When a dog’s teeth are worn down to the gums this may be the result of loss of tooth substance which often results secondary to mechanical wear. Affected dogs should see the vet for a dental examination and x-rays so to better assess the situation. When a dog’s teeth are worn down, there are chances that the nerve in the pulp may be exposed and that the affected tooth or teeth may need to be extracted. It is also important recognizing the underlying cause of a dog’s teeth being worn down so to prevent further future damage to the dog’s teeth.
Why Dog’s Teeth Are Worn to the Gums
Healthy dog teeth are meant to withstand the normal wear and tear associated with normal chewing. Dog teeth are made of several layers.
At the very center is what’s known as the pulp, the vital area of the tooth where blood vessels and nerves are located. The pulp extends into the tooth’s root.
Around the pulp is a layer of dentin, which makes up most of the tooth. Dentin (also referred to as dentine) is meant to protect the tooth from wear and tear.
On top of the layer of dentin is even a harder layer which is known as the enamel. The enamel is what gives teeth the pearly white color that covers the whole tooth above the gums.
The term “crown” is used to define the visible portion of the tooth covered by enamel that is found above the gums. The crowns of a dog’s permanent teeth are designed in such a way so not to lose appreciable health over the lifespan of a dog that is fed a “normal” diet. Some slight wear is considered normal; especially in old dogs where the effects of wear and tear have accumulated over a lifetime. The incisors are often mostly affected.
Excessive wear may occur in certain circumstances, either due to internal forces deriving from within jaw, or external forces. Worn dog teeth can take place as a result of dental attrition or dental abrasion.
A Case of Dental Attrition
A dog’s teeth are worn to the gums sometimes when excessive forces are applied to the surface of the dog’s teeth. This excessive wear is often noticed by dog owners who report it as a shortening of a dog’s teeth or the dog’s teeth being ground down to the gum. Dental attrition, also known as occlusal wear, is one type of wear that can affect a dog’s teeth.
Dental attrition may occur as result of a malocclusion which is a misalignment between the teeth of the two dental arches when the dog’s jaws close. In such a case, the attrition is referred to as “pathological attrition.” Level or overbite malocclusions are a common cause for worn incisor teeth in dogs.
This form of wear occurs gradually and regularly over the course of years, especially when there is abnormal tooth-to-tooth contact. As the wear takes place, the pulp of the dog’s tooth tries to repair the damage by laying down dentin, which appears as a dark brown spot found in the middle of the tooth meant to cover the vulnerable pulp. At this point, though no intervention may be needed.
Intervention when a dog’s teeth are worn to the gums is often needed when the pulp becomes exposed. These cases may require a root canal and placement of a crown or an extraction.
A Case of Dental Abrasion
Unlike dental attrition, which occurs as a result of abnormal tooth-to-tooth contact, dental abrasion occurs when a dog’s teeth are worn to the gums as a result of mechanical wear. This mechanical wear often occurs as a result of the dog repeatedly chewing on items that are harder than what teeth can normally withstand.
Affected dogs often have a history of chewing on rocks, the bars of a cage, chain or wire. Dental abrasion in dogs is often referred to as “cage biter syndrome.” When a dog chews on the bars of a cage, the teeth mostly affected are the dog’s canine teeth which can become very sensitive, develop disease of the pulp, weaken and even develop fractures.
Overzealous chewing on Frisbee and tennis balls can cause in the long term damage to the dog’s canines and premolars. Some veterinarians call this “tennis ball mouth.”
As in the case of dental attrition, dental abrasion may lead to teeth surfaces becoming flat and smooth with the appearance of brown-tan dentin produced as an effort to repair the teeth. This layer of dentin usually takes place when the wear occurs gradually.
Rapid wear instead doesn’t allow any time for the teeth to produce dentin and repair themselves. With the pulp exposed, the teeth are prone to become sensitive, painful and even infected. Pulpitis (inflammation of the pulp) leads to discolored teeth in dogs and even death of the tooth.
“Often the chronic wear of these teeth is not painful to a dog but if there is an acute or chronic wear or fracture where pulp is exposed (the black in the center of the tooth) this will be painful. ” Dr. Altman, veterinarian
At the Vet’s Office
If your dog’s teeth are worm down to the gums, your vet may inquire on whether your dog has a habit of chewing on hard objects. He or she will look at your dog’s teeth, but visual inspection alone is not sufficient as your vet will want to look at what’s happening under the surface.
Transillumination, a test used to identify abnormalities by shining a bright light towards the tooth in a dark room, can help so to check if there’s any pulp vitality. A dental probe may also be used to determine whether a brown spot on a tooth is dentin or a hole that reaches into the pulp.
Dental x-rays will ultimately help determine whether there is disease affecting the pulp (endondontic disease). In this case, there are two options for treatment, root canal therapy, and possible placement of a crown, or extraction.
Root canal therapy and placement of a crown requires specialized care which can only be carried out by a specialist. A board-certified dental specialist can be found on the website: American Veterinary Dentist College.
Extractions can often be taken care of by general practice veterinarians. Extractions are done under anesthesia and the areas tends to heal quickly. Both extractions and root canals require pain relief medication and feeding a softer diet for a few days to help with recovery.
In some cases, where there is no pulp exposure, a sealant can be used to prevent bacteria from accessing the area and causing a potential tooth root abscess. However, this only provides temporary protection as the sealant may wear off with further wear, unless it’s kept on long enough so that reparative dentin is able to form.
If an underlying causes if found, it needs to be addressed. Dogs should be prevented from chewing on tennis balls, Frisbee and cages. If the dog spends a lot of time chewing on his skin or fur fur due to allergies, the allergies should be addressed.
- DVM360: Managing fractured and worn teeth (Proceedings)
- Small Animal Dental Procedures for Veterinary Technicians and Nurses , edited by Jeanne R. Perrone