Cornell Margaret and Richard Riney Canine Health Center

Longer. Healthier. Happier.

Risks from a fractured tooth

That neglected broken tooth can bite back

Broken teeth are common in dogs. While some fractured teeth don’t cause problems, others can be extremely painful. A broken tooth may cause the dog to avoid eating and may result in an infection. If you routinely brush your dog’s teeth — as you should — you may notice a chipped or broken tooth. If you see tooth damage, make a veterinary appointment. And if it needs treatment, the sooner it's addressed, the easier the process.

“Very often there is no specific history of the tooth fracture, it is something we find incidentally on oral examination,” says Dr. Nadine Fiani, associate clinical professor of dentistry and oral surgery.

A tooth fracture that exposes the pulp — the sensitive tissue that contains nerves and blood supply — will be painful. Your dog might react to hot and cold, even avoiding drinking fresh, cool water. You might notice them avoiding chew toys too and refusing treats that they have to bite, such as a hard biscuit. Some dogs will approach their food bowl but then walk away without eating to avoid the pain. A chronic broken tooth may lead to an abscess with swelling and pain.

Causes

“Fractured teeth are commonly caused by chewing very hard objects. However, we do see them secondary to trauma such as being hit by a car,” says Fiani.

Even chew toys can be a cause.

Most veterinary dentists go by the “thumbnail test” for chewing items. They suggest that you should be able to make a dent in the item with your fingernail. The Veterinary Oral Health Council lists chews for dogs that they have approved as safe for dogs. Be sure to always select the chew size that is appropriate for your dog. Larger chews are harder and may not be the right choice for a little dog.

Good options include toys from Kong and Goughnuts. While some rawhides are safe for dogs, they always require supervision. Avoid antlers, hooves and bones, which may break a tooth, or splinter and cause stomach problems. Do not let your dog chomp on ice cubes (but licking, chasing and playing with them is okay).

Treatment

Once a broken tooth is identified, your veterinarian will do dental x-rays to evaluate the full extent of the damage, from the surface down into the root. Your dog will be sedated for the x-rays, which also allows your veterinarian to do a thorough exploration of your dog’s oral cavity. A treatment plan will follow, partially dependent on the tooth involved and your dog’s lifestyle.

A chipped tooth may be left alone and monitored, especially if no dentin is exposed. This layer is underneath the outer enamel, which can be sensitive to hot and cold. But if the tooth is wiggly, simply monitoring is not an option, because it could allow a pathway for bacteria to reach the roots and spread throughout the dog’s body.

Most broken incisors are extracted. Working police and military dogs who get broken teeth may sport a flashy titanium cap if they get a fracture. You can choose a cap, if you wish, but most owners don’t. For most pets, an extraction may be the least expensive and best option — depending on your dog’s overall health.

This article has been reprinted with permission from Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine’s DOGWatch Newsletter, published by Belvoir Media Group. Subscribe online to DOGWatch Newsletter here.