February is National Pet Dental Health Month. If you haven’t looked in your cat’s or dog’s mouth recently, now is a good time to take a peek.

Pets suffer from many of the same dental problems as their human counterparts. Gingivitis, periodontal disease, bad breath, broken teeth and tooth abscesses are common. We take care of our own teeth with daily brushing and flossing, and regular dental checkups. We do this because we know that dental disease is painful and has long-term ramifications if left unattended.

Unfortunately, dental disease in pets is often overlooked. Animals are masters at disguising oral pain. They will usually continue to eat and will not lose weight. As guardian of your pets, be proactive with Fido’s and Fluffy’s dental care, because every pet deserves a pain-free mouth.

Tooth fractures are common in pets. In a recent study, tooth fractures were found in approximately 50% of cats and dogs. Animals use their mouths and teeth as we do our hands, to grasp and tug items. They interact with other animals by using their mouths to play or fight. Chewing bones, rocks or hard chew toys is another pastime that causes wear and tear on teeth.

Fractured teeth hurt, and they lead to infections inside the body. Teeth are alive and have their own blood and nerve supply in the tooth pulp. The pulp is protected deep inside the tooth, which is covered by enamel. Enamel is an impervious outer coating found on teeth. When a tooth breaks, this protective enamel is compromised, triggering a cascade of painful events.

A major fracture exposes the pulp and is painful. In addition, the exposed pulp is a wound that does not heal. Bacteria enter the pulp cavity and travel into the root. The pulp throbs with inflammation. As bacteria settle in the root tip, they may enter into surrounding jaw bone, causing a tooth abscess. Severe dental abscesses cause facial swelling. People who have experienced tooth abscesses describe the pain as intense.

Infections in the mouth can also spread throughout the body, affecting the heart, liver, kidneys and other organs.

Since animals cannot talk, they suffer in silence. Sometimes, they drool or chew their food on the other side. If Fido or Fluffy has multiple painful teeth, there may not be a “good side” to chew on. Owners often do not notice these subtle signs. As humans, we sometimes mistakenly think that if the pet is eating, he must be OK. This is not the case. The instinct to eat is very strong, and animals will eat despite horrendous pain.

Minor fractures should not be taken lightly, either. Even without direct pulp exposure, the tooth becomes sensitive and uncomfortable. Tooth sensitivity in pets occurs even with saliva exposure.

Minor breaks can also lead to aches and abscesses. Bacteria slowly penetrate the porous tooth material and infect the pulp.

Fractured teeth in pets should be addressed, as would any other wound, infection or painful problem. Although there are several treatment options, extraction is common. When done properly, extraction resolves both infection and pain. These pets usually feel better immediately.

Every fractured tooth requires a dental radiograph to be fully assessed. Sometimes, the trauma that caused the tooth to break also caused the roots to break. This is important information before surgical extraction is attempted. Make sure your veterinarian uses dental radiography and has extensive experience in surgical tooth extractions. The root tips should be successfully removed and confirmed with post-extraction radiographs.

Annual physical exams for pets should include an oral evaluation. Broken teeth are usually incidental findings during a routine exam. This awake evaluation of the mouth does not replace a thorough dental evaluation under anesthesia, but it allows the veterinarian to look for obvious problems. If your veterinarian does not have extensive dental experience, seek an oral evaluation from one that does.

The best treatment for fractured teeth, though, is to prevent them whenever possible. Outdoor cats are prone to tip fractures of their upper fang teeth. These must be addressed, as the pulp cavity in feline fang teeth go almost to the very tip. Keeping cats indoors will minimize their risk of fang tooth fractures.

Dogs commonly break the last premolar tooth on the upper jaw. This big, three-rooted tooth is used for chewing hard items. Problem chew toys that often lead to fractures include bones, antlers, hooves or other hard “dental chew toys.” Some dogs also have a bad habit of chewing rocks. For obvious reasons, this activity should be discouraged.

Incisor teeth in dogs are also commonly fractured. The incisors are the little teeth in the front. Dogs use these teeth to grasp, tug and drag items. This wear and tear makes them prone to fractures.

This year, promise your furry valentine a dental checkup and comfortable mouth. 

Dr. Heidi Bassler practices at Bassler Veterinary Hospital at Crossroads Plaza in Salisbury. Do you have questions for her? Send them to heidibasslerdvm@comcast.net.

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