Pet Root Canal Treatment

By: Merten G. Pearson, DVM

TVMA Member
Amarillo, TX

Published October 2014

If a pet injures a tooth to the point that the pulp (the blood vessels and nerves in the center of the tooth) is compromised and may not survive, has already become infected or has died, then the tooth needs to have a root canal treatment performed.

Some instances in which a root canal treatment should be performed include:

  • Teeth that are broken above the gum line, exposing the pulp chamber
  • Teeth that have bled into the pulp chamber, turning the tooth a pink or purple color (exhibiting pulpitis)
  • Teeth that still have good attachment to the bone but have a tooth root abscess

As a veterinarian, I look in a lot of pets’ mouths, and I see some interesting things. It is not uncommon to see a big cheek tooth with the side flaked off. If this fracture extends down into the pulp, then that tooth needs to have a root canal treatment or be extracted from the pet. If the tooth’s nerves and blood vessels became exposed and were left without treatment, that would be extremely painful!

Other times I see dogs with a pink, brown or gray tooth (often a canine or “fang” tooth). In this case, the tooth has been injured either by impact or by infection and has bled into the pulp chamber (pulpitis). This bleeding often puts so much pressure on the pulp (since it is trapped inside the tooth) that the pulp dies. This then becomes a great place for bacteria to infect. These teeth also need to have a root canal treatment performed. Studies show that 92 percent of discolored teeth that have been affected by pulpitis will become non-vital! (Hale, FA, J Vet Dent. 2001 Mar;(1): 14-20)

What is a root canal?

Teeth have canals; think of them as tunnels running from the tip of the root up into a chamber in the crown of the tooth. These canals and chambers are filled with pulp, which is the combination of blood vessels, nerves, connective tissues and cells, lymphoidOf, relating to, or denoting the tissue responsible for producing lymphocytes and antibodies. This tissue occurs in the lymph nodes, thymus, tonsils, and spleen, and dispersed elsewhere in the body. cells and the outer dentinHard, dense, bony tissue forming the bulk of a tooth beneath the enamel.-secreting layer. When root canal treatment is performed, a hole is drilled into the tooth to provide access to the pulp chamber and canals in the roots. Instruments are then used to remove the pulp and clean and shape the canals. Chemicals are used to sterilize the canals and pulp chamber. Then the canals are sealed and filled. Finally, the access hole is closed with a filling that will prevent bacteria from getting back into the inside of the pet’s tooth and destroying it or migrating to the jaw bone and causing a bone infection.

Root canal treatment is generally recommended for the most strategic teeth—the canines, upper fourth premolars and lower molars (the carnassialDenoting the large upper premolar and lower molar teeth of a carnivore, adapted for shearing flesh. teeth)—though root canal treatment may be performed on almost any tooth if the owner wishes to avoid extraction. By performing root canal therapy, the functionality of the tooth and facial structure is preserved. The other option is extraction, which weakens the jaw structure, often promotes the loss of the teeth on either side of the extracted tooth and changes the way an animal can chew its food.

How can I prevent having to have a root canal treatment done on my pet?

Lots of teeth injuries occur when the pet is chewing on hard chew toys. I often tell people that if hitting the toy on a hard countertop sounds like my hitting my pocket knife on a countertop then that toy is too hard for the teeth. Pig ears, hard nylon bones, antlers, ice cubes, animal bones and cow hooves are also notorious for causing slab fractures on the sides of the cheek teeth. The pet bites down and then twists on the chew toy, and a slab of tooth just flakes off. Biting and chewing on hard objects (e.g., chain link, pipe, hard wood, rocks) can cause tooth fractures or bleeding into the pulp chamber. So the best advice is to watch what you let your pet chew on, catch or fetch and have your pet (and its teeth) examined at least once a year. If you think a tooth was injured, have it looked at immediately. Remember that pets are very good at hiding pain! If you suspect your pet is displaying any symptoms of a dental issue, consult with your veterinarian.


Additional Resource:

The American Veterinary Dental College. Visit http://www.avdc.org/rootcanaltreatment.html.

Merten G. Pearson, DVM is a graduate of Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine and lives in Amarillo, Texas. Dr. Pearson practices at Noah’s Ark Pet Hospital and Pet Dental Center of Amarillo.