Land sharks

My son lost his first baby tooth quite a few years ago on a trip to Buffalo to visit family. It was a very big deal. The tooth had been wiggly for weeks, but on this occasion, my son had three solid hours to work on it while we traveled.

I remember this particular trip as one of the most pleasant ever, mainly because there was very little obnoxious chatter or complaining coming from the backseat. He was consumed with the task of losing that tooth. And mercifully for us, it decided to fall out after we arrived, and not a second sooner. I could not have asked for a toy that could occupy his attention so completely. It was great.

When it comes to animals, baby teeth come and go relatively unnoticed by most owners, aside from the relief most of us feel when the play biting subsides and the needle-sharp baby teeth are eventually replaced by larger, but not-so-razor-sharp permanent ones. Not that the permanent teeth aren’t sharp – they are very dangerous when used with malice, and must be respected as such.

Most animals lose their baby teeth similarly to children with the great exception that they really couldn’t care less. They don’t know about the tooth fairy, and often swallow the teeth before anyone notices they are missing.

The incisors (tiny cutting teeth in the front of the mouth) are first to go, starting with the center two and working out, over a period of several weeks for each symmetrical pair. By five to six months, the canine teeth (the big, long pointy ones) are being replaced by bigger, longer, pointy adult canine teeth.

The timing of this process often enables those of us in the know to make an educated guess as to the youngster’s age, if this is previously unknown. Most people know this, but don’t realize that once the baby (deciduous) teeth are all replaced by permanent teeth, this age-prediction technique becomes null and void.

We often are asked to predict the age of a recently adopted animal, and most folks expect us to use the teeth to accomplish this.

Unfortunately, this only works in horses. A very knowledgeable person can interpret the wear patterns in this herbivorous species, whose teeth continue to grow life-long. In an omnivorous or carnivorous animal like dogs (or people) once all the adult dentition is present, it becomes anybody’s guess how old such an animal may be.

To many a new owner’s dismay, we often hedge, saying things like, “He’s a young adult.” Since most people want us to be more specific, and we like to keep track of things in the medical record, we are forced to arbitrarily determine an age. It’s important to say that we can be wrong.

Sometimes, we’re very wrong, since all we’ve got to go on after the adult dentition is present is the general appearance of the animal and the amount of dental disease such as tartar and gingivitis present at the time. The condition of the teeth and gums can be a misleading factor in age determination, since, as in people, not all animals age the same way.

That is, not all old animals look old. Further, some young animals look older than they are. Not all old animals have severe dental disease, and not all young animals have clean, perfect mouths.

Take our dachshund, Walter, for example. At eight months old, we found he had a dental problem that needed to be addressed. Had we neutered him at the standard 6 months of age, rather than at 5 months, we may have recognized and dealt with his dental issues sooner. However, we were not sure the problem would pan out at the time. Unfortunately, it did.

Walter had retained deciduous teeth. Two of his baby teeth, his upper canines in this case, refused to fall out.

Walter’s adult canine teeth grew in right in front of the baby ones, setting him up with a situation that can cause gingivitis, tartar accumulation and possibly permanent problems with the adult teeth, gums and even multiple organs in his body (heart, liver, kidneys) if we did not remove the extra teeth. I’m afraid to say that Walter was what we in the veterinary profession refer to as a “land shark.”

This is not often a problem in other animals like cats or ferrets, since their sizes vary amongst individuals in the species very little, therefore the size of the head and mouth stay relatively the same from cat to cat, or ferret to ferret, with a few exceptions. However, when it comes to dogs, variety is the spice of life. When you’re a Great Dane with a head as big as a 20 gallon bucket, and a nice, long snout, your 42 adult teeth fit just fine, with room to spare between each tooth.

However, if you’re a 12-pound pug, with a face as small and round as a softball, and absolutely no discernible snout whatsoever, where are all those teeth going to fit?

Well, that’s just it – in some breeds of dogs, including mixed breeds, all those 42 adult teeth don’t fit, but grow around one another as best they can, in rather crowded conditions.

Now, add to that the fact that a mal-aligned mouth (normal in some breeds) creates problems with the adult teeth not pushing the baby teeth out naturally. These patients have the added difficulty of MORE than the standard amount of teeth in their mouths, with crowded, crooked, sometimes double rows of teeth. Hence the term, “land shark.”

While it is normal for real sharks to have multiple rows of teeth, which fall out and are replaced many times over in a shark’s lifetime, this is not the normal scenario in dogs and cats. The most affected animals usually are the shorter-faced toy breeds, since they have way more teeth than they actually need or can fit comfortably in their mouths, which includes Persian cats and the like. It often is better to have several teeth surgically removed, especially at a young age, to make room for the remaining teeth. People who need braces frequently undergo this very procedure for the proper alignment of the teeth. Most people are familiar with “wisdom tooth” extractions – it basically is the same thing. Only, instead of just making the smile more beautiful in a tiny Chihuahua, this procedure may prolong the life of the remaining teeth and the dog, how cool is that?

Since Walter only marginally enjoys his teeth brushed (the children think it’s great, especially since Walter uses chicken-flavored toothpaste) and absolutely did not allow us to floss between his two extra teeth and their permanent partners, we were forced to perform a couple of extractions surgically.

Although it was a bit annoying, we know it’s better to have a dachshund than a land shark.

Daverio is a veterinarian at Williamsport West Veterinary Hospital.