Working Dog Dental Woes

As many dog owners do, we perform dental evaluations on all of our working dogs on a regular basis. On a recent evaluation of our 8 year old disaster search dog Ben, we observed a few common dental abnormalities found in working dogs, but one in particular was going to require veterinary attention. 

Ben is a Labrador Retriever, with an over-the-top toy drive. He was never big on chewing up or destroying toys, but loves to possess and pacify himself with his tug, or just about anything soft and of course his most favorite game is tug-of-war. As a veterinary nurse that has spent years performing dental procedures on dogs, I was well aware of the toll that toy drive can take on a dog’s mouth. To mitigate this, we rarely allow our working dogs free access to anything soft or plush (tennis balls, tugs, plush toys) or hard (femur bones, antlers, etc), leaving them only with free access to toys that are less abrasive on the teeth (Kong or soft Nylabone type toys). Tugs were always reserved for training.

Dental wear (red circles), reparative dentin (black arrow), and crown fracture (white arrow). (image courtesy of Brook-Ellis Pet Hospital)

Over the years, we had been noticing the subtle blunting of the teeth in the front of his mouth (Premolars, Canines and Incisors), with the brown staining to the enamel. This is known as dental wear. In Ben’s case, this is likely from a combination of repetitive tugging or chewing a toy (canines and premolars), and chewing on himself as a result of allergic skin disease that has developed in the last 2 years (incisor wear). The brown staining (black arrow) is a product of the exposed dentin (the part of the tooth beneath the enamel) repairing itself. This occurs when the teeth are worn over long periods of time. As long as this happens gradually, the reparative dentin will protect the tooth from infection. When wear happens quickly, or the tooth enamel is fractured suddenly, bacteria can enter the dentinal tubules and infect the tooth. This is when veterinary intervention is recommended.

Another cause for intervention is when the wear is so severe that the pulp chamber becomes exposed. In these cases, the tooth center will appear very dark brown to black. Root canal or extraction is recommended in these cases. In Ben’s case, his dental wear has happened gradually over time, and the reparative dentin is protecting his teeth from infection.

The other, more serious abnormality in Ben’s mouth was a crown fracture of his lower third incisor (white arrow). The very dark brown to black appearance to the center of the tooth suggests that the pulp cavity is exposed. The pulp cavity leads to the root canal, which is the life support system of the tooth. Exposure of this structure allows free access for bacterial invasion. Left untreated, the tooth will eventually die (can take years) while leaving the tooth susceptible to infection and abscess. This bacteria can easily enter the bloodstream, and cause damage over time to the major organ systems including the heart. The most common causes of tooth fracture in dogs are chewing on hard objects (bones, antlers, crates, etc.) or other trauma such as being hit by a car, or falling onto a hard surface. Based on the tooth involved, we suspect that Ben’s injury occurred from trauma while navigating concrete rubble during a training exercise. In spite of the fact that most dogs (especially working dogs) don’t show outward signs of discomfort, dental fractures with pulp exposure are painful. Working dogs will still tug and bite with tooth fractures. We all know they will do anything for the reward and we’ve all heard stories of police dogs that still go in for the apprehension after being shot or stabbed, so a little broken tooth certainly isn’t going to stop them. While treatment is not usually an emergency, all dental fractures with pulp exposure should be treated with a root canal or extraction to eliminate discomfort and prevent future problems with infection.


A reward session for finding a hidden person in training. It's easy to see how he may have chipped a tooth. 


Pre-anesthetic chest x-rays are used to rule out factors that could complicate anesthesia in the senior patient. (image courtesy of Brook-Ellis Pet Hospital)

At 8 years of age, it’s hard to believe but our crazy Ben dog is considered a senior citizen (ugh!!), and and even though he appears fit as a fiddle, a senior workup was in order before anesthesia. After a complete veterinary examination, blood/urine screening, and chest X-rays Ben was cleared for anesthesia. A quick dental X-ray and evaluation under anesthesia confirmed pulp exposure with no evidence of active infection. We made the decision to extract the tooth, and after uneventful recovery, Ben is on the mend. Our only complication was breaking it to Ben that he could not tug or chew for 10 days!!!!


Ben's dental x-ray showing the fractured incisor. (image courtesy of Brook-Ellis Pet Hospital)

Ben's x-ray after tooth extraction. (image courtesy of Brook-Ellis Pet Hospital)


Ben's missing tooth after extraction. Notice the wear on the upper and lower incisors (from a combination of abrasive toys and fur chewing)


Ben's reaction when he heard no chewing or tugging for 10 days! (note the missing tooth)

For Ben’s future dental health, in addition to continually monitoring him for new fractures, we’ll have to work harder to reduce the amount of wear he puts on his teeth (we’ve been a little lax about this lately). We’ll do this by being more conscious of the amount of time he spends possessing abrasive toys, and continue to treat his allergic skin disease and discourage fur chewing (spring is coming, and we hope his new immunotherapy works this year). 

Does your working dog have a broken tooth? We’d love to hear how it happened, please leave your stories in the comments below! ~TD



A special thanks to Dr. Kopit and the staff at Brook-Ellis Pet Hospital for taking such superb care of our beast and his magnificent chompers!


For more information about broken teeth in dogs, visit the American Veterinary Dental Society