Endodontics & Root Canal Therapy

Endodontics is the use of root canal treatment for fractured, discolored (dead) and infected teeth.

Our veterinarians have the extensive training and specialized equipment required to properly perform endodontic therapy, including both standard and surgical root canal therapy as well as vital pulp therapy.

When the pulp (blood supply and nerve) of a tooth is exposed by a fracture, the tooth will become infected and die. Or, a concussive force to a tooth can sever the blood supply of the tooth resulting in a dead tooth; a dead (or non-vital tooth) is at high risk for infection or cyst formation. To prevent potential discomfort and inflammation these teeth need to be either extracted or treated with root canal therapy.

Root canal therapy involves cleaning, shaping, disinfecting, and filling a dead or fractured tooth, then restoring the fracture site with a tooth-colored composite.

Root Canal Therapy for Dogs or Cats

Teeth have a small hollow area inside the entire tooth, called the “root canal system”. This cavity contains the normal nerves, blood vessels, and other tissues that support and nourish the tooth. When this tissue is exposed by a dental fracture or dies secondary to trauma, the inside of the tooth becomes a reservoir of infection that can never heal. The contents of the canal leak out the tip of the root over time, creating problems around the end of the root. It is not a question if these teeth are painful, but more of a question of how can they not be painful.

In the not-too-distant past, the only treatment available for pet teeth that were dead or infected was extraction. Extraction typically involves gum flaps, sutures, and removal of bone to allow complete removal of a tooth. This involves some discomfort for the patient and causes a complete loss of function associated with that specific tooth. For larger teeth, the process of extraction is similar to removing impacted wisdom teeth in a human patient. In the case of a canine tooth (fang), the root is actually much longer than the part of the tooth you can see above the gum line, and a large amount of bone must be drilled away to remove the tooth.

Root canal treatment for a dog or cat is much less traumatic and maintains the normal function of the tooth. Root canal treatment involves drilling 1-2 small holes into the tooth so that the inside of the tooth can be cleaned, sterilized, and then filled with cement and filling material. This filled space inside the tooth prevents the accumulation of bacteria and toxic substances while keeping the tooth intact. The small holes are then filled with appropriate restorative material.

While we do not recommend root canal treatment for all dead or broken teeth, many times root canal treatment is preferred over extraction. Certain teeth are more important for chewing, such as the large back premolars and molars. These are large multi-rooted teeth whose roots extend deep into the bone. Saving these teeth can help maintain chewing function and avoid a painful surgical extraction. The canine teeth (fangs) are particularly important to maintain for working dogs and hunting dogs. Treating these teeth with root canal therapy involves far less trauma than extraction.

When properly performed, root canal treatment has a very high success rate in veterinary patients and will most often last the lifetime of the pet. Dr. Vall and his fellow veterinary dentists on staff have successfully performed thousands of root canals on their veterinary patients, including dogs, cats, tigers, lions, cougars, and even monkeys!

To summarize, root canal treatment is more comfortable than surgical extraction and allows the patient to keep a tooth that would otherwise be lost. While extraction is not a wrong treatment choice for a tooth with a dead and infected pulp, it involves surgical incisions and removal of surrounding bone, and significantly more post-operative pain. This is avoided with root canal therapy and allows the patient to keep the structure and function of the tooth.

Discolored Pet Teeth

Discolored teeth can occur from a number of causes including developmental problems, use of certain drugs, trauma, infection, or excessive wear of the teeth. Most discolored teeth are dead and require treatment. Any discolored tooth has the potential to be uncomfortable and should be examined and radiographed by a veterinarian well-versed in dental pathology.

Most discolored teeth have died as a result of trauma to the tooth. As a traumatized tooth dies, the tubules of the inner tooth soak up the blood that stains the inside of the tooth, resulting in discoloration that gradually changes from pink to purple and eventually to a brownish/gray color. Studies have shown that an overwhelming percentage of discolored teeth are dead. Failure to treat these teeth results in discomfort to the patient, damage to the root, and damage to the bone around the end of the root. If untreated, it takes years for the diseased tooth to fall out on its own.

Another type of discolored teeth results from developmental problems with the enamel of the teeth, resulting in soft, thin, brownish enamel. These teeth are sensitive and susceptible to infection. Treatment options include bonded sealants and/or restorative treatment.