We all know to brush our teeth every day to avoid cavities, but can dogs get cavities too?
We are the first generation of pet parents that understand the importance of oral health for our dogs. Not all of us have the time to brush our dog’s teeth every day, but a good dash of dental water additives in the water bowl does the trick to stop plaque from growing. By doing this we can avoid the dreaded periodontal disease that affects 80% of dogs and may leave us searching for doggy dentures.
But while periodontal disease starts under the gumline, a tooth cavity starts on the tooth itself. So let’s look at how to diagnose and treat cavities (also called caries) in dogs.
Can dogs get cavities?
Dogs do get cavities. In fact, caries in dog teeth is on the rise. This is because we take better care of our dogs, so we have a bigger population of aging dogs that have more tooth problems. It is also because as we move to the cities, smaller dogs with crowded mouths or short-nosed (brachycephalic) dogs are more popular.
Dogs with smooshed faces such as pugs, and dogs with crowded mouths tend to get more cavities. These include the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Maltese, Yorkshire Terrier, Shih Tzu, Pug, and Lhasa Apso. Some collies. Strangely, the German Shepherd is one of the dogs most likely to get a cavity.
Another common reason dogs get cavities is that simply wear their teeth down by chewing on bones or other hard items. They can wear their teeth down until it exposes the pulp of the tooth, as you can see in this video:
As this video shows, in these cases, you will clearly be able to the pulp that leads to the nerve of the tooth. This is where the bacteria enters and infects the tooth, travels to the bone underneath, or gets into the bloodstream.
A gray or black spot on the top of the tooth means that the pulp is dead and the dog needs to have the tooth extracted. You can see this article if notice black spots on your dog’s tongue too.
Can puppies get cavities?
It’s extremely rare that puppies will get cavities. As puppies only get their full set of adult teeth at 6 months, and most puppies are adults by 18 months, that leaves only a year for them to develop a cavity.
Puppies do sometimes have tooth problems, such as the delayed eruption of an adult tooth or retained baby teeth. What is more likely to happen is that a puppy may get fractured teeth playing or biting chew toys. There are several kinds of canine fractures, and just like cavities, they can lead to complications like abscesses.
How common are dog cavities?
Fortunately, dog cavities are not common. Only about 5% of dogs have dental cavities but around 80% will develop dental disease under the gumline.
Cavities are simply not as common as it they are in humans for three main reasons:
- Dogs have more cone-shaped teeth that don’t give plaque and nasty bacteria a place to get lodged.
- Most dogs have spaces between their teeth, so food can’t lodge between teeth and cause them to rot.
- Dogs do not (or should not) eat diets high in processed sugars that destroy teeth.
However, if a small dog with an overcrowded mouth like a Dachshund or Pug is fed plenty of high-carb treats, you can expect a cavity or two. A dog that has a malformed jaw structure with teeth that are pushed closely together is more likely to get caries.
Another common place for cavities to occur is on the back molars, especially where the teeth fold together at the top. Basically, tooth-rotting bacteria to get lodged in those hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.
Other reasons a dog may get cavities:
- Weak tooth enamel (due to genetics, nutrition, or other health problems)
- diets high in carbohydrates
- Saliva with a low PH
- Misaligned teeth
- Underlying health problems like diabetes and obesity
- gingivitis that causes the gums to peel back and expose the tooth below the protective enamel
What happens if my dog has dental cavities?
It’s vital to understand exactly how much oral hygiene affects our dog’s overall health. It’s not just that cavities can be extremely painful for our dogs and cause abscesses and other complications. But bad bacteria in the mouth spreads everywhere.
Dr. Colin Harvey, BVSc warns that the mouth is the starting part for multiple systems in the body. Infections in the mouth can, therefore, damage organs throughout the body.
Dr. Antonson from the Norwegian University of Life Sciences explains how bacteria in cavities and in gum disease or periodontal disease create complications.
- Some of the harmful bacteria in dental disease and tooth cavities hide in plaque and are what we call gram-negative bacteria. This bacteria is very resistant to treatment and very dangerous if there is a lot of it.
- A lot of these bacteria strains contain endotoxins called liposaccharides or LPS. If something damages the cell wall of these bad bacteria, LPS gets in the gum fluid and then into the bloodstream. This causes low-level inflammation to spread throughout the body and weakens the immune system. It also contributes to chronic diseases such as diabetes and makes them worse.
- LPS specifically stimulates cells to release cytokines. Cytokines are what stimulate the inflammation response in the body. They are also involved with how cells communicate with each other, and with hormones. This is one reason LPS spreads inflammation throughout the body.
- Aside from the inflammatory toxins that bad bacteria release, the actual bacteria themselves seem to spread from the gums directly to organs like the heart. In fact, in a disease called bacterial endocarditis, the bad bacteria in the mouth colonize damaged chambers in the heart.
- Other organs and systems directly affected by cavities and dental disease include a dog’s kidneys, liver, and respiratory system.
So from this, we cannot express enough how important is to take care of our dog’s teeth if we want them to have a long and happy life.
How do I know if my dog has a cavity?
The bacteria that produce acidic by-products that rot away tooth enamel, struggle to get stuck on the nice white shiny part of the teeth. Instead, it grows those hard-to-spot areas, like between the back molars. This makes it often hard to know if your dog has a cavity.
But signs of a tooth cavity to look for include:
- Your dog struggles to eat
- They paw at their mouths
- They have discolored tooth
- They seem to only chew with one side of their mouth
- They have bad breath
- Obvious signs of pain around the mouth area, swelling, or bleeding.
But if you suspect your dog has a cavity, how do you know what it looks like?
What do dog cavities look like?
Dog tooth cavities can be easy to miss, especially in the early stages when they may just be a simple brown, gray, or black spot on the tooth. There are roughly five stages of cavity tooth decay in dogs. You can use the following dog tooth decay stages pictures for a reference point.
From these images, you can see the rough progression of cavities
Stage 1 dog cavity: plaque build-up with bacteria, or some kind of damage is beginning to wear away the protective enamel of the tooth. They may be hard to spot but look for any brown or gray spots on your dog’s teeth.
Stage 3 dog cavity: the cavity reaches the pulp of the tooth that contains the nerves and blood vessels. Now the cavity will begin to seriously hurt your dog.
Stage 4 dog cavity: As the cavity grows, you will see a much bigger, clearly visible decaying hole in the tooth’s crown.
Stage 5 dog cavity: At this point, the root is exposed and there is not much left of the tooth.
How to fix dog tooth cavities
If you’re wondering how to treat a dog cavity at home, the answer is: don’t. Cavities are extremely painful to dogs, and as soon as that bacteria reaches the pulp, the blood vessels spread it throughout their body. This causes all kinds of health issues.
Unfortunately, the only thing to if your dog has a cavity is to see your veterinarian. Your vet will need to put your dog under general anesthesia and probably assess the damage with an x-ray.
If the cavity has just started, the vet may just wash it out and put a bonding agent over it.
When it has reached deeper into the dentin, the vet may clean this out and fill it with an amalgam. In cases like military or police dogs, they may get titanium caps. If the cavity reached the root as in stage 3, your dog may need a root canal.
When you have a stage 4 or stage 5 cavity, the vet will most likely need to remove the tooth altogether.
Dog Cavity Treatment Cost
Pet insurance rarely covers dental care, so cavities can be expensive. Here is a rough overview of what you may have to pay:
Cost of dental cleaning: $300 to $700
Cost of dog tooth extraction: $500 to $900
Cost to crown a dog’s tooth: $1,500 to $3,000
Cost of root canal: up to $6000
How to prevent dog cavities
Ultimately, the best way to prevent dental caries is through good daily dental care. Teeth brushing and using a doggy mouth rinse in your dog’s water prevent the build-up of tartar and plaque. Take your dog for professional dental cleaning about once a year.
Dog cavities are not the most common dental issue in our canine companions. However, with the rising population of small dogs with crowded mouths, they are happening more often.
The best protection against your dog getting dental problems is always taking good care of their teeth by brushing regularly and adding doggy mouth rinses to their water. Dental work on our dogs is costly, and generally, pet insurance does not cover it. So, it’s vital to do what we can to prevent cavities at home.
Tamsin De La HarpeAuthor
Tamsin de la Harpe has nearly two decades of experience with dogs in rescue, training, and behavior modification with fearful and aggressive dogs. She has worked closely with veterinarians and various kennels, building up extensive medical knowledge and an understanding of canine health and physiology. She also spent two years in the animal sciences as a canine nutrition researcher, focusing on longevity and holistic healthcare for our four-legged companions.
Tamsin currently keeps a busy homestead with an assortment of rescue dogs and three Bullmastiffs.