When presenting their feline or canine family members, our clients will often direct our attention to the teeth. Chipped, broken, fractured, or worn teeth can be a source of pain and infection for pets, and should be evaluated by your veterinarian promptly.
A minor chip may only involve the enamel of the tooth, and in a large breed, may not need immediate treatment. But the tiniest chip from the tip of a canine tooth in a cat almost always involves the deeper pulp chamber of the tooth. This part of the tooth includes the blood supply and nerves of the tooth, and exposure to the oral cavity may lead to bacterial infection of the tooth and pain for the cat.
Some tooth fractures are more obvious. When a large portion of the crown is suddenly missing, there has almost certainly been a traumatic event causing a fracture. Usually, the pet has chewed or bitten something hard such as a bone or rock or metal. Even ice cubes have caused tooth fractures. As a rule, if an object is too hard to make an imprint with a thumbnail or if you could plausibly use the object to drive a nail into a wall like a hammer, it is too hard for your pet to chew.
A very common scenario, especially with larger breeds, is a mouth full of teeth that appear to all be fractured. But on close inspection, these teeth are often actually worn. Wear, or abrasion occurs gradually. The culprit many times is a tennis ball. Because the wearing occurs gradually, teeth have time to protect themselves by producing tertiary dentin which is layered between the enamel of the crown and the sensitive pulp chamber. This extra layering of dentin can protect the tooth from infection, and also the nerve endings from pain. However, sometimes the wearing occurs too rapidly for this protective layer to be completed, and areas of sensitivity and bacterial access occur.
In all of the above situations, it is very difficult and often impossible to thoroughly evaluate the tooth in the exam room. Even with the most compliant patient, our eyes are not able to see the entire picture. Anesthesia with a well-lit field and magnification, dental instruments such as a dental explorer, and dental x-rays are almost always necessary to differentiate the benign enamel chip or the gradually worn tooth that is not a source of pain from those that need treatment. A large fracture always needs some form of treatment. With the help of your veterinarian will decide the best treatment for your pet taking into consideration your pet’s demeanor and lifestyle, your valuable time, and finances. A referral to a veterinary dental specialist may be necessary for certain treatment options.
Although accidents happen and some tooth fractures are unavoidable, there are steps we can take to decrease the chance of tooth trauma in our pets. No hard chews! Use the thumbnail rule. Even ice cubes or those cow hooves we see in pet stores are too hard for pet’s teeth. No tennis balls. Use rubber balls for those games of fetch. The fuzz of the tennis ball is abrasive and over time will wear your pet’s teeth. If you are unsure if a toy, treat or chew is appropriate for your pet’s teeth, ask your veterinarian for advice on the best products to maintain oral health including strong, intact teeth.