Why Take Dental X-rays?

By: Dr. Dave Thompson

Veterinary Dentistry has three very basic goals: 

  1. Every pet should have a comfortable mouth.
  2. Infection and inflammation in the mouth should be eliminated or minimized.
  3. There should not be growths or tumors occurring in the mouth.

Most people wake up every morning and have no worries that they will have a comfortable mouth that day.  Unfortunately, it is estimated that 93% of pets in America wake up every morning with oral discomfort in the mouth. That is why Dr. Sim is so passionate about veterinary dentistry. Helping pets and educating our pet parents about how to maintain comfortable mouths in their pets is our mission.

There are a number or reasons why dental X-rays are essential for your pet and why they are necessary in order for our dental team to adequately care for your pet. The visible part of the tooth is called the crown. When we look at a tooth, we cannot see the interior of the crown or the roots, so we are only looking at about 25% of each tooth. We also cannot see the jawbone or the periodontal ligament that holds the tooth in place. X-rays are the only way we can detect problems in these areas.

Eighty percent of dogs and seventy percent of cats have periodontal disease by age 3 years. It is the most common disease in pets, even exceeding fleas in incidence. Periodontal disease is a serious gum infection that damages the soft tissue and destroys the bone that supports teeth. Periodontal disease can cause tooth loss or worse, an increased risk of serious health problems. This disease occurs below the gum line where it cannot be seen by just looking. To visualize bone loss below the gums, X-rays are essential. If the bone loss is not too advanced, Dr. Sim can often save teeth suffering from periodontal disease, but it is impossible to know if an affected tooth can be saved without an X-ray showing the extent of the damage.

One extremely important difference between dogs and cats vs. people is that pets seldom show obvious outward signs of periodontal disease or oral pain. Animal behaviorists believe that hundreds of years ago, the animals in the wild learned that showing pain or weakness encouraged predators to attack them and caused healthy animals to feel superior and eat available food first. Thus, it is well documented that our domestic pets seldom demonstrate symptoms of the throbbing pain associated with many dental problems. Every time we have our teeth cleaned, the human hygienist asks if we are having any sensitivity or pain. Our ability to answer that question greatly reduces the necessity for people to have full mouth x-rays. Pets simply cannot tell us. 

Cats tend to hide medical symptoms even more than dogs do. In university studies, it is estimated that 51% of cats develop “cat cavities” which are termed resorptive lesions. Resorptive lesions are very common, they are blatantly painful, and many lesions can only be identified with X-rays.

Without taking X-rays of the mouths of domestic pets, it is estimated that even dental specialists miss 20% of the problems that are present If we didn’t X-ray your pet’s mouth, we would have to tell you, “We did an 80% job of eliminating pain today.” X-rays are that important! 

Here is a list of some of the things we identify using dental X-rays:

  • Periodontal disease
  • Missing teeth – impacted, retained roots or cysts
  • Injured or fractured teeth
  • Dental cavities
  • Pulpitis/pulp necrosis
  • Tooth resorption
  • Baseline for comparison in the future
  • Post-extraction to be certain of complete removal of roots
  • Endodontic procedures such as root canals
  • Oral Tumors – bone involvement

Below are some X-rays which identified problems typically found in our patients. To show you everything that we can identify with X-rays, we would have to show you hundreds, but I have chosen a few interesting examples.