Pet Columns, Office of Public Engagement, College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Can Your Pet's Broken Tooth Be Saved?

Pet Column for the week of September 10, 2001

Related information:

Services - Dentistry

Office of Public Engagement
2001 S. Lincoln Ave.
Urbana, Illinois 61802
Phone: 217/333-2907
Jennifer Stone
Information Specialist

Anyone who has ever broken a tooth knows that it can be very painful. Animals may be even more susceptible to fractures than people are and a fracture not only can be painful but can lead to infection as well.

Dr. Robert Ulbricht, is a resident in veterinary dentistry at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, which has one of only a few veterinary dental residency programs in the United States.

Dr. Ulbricht says, "Animals tend to get two different types of tooth fractures: fractures in which the pulp (nerves and vessels inside the tooth) are exposed and fractures in which the pulp is not exposed." Fractures involving the pulp can occur as a result of trauma, such as being hit by a car or a ball or by biting something hard. This type of fracture often bleeds, and since the nerve of the tooth is exposed, it can be accompanied by extreme pain and sensitivity to temperature change.

Some fractures occur over time and are caused by daily wear and tear. Chronic dental wear can also cause damage at the root of the tooth and can often lead to infection and swelling of the face.

Fractures that are painful can lead to behavioral changes, such as dropping food when eating or suddenly preferring wet food to dry. Animals that routinely chew on cages or hard plastic bones are especially likely to develop this type of fracture. Sometimes a fracture is not discovered until the animal has an oral examination, which is why it is so important that your pet have a physical every year.

Tooth fractures can be treated several ways, depending upon the injury: extraction, root canal, or, if discovered early enough, restoration. For some working dogs, such as police dogs, teeth are essential for doing their work, and so methods for treating tooth fractures are important.

If the tooth is fractured and the pulp tissue is not exposed, the tooth can be restored with a hard white substance that fills in the cracks and seals the tooth. For a fracture deep enough to involve the pulp of the tooth, a root canal can be performed. A root canal consists of removing the nerve and the pulp of the tooth and replacing it with an inert substance that fills and seals the space, preventing further infection. The tooth stays in place in the mouth because the peridontal ligament that attaches the tooth to the jaw is still alive and intact.

Dr. Ulbricht says, "Performing a root canal preserves not only the functionality of the tooth, but the aesthetic qualities of the pet's smile as well." After some root canals, a crown can be placed on the tooth to increase the strength of the tooth.

If you think that your pet may have a fractured tooth, have your veterinarian perform an oral exam. If you have any further questions regarding tooth fractures or dental health, consult your local veterinarian.