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Orthodontic Health in Companion Animals

Orthodontic Health in Companion Animals, 

by Louise Marron, DVM

Orthodontic health is a newly recognized and important aspect of your pet’s dental wellness and overall comfort.  Initially, this comes as a surprise to most people because we associate “orthodontics” with the aesthetic reasons that motivate humans to wear braces.  Straight teeth and a beautiful smile, however, are not the goals of companion animal orthodontics.  Orthodontic intervention is indicated for animals with compromised function or repetitive painful trauma to the tissues in the mouth resulting from abnormal jaw length or tooth position.  Our goals are to improve the function of the teeth, and alleviate pain.

Above:  Normal dog occlusion, side view    Below:  Normal dog occlusion, front view                   

The word “occlusion” describes the way the jaws and teeth come together when the mouth is closed.  When occlusion is abnormal, it is called a “malocclusion”. Malocclusions often result in painful trauma to the teeth, gums, floor of the mouth, or roof of the mouth.  A malocclusion is frequently the result of the upper and lower jaws being disproportionate in length relative to one another.  Alternately, a malocclusion can be due to the abnormal position of just one or a few teeth.  The age of the animal, type of malocclusion, pet owner’s commitment to ongoing dental care, and concurrent dental diseases are all factors that influence treatment options.

It is ideal to recognize malocclusion in young animals because there are more treatment options while the jaws are still growing and the permanent teeth are still developing.  Orthodontic intervention in young dogs and cats may involve extracting ‘baby’ teeth.  Extracting teeth that have erupted into an abnormal position or that are interfering with normal jaw growth is called “interceptive orthodontics.”  We recommend puppies and kittens be spayed or neutered at 5 to 6 months of age.  Performing a dental exam and extracting teeth that are contributing to malocclusion are ideal to do while your pet is already anesthetized for surgery.  By addressing abnormal occlusion while a dog or cat is still growing, there is potential for jaw length to normalize during maturation.

Left: left side view of an “overbite” malocclusion

Below:  right side view of the same puppy.  The lower canine tooth (“fang”) is poking into the roof of the mouth (green arrow). By extracting this baby tooth, trauma and pain are alleviated and the lower jaw has a better opportunity to grow longer.

A common malocclusion seen in dogs, which is considered “normal” for some breeds such as boxers and bull dogs, is an under bite.  Unfortunately, in many individuals, this type of malocclusion is detrimental to dental health, comfort, and function. Often, the upper incisors rub against the inside of the lower incisors at the gum line, or dig into the floor of the mouth such that the gums are damaged and compromised.  Also, because the incisors don’t contact each other normally when the mouth is closed, animals with an underbite can’t use their front teeth to nibble, which is part of grooming and itching themselves.

Right: Underbite.   

Below:  trauma to the insides of the lower incisor teeth and gum line from the upper incisors (blue arrows). 

There are a variety of types of malocclusion with a wide spectrum of consequences for your pet.  Rest assured that at Alpine Animal Hospital, your pet’s dental health and overall comfort is a high priority.  We believe every animal deserves a functional and pain-free mouth.  Recognizing and treating malocclusions is one way we strive to ensure that.

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