What Lies Beneath: The Problems You Can & Can’t See


Endodontic disease is any condition that causes the pulp (the living part of the tooth that contains the blood supply and nerves) to become inflamed or die. Sometimes, even just a blow to the tooth by hitting it on a table or being in a fight with another dog can cause the tooth to become inflamed and die. In these cases, the crown of the tooth may look normal apart from a pink, purple, or gray discoloration. However, even though the tooth may look normal on the outside, we know from research that 95% of these teeth are dead and require treatment. A non-vital tooth is a perfect place for bacteria and inflammation to set up and, if not treated, often results in a tooth root abscess.

Another way for a tooth to suffer from endodontic disease is for part of the crown or root to break. If a tooth breaks, and the pulp of the tooth is exposed, then treatment is absolutely necessary. Although we rarely recognize signs of pain, this condition can be extremely painful when the tooth first breaks. Often after a tooth dies, the pain will subside to a dull throb unless a tooth root abscess forms. When this occurs, your pet may stop eating, may paw at his mouth, or can develop a swelling on his upper or lower jaw depending on which tooth is affected. By leaving a broken tooth untreated, we are leaving a painful and possibly infected lesion to fester in the mouth.

One of the most common reasons for teeth to break is from chewing on inappropriate toys and treats. These items include bones, such as dried marrow bones, knuckle bones, and raw meaty bones; Nylabones for hard chewers; hooves; tennis balls; antlers; and ice cubes. Choosing appropriate chew toys for your pet can save them from the pain of a broken tooth and spare you from the necessity of treating it. Please see our handout on Appropriate Chews and Treats for more information.

Treatment options for broken teeth include root canal therapy or extraction. If we can treat a broken tooth within 24 hours of it breaking, we may be able to save the tooth by doing a vital pulpotomy. The choice to perform a root canal means that we can save the function of the tooth. We will often recommend this procedure for the larger functional teeth in the mouth of a cat or dog, including the canine teeth, upper 4th premolar teeth and lower 1st molar teeth. For more information on endodontic therapy, please see our handouts on Endodontic Disease and Root Canal Therapy as well as Vital Pulp Therapy .

Cavities, also known as dental decay, or caries lesions, do occur in dogs and cats, though they occur at a much lower frequency than in humans. Discoloration of an affected tooth may be seen, but often these lesions are hidden in the back molars. Early diagnosis and proper treatment is important to keep a cavity from destroying a tooth. You can read more about cavities in our canine counterparts, and how they are treated, in our handout.