Detecting Oral Pain in Dogs and Cats

dog tooth pain symptoms - pug

Detecting Oral Pain in Dogs and Cats


The number one thing to realize concerning the detection of oral pain in our pets is that both dogs and cats do a great job of hiding their pain. In the face of oral pain, dogs and cats will often continue to eat well and act normally. It is not unusual in our practice to discover significant painful issues when a patient is under anesthesia that were not detectable on the awake oral exam. Yet, the patient has reportedly been doing great at home. This is a common scenario seen in veterinary dentistry and is a good example of how well dogs and cats mask their tooth pain symptoms.


Why Pets Hide Their Pain


Why are pets so reluctant to show us signs of pain–particularly oral pain? It really goes back to their natural survival instincts. Even the tiniest of dogs and cats have a strong fight or flight mechanism. To show pain is to show weakness and to show weakness is to be more susceptible to predators. Dogs and cats simply do not want to tell other animals and humans that they hurt. Pet owners will often think their dogs and cats are not dealing with dental pain because they are still eating. However, that survival instinct to keep eating is so strong that they will often continue to eat through a world of hurt.


Symptoms of Dog and Cat Tooth Pain


What are some of the subtle signs of oral pain that a pet may show us?

Bad breath. Otherwise known as halitosis, bad breath suggests that there is an infection and dental disease present. Halitosis results from bacterial growth in the mouth that is left untreated. Bacteria produce malodorous sulfur compounds that, quite frankly, stink!

Pace of eating. Sometimes dogs and cats will eat more slowly or even pick up food, spit it out and then chew it gently.

Protective behavior. They may be reluctant to allow a human to handle their mouths and potentially even snap at their owner.

Activity level. Often pet owners will simply notice their dog’s activity level decreasing and attribute it to “slowing down” as they age, when they are really dealing with oral pain.


Causes of Pet Tooth Pain


Periodontal disease


One of the most common diseases diagnosed in our pets, periodontal disease is inflammation secondary to infection of the tissues around the teeth that anchor  them in the oral cavity. Periodontal disease is the result of the body’s immune response to oral, plaque bacteria. This immune response results in inflammation and eventual erosion of the periodontal tissues. The body is literally trying to rid itself of the infection by shedding the source of that infection This is a very painful process.

Routine dental care, including, home care (daily tooth brushing) and annual, anesthetized comprehensive oral health assessments and treatments (COHAT) are extremely important in prevention and detection of periodontal disease. This includes ultrasonic scaling of the teeth above and below the gum line, polishing to create a smooth and less plaque-retentive surface, full mouth dental radiographs and a complete oral examination.


Fractured Teeth


Humans know how painful fractured teeth can be. This is a frequent injury in dogs and cats and often goes unnoticed by a pet owner. When a fracture of a tooth is witnessed pet owners may see their dog yelp in pain, but often report that they didn’t even seem to notice. In patients that initially act in pain, owners will often report that the patient’s appetite or activity level hasn’t changed.

Patients with oral pain will often shift food to the opposite side of their mouth to chew. Plaque and calculus will accumulate on the painful side since that area is not getting the benefit of chewing and saliva flow. This unevenness of plaque and calculus from one side to another is a very good indication that a painful process is taking place on the side with the heavier accumulation of tartar.


Treating Oral Pain


I believe the strongest evidence regarding how well our pets mask oral pain comes from the testimonies of clients after their pet has had a painful dental problem treated. It is common for our clients to bring their pet back for a 2-week post-surgical recheck and report that their pet is acting like a puppy or kitten again with newfound energy. They have often regained their desire to play and have returned to a normal appetite and speed of eating.

The fact that pets hide oral pain or may only show subtle signs of it reinforces the need for regular oral examinations and dental care in all dogs and cats. Our canine and feline companions are tough animals that are extremely resilient and sadly may suffer in silence for years before a painful problem is diagnosed. Schedule a cleaning and exam at our Colorado Springs office today!