Dog teeth can become worn down just like human teeth. Tooth wear is relatively common in dogs, especially among dogs that love to chew. Some tooth wear is normal and expected as dogs age. However, severe tooth wear may cause pain and dental problems. You can help prevent tooth loss by identifying tooth wear early and working with your vet to help your dog.
How Teeth Get Worn Down
There are two main ways for teeth to become worn down:
Dental attrition develops when teeth rub against each other. This is common in dogs with abnormal bites (called malocclusion) that cause the teeth to wear against each other when the mouth opens and closes. Tooth attrition most often happens to the canine teeth (the "fangs") and the incisors (the small teeth at the front of the mouth). However, tooth grinding can cause attrition in the molars and premolars.
Dental abrasion is tooth wear caused by other objects rubbing against the teeth. Dogs commonly wear down their teeth chewing on bones, toys, and other items. Excessive self-grooming may even lead to some tooth wear. Tooth abrasion can occur in any of the teeth depending on the way the dog chews.
Tooth wear generally develops over time due to friction on the teeth. Frequent chewing can make teeth wear down faster. In addition, certain objects may cause wear to happen faster. For example, tennis balls and water bottles have a tendency to wear down teeth faster if the dog chews intensely on them. This is because these materials have a filing effect on the teeth.
How To Tell if Your Dog's Teeth Are Worn Down
Worn teeth may have brown spots on them or just generally appear dark in color. They are often misshapen or flattened at the end. In some cases, the teeth may be worn down to the gum line.
You may see signs of wear while you are taking care of your dog's teeth. You may also notice that your dog is sensitive in some areas and may avoid chewing in that part of the mouth. Watch for signs like decreased appetite, abnormal chewing of food, reluctance to chew on toys or treats, excessive drooling, and pawing and the face or mouth.
Because dogs instinctively try to mask pain, you may not even realize how uncomfortable your dog feels. When in doubt, it is best to have your veterinarian look at your dog's teeth.
Complications of Worn Down Teeth
Tooth wear first damages enamel, the hard, white outer coating of the teeth. Below the enamel is the dentin, which is also hard but yellow in appearance. Below the dentin lies the pulp chamber, which contains the nerves and blood vessels of the tooth. Once tooth wear has exposed the dentin, the teeth become more sensitive to touch and temperature. If the pulp is exposed or damaged, the tooth becomes extremely painful.
When a tooth becomes damaged by wear, additional dentin is produced to harden the affected area. However, if the wear is severe or occurs faster than the new dentin can form, then the tooth may become unhealthy.
A worn tooth may become so damaged that it becomes non-vital, or "dead," meaning there is no longer blood supply to the tooth. This can lead to infections or damage to the surrounding jaw bone. If the nerves are still functional, the tooth will be extremely painful. If the nerve is dead, the tooth itself may not hurt, but the surrounding area may still be painful due to inflammation and/or infection. Either way, the problem must be treated to prevent further damage.
If you notice that your dog has worn teeth, then your veterinarian should examine your dog's mouth to advise the best treatment. Dental radiographs are necessary to truly determine the vitality of the tooth and its surroundings.
Treatment of Worn Down Teeth in Dogs
Be sure to contact your vet if you notice that your dog's teeth are wearing down or you see any abnormal appearance to the teeth or behavior changes consistent with a painful mouth.
Your vet may begin with a physical examination to assess your dog's overall condition. If able, the vet will look closely at your dog's mouth to evaluate the condition of the teeth. Your vet may recommend a professional dental cleaning and examination which is done under anesthesia. At this time, dental radiographs will be performed to look at the structure of the teeth and evaluate any areas of concern.
If the tooth wear is mild, your vet may not need to treat the teeth beyond basic cleaning and polishing.
If the damage is significant, your vet may recommend extracting the tooth. This can usually be done at the same time in order to avoid another anesthetic session. The veterinarian will surgically remove the tooth or teeth and suture the gum closed.
In some cases, the tooth may be saved even with significant wear. Advanced treatments like crowns are available for dog teeth in some cases, but they come at a cost. Ask your vet for a referral to a veterinary dental specialist if you are interested in advanced dental treatments for your dog.
How to Prevent Tooth Wear in Dogs
It's a good idea to routinely check your dog's teeth for problems. The sooner you notice signs of wear, the better chance you have of slowing it down.
You can prevent tooth wear caused by abrasion by restricting the things your dog is allowed to chew. Avoid letting your dog gnaw on tennis balls, water bottles, and any other materials that may file down the teeth. Materials that are especially hard, such as antlers, marrow bones, or ice cubes can also cause wear and fractures of the teeth. Choose vet-recommended dog chews that are safer for teeth. Keep your dog away from areas where there is access to chew on hard, fixed objects like furniture or metal structures.
It is a bit harder to prevent tooth wear caused by attrition. Your vet can identify a malocclusion during an oral exam and may be able to see signs of early attrition. If the bite is very abnormal, your vet may have recommendations to correct the bite before more damage is done.
Tooth wear caused by bruxism (grinding teeth) is not very common in dogs but it can occur. Dogs may grind their teeth due to fear, anxiety, or pain. Contact your vet for help if you think your dog is grinding his teeth.