By Maura McAndrew
Photos of âdogs with underbitesâ have been the focus of many an adorable Internet slideshow. But while misaligned teeth in dogs, or canine malocclusion, may make our pets seem more endearing or âugly-cute,â it can be a serious health issue.
To learn more about this condition, we spoke with two board-certified veterinary dentists from the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine (CUCVM). Here is everything you need to know about canine malocclusion, including symptoms and causes, and when to seek treatment.
What Is Canine Malocclusion?
Canine malocclusion simply refers to when a dogâs teeth donât fit together properly, whether itâs his baby teeth or adult teeth. Determining whether a dog suffers from malocclusion can be tricky because, unlike with humans, thereâs no standard way a dogâs bite should look. âThe dimensions and bite configuration of every dog are so different,â says Dr. Santiago Peralta, assistant professor of veterinary dentistry and oral surgery at CUCVM. âThe big question is not whether itâs ânormal,â but more so: is it functionally comfortable for the animal?â
So, what makes for a comfortable bite? In general, âThe lower canines should be sitting on the outside of the gum line and in front of the upper canines,â explains Dr. Nadine Fiani, assistant clinical professor of dentistry and oral surgery at CUCVM. âOne of the most common abnormalities that we see is where the lower canine is so upright that it actually barges up into the hard palate.â Basically, if your dog has tooth-to-tooth contact or tooth-to-soft tissue contact that shouldnât be there, thatâs clinically relevant malocclusion, she says, and it is sometimes accompanied by erosion or trauma to teeth or tissue.
While clients and breeders may use descriptors like âunderbiteâ or âoverbite,â Peralta and Fiani donât use these terms in their practice. âThe meaning of each of those terms may vary depending on who you ask. And because itâs subjective lay-terminology, it potentially can be very confusing,â Peralta says. Veterinary dentists rely instead on technical nomenclature, like that preferred by the American Dental Veterinary College (ADVC), in making their diagnoses and considering treatment.
Symptoms and Health Effects of Malocclusion in Dogs
The big question on a dog ownerâs mind when it comes to any health issue is, of course, how can I tell if my dog is suffering? In the case of canine malocclusion, it wonât be obviousâjust because your dog appears to have an underbite doesnât mean he is experiencing pain or discomfort. Sometimes, a veterinarian may note a malocclusion in a puppy at the time of vaccination, Fiani says. But otherwise, youâll need to observe your dogâs behavior and bite, and bring any issues to your vetâs attention. âThe reality is, most dogs that have some kind of malocclusion will have had it for the vast majority of their life,â she says, âand so often, they will be in pain, but they may not necessarily overtly show that.â
If your dog is indeed in pain, he or she might engage in subtle behavior changes such as acting âhead-shyâ (recoiling when you pet her on the head or face), rubbing her head against the wall or with her paws, or demonstrating difficulty picking up or chewing food, Peralta explains. Physical symptoms of malocclusion may include unusually bad breath or bloody drool.
Any changes in behavior or physical healthâeven subtle onesâare worth checking out, since untreated malocclusion can have very painful consequences. Fiani cites oronasal fistula as one of the most severe side effects, which is when an abnormal communication (or hole) forms between mouth and nose as a result of a lower canine that is too vertically positioned. This can lead to not only great pain and discomfort, but also possible nasal disease. And if a malocclusion involves teeth that are crowded together, Fiani says, this can cause a buildup of plaque and, eventually, gingivitis or gum disease.
Causes of Canine Malocclusion
In broad terms, malocclusions are either skeletal or dental in origin, Fiani explains. A dental origin is when a dog may have âone or a couple of teeth that are abnormally positioned within a normal facial skeletal structure,â and are causing pain or discomfort.
The skeletal type of malocclusion, Fiani notes, is where the facial skeleton is abnormal, causing the teeth not to fit together properly. For example, the âunderbiteâ affects short-faced breeds like Bulldogs and Boxers, which have malformed skulls because of breeding. (Long-faced breeds like Sighthounds are prone to similar issues.)
While breeding can have an impact, there is a range of potential causes for either type of malocclusion. âMalocclusions can have a genetic basis that will be likely transmitted from generation to generation,â Peralta says, âand some of them will be acquired, whether because something happened during gestation or something happened during growth and development, either an infection or trauma or any other event that may alter maxillofacial [face and jaw] growth.â He explains that trauma to the face and jaw can stem from events like being bitten by another animal or getting hit by a car. Fiani adds that jaw fractures that donât heal properly can also result in malocclusion.
When to Seek Treatment for Maloclussion in Dogs
âIt doesnât always exactly matter why thereâs a malocclusion, the question is: do you need to treat it?â Fiani says. âThe bottom line is, if you have abnormal tooth-to-tooth contact or if you have abnormal tooth-to-soft tissue contact, then something has to be done about it.â If you notice any of the previously mentioned signs, itâs time to consult with your veterinarian, who will typically determine whether a referral to a dental specialist is warranted for further assessment. If youâve got an image-obsessed hound, letâs be clear: veterinary dentists treat medical issues, not cosmetic ones. âWe will not perform any sort of orthodontic treatment on an animal for aesthetic purposes,â Fiani emphasizes. âThere has to be a clear-cut medical reason for preventing disease or prevention of discomfort or pain.â
Treatment options will vary depending on the specific issue facing your dog, his age, and other factors, but typically will fall into one of two categories: extraction or orthodontic treatment. Tooth extractions can be performed by your general practitioner or a dental specialist, depending, Fiani says, but orthodontics is always the purview of specialists. âThatâs really when weâre using appliances to try and shift the teeth around so that they fit together in a way that no longer hurts the dog,â she explains.
So, if your dog is known for his quirky underbite, itâs probably a good idea to seek medical advice. It can be difficult to tell if malocclusion is causing issues, so donât be afraid to ask your veterinarian questions, and pay close attention to your dogâs health and behavior. The bottom line is that, left untreated, malocclusion can lead to more than just an off-kilter smileâit can result in a painful life for your pooch.