Pet Teeth 101

A Beginner’s Guide to Pet Teeth

Whether your pet smiles for you or not, we all know how important teeth are to a pet’s ability to eat, protect themselves, and express themselves.  However, it wasn’t until recently that veterinary medicine began to realize just how critical dental health was to your pet’s overall health!  Teeth may seem like strong and solid bone, but just as anyone who has ever had a toothache might know, teeth are not indestructible.  The toughest part is, our pets are much stronger and more stoic than us.  They don’t whine or moan over a tooth-ache, and will often eat their dry food despite it! Our pets don’t know there is a solution to their tooth pain, so they don’t ask for help.  For this reason, it’s our job to not only monitor their teeth for signs of disease but also prevent that disease as much as possible! In this post, we will focus on what a healthy mouth looks like. This post is also targeted at dogs and cats, however, it’s important to note that there are critical dental care needs for exotic pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs, and rodents as well.

Types of Teeth

An adult dog has 42 teeth in its mouth while an adult cat has only 30 teeth. Each tooth serves a different function in your pet’s mouth, therefore, it is important to protect each one.  Below is a breakdown of the different kinds of teeth:

  • Incisors: These are the small teeth right at the front of your pet’s mouth. These teeth are most often used for grooming, nibbling, or picking up toys.
  • Canines: These are the four large pointed teeth at the front of your pet’s mouth.  There is one on either side of the incisors on the top and bottom row of teeth.  These are primarily used for hunting, biting onto, and holding toys.
  • Premolars: These are the sharp-edged teeth just behind the canines on either side of the mouth on both the upper and lower jaw. They are used primarily for cutting and shredding pieces of food.
  • Molars: These are the teeth furthest in the back of the mouth that have wider rounded edges.  Molars are used to crush and grind food such as hard kibble.

Anatomy of a Tooth

To understand what a healthy pet mouth should look like, you first have to understand the different parts of a tooth and how it is connected to the rest of the body.  Each individual healthy tooth has three major components: The hard protective shell called enamel, the bulk of the tooth called dentin, and the pulp which is where the blood vessels and nerves are located.  Damage to a tooth that reaches the pulp, either through the enamel and dentin or from the base of the tooth where the pulp is exposed, is not only painful but risks the survival of the tooth as a whole. 

A tooth can also be categorized into the crown, the part above the gum line, and the roots, the part below the gumline.  Below the gum line, the roots are attached to the jaw through a firmly adhered connective tissue called cementum.  In a healthy tooth: 

  • The gumline sits along the border of the crown and roots
  • The tooth is solidly attached to the jaw by the cementum
  • The enamel is fully intact to protect the more sensitive internal portions of the tooth.  

In a diseased mouth, these protective barriers are slowly eroded away, exposing the tooth to pain, infection, and inflammation.

Signs of Dental Disease

Without proper dental care, food particles begin to build-up on the teeth around the gumline.  These food particles develop into plaque, a softer coating on the teeth.  If the plaque is not removed with regular brushing, it solidifies into calculus or tartar. Calculus/Tartar cannot be removed with simple brushing or dental chews and creates safe spaces for bacteria to accumulate.  As the bacteria flourishes, protected by the calculus/tartar, it begins to inflame the gums causing gingivitis.  This chronic inflammation eats away at the jawbone over time causing the tooth to become loose and creating more pockets for bacteria to grow.  At this point, the tooth is acting as a plug for a pocket of infection that can develop into an abscess of the jaw or can seep into the body leading to an infection that spreads to the heart or kidneys!  In this way, disease of the mouth is not just a local mouth problem, it can lead to emergency dental procedures to clear abscesses or even cause heart or kidney disease.  Dogs and cats rarely get cavities like people do! 

In our next blog post we’ll follow up with tips on how to prevent dental disease! Don’t forget to book your appointment with Heart + Paw during the month of February for exclusive discounts on dental treatments!

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Heart + Paw was founded in 2018 by Chief Veterinary Officer Dr. George Melillo, who currently serves the Mid-Atlantic area. Heart + Paw offers a combination of veterinary care, pet grooming, and dog daycare to help be a resource in your pet parenthood journey.

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