By: Dr. Amy Plankenhorn and Dr. Dave Thompson
Have you ever broken a tooth? If you have, you know that the sensation ranges from uncomfortable sensitivity to extremely painful. Without treatment, the exposed pulp canal of the tooth always becomes infected and an abscess forms at the root tip, which is really painful and affects your health. What you may not know is how frequently dogs break their teeth, that dogs experience the same pain and health problems from broken teeth, and how your choices of chew toys can increase the risk of your pet breaking a tooth.
You or I may try to chew carefully when we chew on a hard object such as ice or olives or cherries that may have pits. There is no evidence that dogs are careful. Also, dog enamel is only 1/3 as thick as human enamel and the chewing force of a dog is measured at 3 times more than a human can achieve.
Most dogs love to chew. Chewing provides entertainment, and slightly decreases tarter formation (daily tooth brushing is much more effective). Many popular chew toys such as bones, antlers, cow hooves, hard plastic chews, and even ice cubes can crack dogs’ teeth. The most common teeth to be fractured are the large upper premolars, also called the carnassial teeth. These major 3-rooted teeth bear the brunt of the chewing force. When a dog chews an object that is harder than his/her tooth enamel, the tooth often splits vertically, causing what’s called a slab fracture of the tooth. The best case scenario is that only the enamel is damaged, but the rough enamel surface collects more tartar and the damaged enamel is more vulnerable to pain and infection. Unfortunately, a carnassial tooth fracture commonly involves the pulp canal of the tooth, causing pain and allowing bacteria direct access to the root of the tooth and the bone that surrounds it. An abscess frequently forms. Surprisingly, dogs seldom indicate that they have a toothache or that a tooth is abscessed, so you usually don’t know anything is wrong until the infection is very advanced.
Tooth fractures are evaluated with dental x-rays under general anesthesia. Fractures not involving the pulp canal can be treated at Animal Hospital of North Asheville using a special bonding material that seals the enamel and dentin protecting it from infection and eliminating sensitivity. If the fracture involves the pulp canal, there are only two ways to make to make the pet comfortable. We are able to perform a root canal procedure if the tooth is otherwise healthy, or, more commonly, the tooth is extracted in order to relieve pain and prevent infection. We have many techniques for saving teeth, but if a tooth is infected or uncomfortable and cannot be made pain free, it is better to extract it.
While not all tooth fractures can be prevented – your dog may pick up and chew a hard object without you realizing it - we can definitely help make them less likely. When choosing chew toys, consider the following:
Rules of Thumb
- Do NOT allow your pet to chew on anything unless it has some “give” to it because that might prevent breaking a tooth. You should actually be able to indent the surface with your fingernail. Among other things, give no animal bones, no antlers, no hooves and no hard plastic or hard nylon bones. If an object is harder than a tooth, or if you could drive a nail with it, it’s too hard.
- RAWHIDE – We do not believe that we have ever seen a tooth fracture caused by rawhide, so they are a good choice for the teeth. With rawhide chews there is the slight possibility that your pet could choke on the chew, so we recommend that you be present to supervise when your pet is chewing. For small dogs, you can cut thinner strips from the rawhide “chips” which really seems to increase their enjoyment of the chew. Due to some problems with imports, we recommend that you “play it safe” and only use rawhide from cows originating in the USA. Be careful and read the fine print. It is important for the chews to be manufactured in the US, not just distributed by a US company.
- CHEW TOYS and BALLS – All toys should have some flexibility such as the soft Nylabone (do not use the rigid Nylabone), appropriate size Kongs, latex and rope toys, and latex balls. Tennis balls can cause dental problems because the fuzz on tennis balls can wear down enamel if chewed excessively. For that reason, tennis balls are best for chasing rather than chewing but older balls without the “fuzz” on the surface are less prone to wear down enamel. Avoid giving dogs any balls that are small enough to swallow.
- STUFFED TOYS – May or may not help with tooth cleansing but are often referred to as a “comfort” toy to be carried and slept with. Always avoid toys with attached hard objects such as plastic eyes, clothing articles, a nose, etc. that could break teeth.
VOHC approved products
Although not all safe products have VOHC approval, using products with the VOHC seal of acceptance is recommended as these products have successfully met pre-set requirements for veterinary dental efficacy. A complete list of VOHC approved products can be accessed at www.vohc.org.