A dental abscess is an infection of the tissues that surround the root of a tooth.
It is a very painful condition that requires prompt treatment
Dogs can show signs such as bad breath and mouth pain
The first thing you notice may be a swelling on the face below the eye, which you might not immediately link to a tooth problem!
Dental X-rays may be needed to properly diagnose this condition
How does it develop?
The condition is often caused by exposure or trauma of the pulp of the tooth. If the enamel (the outer protective layer) is damaged, for example by chewing on hard objects like bones, antlers or nylon toys, bacteria can enter the tooth and affect the softer inner layers. In time, the infection can spread to the soft tissues and bone around the tooth root.
Less often, the infection can be caused by periodontal (gum) disease. In this case, the bacteria grow and break down the attachment of the tooth to the jaw. They can then spread down to the root of the tooth making the tooth loose and forming an abscess.
Which teeth are usually affected?
All teeth can be affected by this condition, but commonly affected teeth include the upper 4th premolar (carnassial) tooth, the molars and the canines.
Sometimes, when the carnassial tooth or first molar are affected, you might notice a swelling near the eye. These teeth frequently have a slab fracture, which can develop when the dog chews on a hard object and breaks off part of the tooth surface, exposing the underlying delicate tissues.
How do I know if my dog has a tooth root abscess?
Symptoms may develop gradually, or may come on very suddenly. You might see:
Changes in eating habits (for example, only wanting to eat soft food)
Yelping when chewing or dropping food
Halitosis (bad breath)
Bleeding from the gums
A swelling below the eye, that sometimes bursts with drainage of blood and pus.
Reluctance to play with toys
Discharge from the nose
Your vet may suspect a dental abscess after a physical examination. But some pets, especially if they are in pain or fearful, might not allow the vet to look into their mouth without an anaesthetic. Indeed, an anaesthetic is needed to assess all the teeth properly..
Dental X-rays under anaesthetic are always required to confirm the diagnosis.
Sometimes a dental abscess or a chipped tooth might be noticed during a yearly examination or routine dental procedure (“scale and polish”). If your dog has not shown signs of discomfort, this might come as a surprise. We need to keep in mind that pets are very good at hiding discomfort.
Also, a chipped tooth might not yet be showing signs of an active infection, but treatment is needed to prevent an abscess forming.
How can dental abscesses be treated?
Many pets initially require medical treatment to control pain and infection. Even if the swelling goes down with this therapy, further treatment is needed to stop the problem from coming back.
Two types of treatment are available:
Extraction (removal) of the affected tooth: Many pet parents are concerned about the idea of their dogs having a tooth removed. Discussing the procedure with your vet will reassure you that plenty of pain relief is provided, and your pet will feel much better once the source of the infection has been removed. Don’;t worry -your dog can cope very well with even several missing teeth!.
Root canal: This option is usually reserved for less severe cases, when the structure of the tooth is intact. This procedure might require referral to a veterinary dentist.
Both of these treatments are surgical, so should only be performed by a qualified vet under a general anaesthetic.
Can I prevent dental abscesses?
There are things you can do to keep your dog's teeth as healthy as possible:
Choose chews wisely! Make sure they don’t splinter and aren’t too hard
Brush your dog’s teeth regularly. Train your dog to accept someone examining their mouth
Get your dog’s teeth checked regularly at the vet - they may recommend a “scale and polish” if early gum disease is spotted, and to help you make brushing more effective