Canine teeth

My, what big teeth you have


Fangs for grabbing and puncturing, incisors for nibbling, premolars for tearing, and molars for crushing bone -- although the family pet is far more civilized than his wild relatives, he still has the same equipment for eating, grooming, greeting, and defense.

Like humans, dogs have two sets of teeth in their lives. The 28 baby teeth erupt through the gums between the third and sixth weeks of age. Puppies do not have to grind much food, so they do not have molars. Puppy teeth begin to shed and be replaced by permanent adult teeth at about four months of age. Although there is some variation in breeds, most adult dogs have 42 teeth, with the molars coming last, at about six or seven months.

The order of tooth replacement is incisors first, then canines (fangs), and finally premolars. The teething period can be frustrating; the puppy clamps his mouth on everything he can reach, from body parts to Johnny's $80 sneakers, in an attempt to relieve the discomfort. Teething can be accompanied by drooling, irritability, and fluctuations in appetite.

Boomer has six incisors on the upper jaw and six on the lower. He uses the incisors to nibble shreds of meat from bones and to groom himself and other dogs. Mutual grooming is a greeting and bonding behavior in dogs that maintains pack order. Dominant and submissive dogs both groom each other, but the solicitation and order of grooming is quite specific. The dominant dog can seek grooming or deliver it whenever he wants to do so; the submissive dog must wait to be asked or approached. Owners of two or more dogs can learn a lot about their pets by watching mutual grooming sessions.

Canine teeth are the scary ones. They conjure up mind-pictures of ferocious wild creatures and lead to fear of mild-mannered dogs that happen to show their teeth a lot. Wolves use their fangs to grab and rip their prey; dogs use them to hold objects in their mouths and to defend themselves when necessary.

Four premolars line each side of the upper and lower jaws in back of the canines. These are the shearing teeth, used to rip great hunks of flesh from prey animals. Although they no longer hunt for survival, dogs can still eat in the manner of wolves by grabbing meat with the premolars and ripping it off the bone.

Dogs use their premolars to chew on rawhides, bones, and other chew toys. They hold the toy between their paws and grab it with these strong pointed teeth by tilting their jaws to the side.

The top jaw has two molars on each side, and the bottom jaw has three. These are the crushing teeth, use by wolves to crack caribou bones and by dogs to finish off a large biscuit.

Like people, dogs can have tooth problems ranging from retained baby teeth and malocclusion to tooth decay. Since a healthy mouth depends on healthy teeth, pet owners should periodically check pet teeth, provide chew bones and toys, use biscuit treats so Boomer has to exercise his jaws, and feed a kibbled diet.

The roots of baby teeth should be absorbed as adult teeth erupt, but if this absorption is retarded, the baby tooth does not give way to the new tooth. Retained baby teeth can cause a bad bite -- a malocclusion -- that can lead to tooth decay and other problems later on. If a baby tooth does not fall out when the adult tooth grows in, it should be removed


A dog's bite is the way his teeth fit when his upper and lower jaws are closed. The standards for most breeds call for a "scissors bite," in which the upper incisors just overlap and touch the lower incisors. This arrangement prevents wear on the incisors and keeps the teeth in alignment.

A level bite is one in which the incisors meet edge to edge. A level bite is acceptable, but not ideal.

Overshot and undershot jaws are two common bite problems. An overshot jaw is one in which the upper jaw is longer than the lower, causing the teeth to overlap and not touch. When permanent teeth erupt in the lower jaw of an overshot bite, they may damage the soft tissue in the roof of the mouth. Some lower teeth may have to be pulled to prevent this damage.

An undershot jaw is on in which the bottom jaw is longer than the upper jaw. Although this is generally a problem, a few breeds such as Boxer, Boston Terrier, and Bulldog have naturally undershot jaws.

In most breeds, overshot and undershot jaws are forbidden in the show ring. Breeders try to avoid breeding dogs with jaw problems so the puppies inherit good tooth formation and jaw growth. Puppies with these jaw problems are sold as pets.

In the wild, a wolf or coyote with an overshot or undershot jaw would not be as successful in killing prey or in eating. Although dogs don't have to hunt their prey, a dog with a severely overshot or undershot jaw could also experience some eating problems and may have difficulty playing fetch or Frisbee



Although dogs do not generally have cavities in their teeth, Boomer can develop tooth problems if his diet includes soft foods that can leave debris in gum pockets at the base of the teeth. The debris leads to infections, which soften the gums and cause them to recede. Such infections cause foul breath odor, which should be a clue to visit the veterinarian. If let go, this disease can lead to tooth loss.

Tartar, a precipitate of calcium salts, builds up on teeth in hard water areas. Tartar can build up and lead to increased gum disease and, ultimately, to tooth loss.

Tartar buildup increases with age. It can be removed from teeth by rubbing with a solution of three percent hydrogen peroxide or a weak one-percent solution of hydrochloric acid. Advanced tartar buildup may require sedation of the dog and scraping with dental instruments.

Pet owners can prevent or alleviate gum decay by feeding kibbled foods and hard biscuits to scrub the teeth, by keeping soft foods that can leave debris to a minimum, by providing hard rubber or nylon toys for chewing, and by brushing Boomer's teeth a couple of times each week. When brushing teeth, use baking soda or a special toothpaste formulated for dogs, not toothpaste for humans..

Open wide

Dog teeth can be intimidating, but Boomer must never get the idea that he can use his teeth to control people. Just as you manage his comings and goings, you should be able to manage his use of his teeth.

A puppy should learn to open his mouth on command so you can assess gum and tooth health, remove a foreign object, check for injuries or tumors, and give medicine or vitamins. Since puppy teeth serve as a primary tool for examining their environment, for greeting pack members, and for testing the pack hierarchy, and since puppies also grab things to relieve the discomfort of teething, some early lessons in bite inhibition are necessary.

But puppies hate to have their mouths handled, so some strategy is in order. If a puppy grabs a body part, yell "Owwww." Don't pull away, because sharp puppy teeth can scratch tender skin. Don't yell at him, just yelp in "pain" an easy task, for puppy teeth do hurt. When he lets go, give him a toy he's allowed to grab and shake and worry.

If he tries to grab again, shake him lightly by the scruff of the neck. Don't pick him up off the floor and shake him like a rag -- just shake gently.

If he still insists on biting your hand or ankle or grabbing your pant leg, put him in his crate for a time-out.

Don't let a mouthy puppy play with small children without supervision, and don't let children encourage nipping and grabbing by waving their hands, toys, or food near the puppy's face.

Don't free feed puppies. Along with making it more difficult to housetrain a puppy that has constant access to food, free feeding takes control of the food out of your hands and puts it directly under the puppy's mouth.

To condition a puppy to handling his mouth, start by lifting his lips and looking at his teeth. Check him two or three times a week and give him a treat each time.

To examine a puppy's mouth, place your right hand across his muzzle with your thumb on his lip just behind a canine tooth. Grasp lightly. Hold him still with your left hand. Say "Open," push your thumb into his mouth, and lift up on the upper jaw. Do this two or three times a week and give him a treat after each success.

If you can handle Boomer's teeth without fear or frustration, you can easily give him his monthly heartworm pill or medication prescribed by the veterinarian and remove anything from his mouth. You can also teach him to drop something that's in his mouth by first removing the object from his mouth and then encouraging him to give it to you.

Although dogs don't generally hear the call of the wild to hunt and kill their meals, they have the teeth for seizing, tearing, and crushing and the instinct to use those teeth for defense, social bonding, and chewing. Pet owners who understand canine behavior can teach their dogs to use their teeth in a manner acceptable in the human-canine pack while they keep watch on the health of those teeth. The benefits far outweigh the frustration of teaching that rowdy pup to keep his teeth off fingers and furniture and to open his mouth on command.

Norma Bennett Woolf

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