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If your dog’s bite really is worse than his bark, he might be a candidate for a Rin Tin Grin. Never heard of braces for animals? You might be surprised to know there are cases where orthodontia is just what the doctor orders. And what about root canals, crowns and periodontal surgery? Yes, they’re an important part of veterinary medicine now, too.
Veterinary dentistry has traveled the well-worn path of many other specialty areas in animal medicine, making advances in human medicine available to our four-legged family members as well. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that the only “cure” for a human’s painful tooth was an extraction, and the same was more recently true for animals as well. Having healthy teeth and gums improves quality of life for pets by eliminating the suffering that comes with dental disease. From preventive home care to the expert work of skilled specialists, veterinary dentistry is no longer a novelty.
The perfect smile isn’t the goal when it comes to veterinary medicine. Veterinary dentists fix problems so pets can live healthier lives without pain. That can start with fixing misaligned teeth so a pet can live without pain and chew normally.
I once had a dog come see me with a lower tooth that was digging into his palate instead of lining up with his upper jaw as it was supposed to. The poor guy would sleep with a stuffed toy in his mouth because it was painful for him to close it. That dog was a perfect candidate for braces.
Braces for dogs look a lot like human braces but require anesthesia to install, adjust and remove. They’re to be kept on for only a few months vs. a couple of years for people. And pets don’t need retainers!
Periodontal disease is already evident in many young adult dogs and cats, and some estimates are that by middle age, more than half of all pets are affected, in some cases so badly that it looks as if a blowtorch were passed across a pet's gum line. Ouch!
Regular preventive care, such as brushing with a pet-friendly toothpaste (remember, pets don’t rinse and spit — they swallow their toothpaste) can help prevent and delay tartar buildup and gum disease, as can regular cleanings and scalings under anesthesia by a skilled veterinary team.
But just as some people will end up at the periodontist despite a perfect past of brushing and flossing, some pets will need periodontal surgery, too, despite the best efforts of their owners.
Chew toys that are too hard can break teeth, exposing the nerve endings in the innermost layer of a tooth, the pulp. (Veterinary dentists say never give your dog a chew toy so hard you wouldn’t want it to hit you in the knee.) When injuries take place, root canals and crowns are more likely to be needed.
A broken tooth can be put back into service with the removal of the damaged and possibly infected pulp, and a crown put over the top. While the procedure can help any pet, for a dog who really needs the gripping potential of those teeth, such as a working police dog, a root canal and crown can get a K-9 officer back into action fast. Long arm of the law? Well, for dogs, teeth can function as fingers and hands do for us. You can't be a canine copper without all your choppers!
When I see healthy teeth and gums on a pet, I am the one who smiles wide enough to eat a banana sideways. Though few of the pets I treat will end up with braces or root canals, I know that healthier teeth and gums are possible for every pet, and all an owner has to do is ask me how. Your veterinarian is just as happy to show you, I know.
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