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Puppy's Teeth

The teeth in young puppies are often an area of confusion for both new owners and experienced breeders alike. Few dog owners even know how many teeth their puppy should have let alone what they should do to look after them correctly.

The dog has evolved as a carnivore over a long period of time and those advocates of the “natural diet” will tell you that feeding correctly (their way of course) will prevent any problems. What they forget to say is that, since man has interfered with the head shape of the dog, to produce our various breeds, this often can’t apply. One has difficulty imagining a Pekinese attacking, killing and devouring a wild beast. The natural diet of the dog involves the process of killing as well as eating the meat and tissues. All of these factors are involved in keeping the teeth healthy in the wild dog.

One other factor often not considered is the fact that, since the advent of the modern balanced commercial diet, the average dog lives much longer. In the wild, dogs live around 7 years. In my practice, I frequently treat dogs in their twenties now. We have to plan a program for the dog’s health (teeth included) that will ensure that they remain as healthy as possible for this longer life span. Studies of wild dogs and cats have shown that they have the full range of dental diseases of their domestic counterparts but usually a higher incidence of trauma related disease (e.g. broken teeth with abscess formation).

Puppies are usually born without any teeth. The temporary (or deciduous = “fall out”) teeth begin to erupt around 3 weeks of age. By 8 weeks of age most breeds of dogs will have their full complement of deciduous teeth – 28 in all. These are comprised of 6 incisors (the small front teeth), 2 canines (the “fangs”) and 6 premolars (3 on each side) on both the top and bottom jaws. These deciduous teeth are quite brittle (hence they can break easily) and they have very long roots compared with the size of the tooth.

The adult or permanent teeth begin to erupt (with the loss of the associated deciduous tooth) at about 3 months of age starting with the central incisors. All of the permanent teeth should have erupted by 6 months of age and no deciduous teeth should be left. Some of the toy breeds can be a little slower than other breeds as far as eruption goes.

What can go wrong in this process?

Usually nothing goes wrong and the astute owner will notice the apparently rootless deciduous tooth (baby tooth) just “hanging” from the gum with maybe a little bleeding and then it falls out. The reason that these teeth have “no” roots is that the permanent tooth grows up from where the tip of the root is. As it erupts up through the jawbone, the root of the deciduous tooth is eaten away. If the permanent tooth bud is not in exactly the right position, it will erupt next to the deciduous tooth which, in turn, will not fall out. It can’t fall out, as the root is still present.

These retained deciduous teeth are relatively common especially in the small breeds of dogs (usually the canine teeth). The roots of these retained teeth cause the permanent teeth to be in the wrong position. For this reason it is very important if you see what you think may be retained deciduous teeth, to get the puppy checked by your vet as soon as possible. Early extraction (of the tooth AND the entire root) will often allow the erupting permanent to move to the correct position. Some breeders will recommend “pulling” these retained teeth with pliers. DO NOT DO THIS. It will result in breaking the tooth and leaving the roots behind (and therefore not solving the problem as the root is what is causing the permanent to be in the wrong position).

Other Problems

A common problem seen with deciduous teeth is teeth that are broken. These teeth are much more fragile than adult teeth and can quite easily be broken especially in “aggressive” puppies such as Bull Terriers etc. These teeth should be extracted as soon as noticed (especially before they abscess). A broken tooth (whether it is a deciduous or permanent) will always form an abscess at the root tip. You can’t see this as it is in the bone of the jaw but bacteria travel down through the pulp (root canal) of the broken tooth and infect the base. This does cause pain but as the dog is a “pack animal” it will avoid showing oral pain (which would be a sign of weakness) and many owners interpret this as not causing any problems.

If the abscessed deciduous teeth are not extracted, the abscess at the root tip may infect or damage the forming permanent tooth bud.

Occasionally, puppies will apparently be missing teeth. If they are truly absent, it is only of any concern in show dogs. The teeth may actually be present but not erupted due to impaction or some other event. This is of concern as these teeth often become involved in tumours (growths) or cysts of the jaws, which will require involved surgery to correct. It is recommended that puppies with missing teeth be x-rayed to see if the teeth are present or not. Early surgical intervention can then be undertaken if necessary.

In my veterinary dental practice, I am seeing an increasing number of puppies and young dogs with malocclusions (bad bites). This is especially true in certain breeds. The problems include overshot bite, undershot bite and also base narrow lower canines. Overshot bite is where the top jaw is too long. Undershot is the reverse of this (the bottom jaw is too long). Base narrow is a condition where the lower canine teeth (or the lower jaw itself is too narrow) are more vertical than normal and closer together which causes them to grow up into the roof of the mouth.

The normal bite in dogs has THREE separate components and each should be assessed individually. These components may be affected to different degrees in abnormal bites.

  1. Scissor bite of the incisors
    This is where the upper incisor teeth are just in front of the lower incisor teeth with the lowers just making contact with the back edge of the uppers.
  2. Position of the lower canine
    The lower canine tooth should be between the upper third incisor and the upper canine BUT not touching either.
  3. Premolar interdigitation
    This is the most important from an hereditary viewpoint. It is related to the genetics of jaw growth. The premolar teeth should interdigitate ("pinking shears") with the lowers first i.e. the lower first premolar then the upper first premolar then the lower second premolar etc. The tips of the crowns of these teeth should be in the "valleys" between the teeth in the opposite arcade.

All 3 of the above points must be correct for the bite to be considered normal.

(Points 1 and 2 can be abnormal whilst 3 is correct due to eruption problems but it is rare for 3 to be incorrect without 1 and 2 also being wrong.)

Many other conditions can occur but usually do so less frequently. It is important to ensure that you get the teeth checked whenever the dog is at the vets. Puppy vaccination times are an ideal age for this to be done.

How do I look after my Puppy's Teeth?

As I have said earlier, the majority of puppies don’t have any problems with eruption of their teeth or with the development of the permanent teeth. To ensure that these teeth remain healthy throughout the dog’s life there are certain procedures and precautions that can be followed.

Puppies love to chew and this should be encouraged but with commonsense. Remember that these teeth are more fragile than the permanent ones. Games, toys and chewing behaviours need to encourage the development of healthy gums and teeth and not cause any damage in the process. Brushing of the teeth (using dog toothpaste) should be started at an early age so that the pup learns that it is a pleasant process. Whatever you put in your dog’s mouth will be swallowed so don’t use human toothpaste (very high fluoride and designed to be spat out) or things such as bicarb, salt or peroxide. These can all harm your dog if swallowed. The teeth should be brushed once daily and in a simple back and forward motion.

I am always asked about bones for puppies. Remember the rules – don’t give anything that can damage the teeth or the dog. Don’t feed cooked bones. Don’t give chop or rib bones (they often get caught in the mouth or throat). Feed the very young puppy raw chicken wings once or twice a week. As the pup grows, move on to the large cow thighbones. Do NOT give them the ones that have been cut down the middle by the butcher (cut in half lengthwise). These will result in broken carnassial teeth (the big teeth at the back). The dog does not need to eat bone marrow – that is an “old wives’ tale”. What they need to do is gnaw at the knuckles. Once these are gone, throw the bone away and get a new one. If you are unsure what to give your puppy, ask your vet at the next visit.

As far as toys go, don’t use anything that could break the teeth (make sure that the teeth can’t get caught in the toy) or abrade (wear away) the teeth. The most dangerous toy as far as teeth go is a tennis ball. These must NEVER be given to dogs to play with. A tennis ball that has been in the dog’s mouth is covered in saliva. It is then dropped in the dirt, which sticks to the “hair” of the ball. Hair + saliva + dirt = sandpaper. Tennis balls gradually wear the teeth away and will expose the nerve and lead to multiple abscessed teeth.

- Dr Gary Wilson © 2000

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