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

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

U of I logoCollege of Veterinary Medicine

Back to search page.

Meet the Veterinary Specialists: The Dentist

Pet Column for the week of December 6, 2004

Related information:

Services - Dentistry
Services - Veterinary Profession

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

Editor's Note: As people have become more health-conscious, and bonds between humans and their pets have deepened, the demand for veterinary specialties such as dermatology, behavior, pathology, and surgery has risen. The following is part of a series exploring these specialties and the University of Illinois veterinarians who practice and teach them.

When you take your pet in for its annual wellness examination, one of the first things the veterinarian does is a dental check, since dental health can indicate and impact overall health.

According to Dr. Sandra Manfra, chief of small animal surgery and dental specialist at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, many general practice veterinarians can perform routine dental work, such as cleaning to remove tartar buildup and extraction of infected teeth.

However, when a pet has something unusual or more serious in the mouth, such as deep gum disease (peridontitis), tooth or jaw malformations, jaw fractures, or oral tumors, your veterinarian may refer you to a dental specialist who has advanced training and equipment.

Veterinary dental specialists are trained to recognize and treat dental problems that are uncommon or difficult to diagnose. Since they work specifically with dentistry, specialists also have advanced specialized equipment, such as dental X-ray machines and high-speed dental units. Dr. Manfra says that the most common dental referrals at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital involve gum disease, jaw fractures, broken teeth, malocclusions, and oral tumors.

When gums are badly infected, deep cleaning below the gum line is required, and dental specialists have experience opening and cleaning the deep pockets of the gums. For complicated tooth extractions, your veterinarian may refer you to a dental specialist, since specialized equipment may help in the removal of large, multi-rooted teeth. Dental specialists may also be called upon to repair jaw fractures, a common result of car accidents and other traumatic injuries.

Teeth that grow improperly can affect an animal's health and ability to eat, so veterinary dentists may also perform orthodontic work. Just like dentists who work with human teeth, veterinary dentists perform root canals and crowns, especially for animals that need their teeth to perform, such as police dogs and hunting retrievers.

Veterinary dentists have the equipment and training to diagnose unusual lesions in the mouth that may result from systemic health problems or oral cancer. They work with specialists, including oncologists, internists, and anesthesiologists, who can help with diagnosis and treatment since dental disease can be directly linked to other diseases, such as lung, heart, and kidney disease, and since patients who are geriatric, diabetic, or immunocompromised need special monitoring during dental treatment.

Currently, there are over 80 board-certified members of the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) around the world. Dr. Manfra was one of the founders of AVDC. She was trained in dentistry by Mark Tholen, an Army dentist who started out working on human teeth and was later assigned to work with Army dogs who needed dental work.

Board certification in dentistry, as in many other specialties, requires graduation from an accredited veterinary college, a year of internship or other veterinary practice experience, a 2- to 3-year residency under the supervision of a dental specialist, a credentials review, and a board examination. The University of Illinois is one of the six veterinary colleges in North America with a dental residency program, and Dr. Manfra has trained 11 dental residents.

"Veterinary dentistry is definitely a growing field," says Dr. Manfra, pointing to the direct connection between dental health and overall pet health.

For more information about the veterinary specialty, or to locate dental specialists near you, visit the Web site of the American Veterinary Dental College at