed.
- At the onset of a tooth fracture, or at any point afterwards, your pooch will likely experience discomfort that may manifest as vocalizing. You could hear a sharp cry, gentle whimper, or other noises when the fracture is manipulated and pain is experienced.
- Tooth fracture can cause your dog to be less able to chew food or treats. As a result, decreased appetite or interest in eating can occur.
- In an attempt to relieve the discomfort associated with chewing, your dog may chew using only one side of his mouth. Additionally, drooling can occur from either side of the mouth.
- The canine mouth contains plenty of bacteria that can enter the blood supply via exposed pulp and surrounding traumatized or inflamed gingiva. A proliferation of mouth bacteria causes what we veterinarians commonly called oral malodor. Oral bacteria can damage internal organs such as the heart, respiratory tract, kidneys, liver and others.
Common causes of tooth fracture
Dogs like to explore the world with their mouths, and use their tongues and teeth to pick up various objects. Common tooth fracture causes include:
Chewing on hard objects: Almost any hard object can lead to fractured teeth.
Aggressive chewing and tugging: Dogs with aggressive chewing habits and those that tug on toys are more prone to tooth trauma.
Blunt trauma — Most dogs like to run and play and can incur blunt trauma to their teeth from slamming into stationary objects or catching toys. Being hit by a car, kicked by a horse and other injuries can also result in tooth damage.
How are fractured teeth treated?
Multiple treatments are available, depending on the tooth or teeth that are affected and the severity of the fracture. The first step is to have your pooch examined by a veterinarian or veterinary dentist. A general practice veterinarian may have the skills to appropriately assess and manage tooth fractures; alternatively, your dog may need to be referred to a veterinary dental specialist who practices exclusively in the field of dentistry. A board-certified veterinary dentist in your area can be found via the American Veterinary Dental College.
Besides a physical examination, your dog will likely need to have an evaluation under anesthesia along with radiographs (x-rays) to fully assess the fracture and receive treatment.
Dr. Tsugawa says that uncomplicated tooth fractures “can often be treated conservatively (smoothing the rough fracture margins and resin bonding the exposed dentin to prevent infection), especially if identified early. However, with complicated tooth fractures, where the pulp or nerve is exposed, more specialized care (root canal therapy) to avoid loss of the tooth, may be indicated.” Treatments can include extraction, root canal, rebuilding the tooth, antibiotic therapy and pain management (e.g. NSAIDS, pain-numbing medications, acupuncture, herbs, homeopathics, etc.).
Preventing fractured teeth
Prevention is always the best medicine. Always plan a few steps ahead of your canine companion to prevent aggressive chewing on hard objects and blunt trauma.
Also, since some fractures may show no clinical signs, dogs should have a dental exam with a veterinarian at least once a year. Sick and geriatric patients (older than seven years) and those requiring medications to promote their health and quality of life, should have an examination every six months, or more frequently depending on the veterinarian.
Fractured teeth can cause dogs a lot of discomfort, and even lead to illness. But by taking preventive measures, and seeking veterinary help if your pup shows any signs that could point to a problem, you can help ensure his teeth stay strong and healthy.
Veterinarian Dr. Patrick Mahaney graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine in 1999. He is a certified veterinary acupuncturist from the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society. His practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness, offers integrative medicine. Dr. Mahaney writes a veterinary blog for patrickmahaney.com and is working on his first book, The Uncomfortable Vet.