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You’re likely aware that your dog’s oral health is an important part of their overall wellbeing. Problems in your dog’s mouth can be painful and may lead to difficulty eating, along with other issues like bad breath, bleeding from the mouth, or tooth loss. But are cavities the culprit when a dog has rotten teeth? In humans, cavities are a common issue, so you might assume it’s the same for dogs. Read on to learn about dog tooth decay, how to spot it, how to treat it, and when other problems are really to blame.

Do Dogs Get Rotten Teeth?

Dog tooth decay is a result of cavities, also known as caries. But although it’s possible for a dog to get a cavity, other oral health conditions are far more common in dogs. Dr. Maria M. Soltero-Rivera, board-certified veterinary dentist and Assistant Professor of Dentistry and Oral Surgery at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, says caries lesions occur in only 5% or less of dogs. Compare that with the fact that up to 90% of dogs over the age of 2 have some degree of periodontal disease, which is inflammation and infection in the tissues that surround your dog’s teeth.

So, why are cavities so rare in dogs when humans are plagued by them? It’s partly to do with the shape of a dog’s teeth. Except for the molars at the back of the mouth, dog teeth are shaped like pointy cones, which keeps them separate from each other and prevents food from sticking. Also, the pH level of a dog’s saliva is slightly basic which can help reduce acidity in the mouth.

What Causes Rotten Dog Teeth?

Cavities are formed by the same process in dogs as in humans. Dr. Soltero-Rivera calls it a microbial disease of the calcified tissues of the tooth. With the right ingredients, cavities can form. “Bacteria, providing the ideal environment for their growth, and feeding them the ideal substrate (sugars) leads to caries,” she says.

It starts with bacteria that are naturally present in the mouth building up on the teeth in the form of plaque. Then, when carbohydrates like sugar stick to the tooth’s surface, the bacteria in the plaque ferment them. This process leads to the production of acids, which strip minerals from the enamel on the surface of the tooth and, eventually, the dentin underneath. Once those minerals are gone, oral bacteria and white blood cells will digest the tooth.

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What Are the Signs of Dog Tooth Decay?

Cavities look pretty much the same in dogs as in humans. According to Dr. Soltero-Rivera, “Typically, caries are incidentally found and noticed as dark spots on the flat surfaces of teeth. When probed, they are sticky like fudge. These can lead to loss of the integrity of the crowns of teeth as well as endodontic disease, which is infection and devitalization of the inside of the tooth.”

What Other Dental Conditions Can Be Mistaken for Dog Tooth Decay?

Many other issues that can affect your dog’s oral health, and some of them are far more obvious than a dark spot on a tooth. For example, when your dog’s teeth become loose or fall out, that isn’t due to tooth decay. It’s usually due to advanced periodontal disease, which leads to total loss of attachment of the tooth from its socket. However, a fractured tooth, such as from chewing a bone or some other hard substance, can also lead to the loss of part of the tooth.

Tartar is another obvious sign of poor oral health. That’s the yellow or brown build-up on the surface of the teeth. Tartar itself doesn’t cause cavities, although it provides a friendly surface for plaque to cling to. Red or bleeding gums are not a sign of tooth decay but instead point to gingivitis, the first stage of periodontal disease.

Finally, you might see signs of oral discomfort in a dog with cavities, such as lack of appetite, disinterest in chewing toys, or drooling, but as cavities are so uncommon, another dental issue is likely to blame. Whatever the cause, your dog needs a veterinary checkup to determine the source of the problem and possible course of treatment.

What is the Treatment for Rotten Dog Teeth?

Treatment for dog tooth decay depends on how advanced the cavity is. Your vet may have to probe the cavity to determine its depth, which could require putting your dog under anesthesia. There are five stages of tooth decay:

  1. Only the enamel is affected.
  2. The cavity has penetrated the dentin.
  3. The cavity has penetrated the pulp chamber inside the tooth.
  4. There is damage to the structural crown of the tooth.
  5. Most of the crown has been lost, and the tooth’s roots are exposed.
Mixed breed getting its teeth checked at the vet.
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In stages one and two, a veterinarian can remove the damaged dentin and enamel, and repair the hole with a filling. Stage three cavities might require a root canal. And finally, by stage four and five, the tooth will likely need to be removed.

How Can You Prevent Rotten Dog Teeth?

Dr. Soltero-Rivera says the best way to prevent tooth decay in dogs is to make sure they don’t have access to sugary foods and treats. And of course, brush your dog’s teeth daily to keep plaque at bay and help prevent cavities. Look for a dog-friendly toothpaste and use a toothbrush or finger brush that is an appropriate size for your dog’s mouth. Then, make the process positive by starting with gentle touches and pairing each touch with a treat before building up to full-on brushing. There are also plenty of products recommended by the Veterinary Oral Health Council, such as chew treats or dental diets, that can help contribute to keeping your dog’s teeth clean and healthy.

It’s also important to see your vet at least once a year for checkups, so they can determine if your dog needs a professional dental cleaning. Dr. Soltero-Rivera explains that these types of cleanings get to the areas that tooth brushing might miss. Having your groomer scale the teeth or scaling at home is simply not sufficient. Your dog needs to be under anesthesia for a dental cleaning, so your vet’s instruments can clean under the gums, and they can probe the teeth below the gum line and take x-rays. Only then will you have a true picture of your dog’s oral health, so they can receive the proper treatment. There are also board-certified veterinary dentists around the country if you need to go to a specialist.

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This article is intended solely as general guidance, and does not constitute health or other professional advice. Individual situations and applicable laws vary by jurisdiction, and you are encouraged to obtain appropriate advice from qualified professionals in the applicable jurisdictions. We make no representations or warranties concerning any course of action taken by any person following or otherwise using the information offered or provided in this article, including any such information associated with and provided in connection with third-party products, and we will not be liable for any direct, indirect, consequential, special, exemplary or other damages that may result, including but not limited to economic loss, injury, illness or death.
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