Does My Cat Need a Root Canal?

By Malcolm Weir, DVM, MSc, MPH; Lorraine Hiscox DVM FAVD Dip. AVDC; Jan Bellows, DVM, Dipl. AVDC, ABVP

What is a root canal?

The center of the tooth is referred to as the root canal and contains soft tissue called pulp. The pulp is composed of the nerve, blood vessels, and lymphatics. The center of the tooth that contains the pulp is call the pulp cavity.

Root canal therapy is a treatment that involves removing infected pulp from the tooth’s root canal, sterilizing (disinfecting) the canal, and replacing the removed tissue with dental material. The root canal is accessed through the crown of the tooth. Finally, a filling (restoration) is placed in the crown of the tooth to prevent bacteria from further accessing root canal.

Standard root canal therapy permits the pet to keep the tooth (although it is no longer alive) maintaining its function, as the structural integrity of the tooth has been preserved.

How can I tell that my cat needs root canal therapy?

Fig. 1: Fractured upper canine tooth in a cat.When a cat breaks a tooth and exposes the pulp, bacteria and oral debris enter the tooth. As a result, a painful inflammation of the pulp (pulpitis) develops, eventually causing the nerves and blood vessels to die. The bacteria then move out of the bottom of the root (the root apex) and infect the bone surrounding the root (called apical periodontitis).

Both pulpitis and apical periodontitis are very painful. Once a tooth is broken with the pulp exposed, there are only two choices for treatment: root canal therapy or extraction.

Root canal therapy permits your cat to keep the structural integrity of the tooth root and for functionally important teeth such as the canines, this is the desired treatment.

Why would I want my cat to have a root canal instead of an extraction?

Root canal therapy is less invasive than extraction and, in most cases, root canal therapy saves the tooth for the rest of the cat’s life. Extracting a tooth requires incisions to be made through the gums (gingiva) to the supporting bone. The gum tissue is lifted to expose the underlying bone, which is then removed to expose the root to allow for extraction. The gum tissue is then replaced, and the wound sutured closed with absorbable suture material.

Is root canal therapy painful?

Just the opposite. Root canal therapy removes the infected and inflamed pulp, and the sterilizing process kills the bacteria. By filling the root and restoring the crown, root canal therapy prevents (and in some cases resolves) the destruction around the bottom of the root (the root apex).

Fig. 2: X-ray showing a cat's exposed root canal before therapy.   Fig. 3: X-ray showing a cat's root canal after therapy; the root is filled and the crown is restored.

Is it expensive to have my cat’s teeth fixed with root canal therapy?

Performing root canal therapy requires similar equipment, materials, and expertise as in human dentistry. Fees are similar to what human dentists charge. Many pet insurance policies cover part of the expense.

Will my veterinarian do a root canal on my cat or do I have to see a specialist?

Although any licensed veterinarian can perform root canal therapy, the procedure requires advanced training and specialized equipment, materials, and expertise, which most veterinarians do not have. To find a board-certified veterinary dentist to perform root canal therapy for your cat, visit or speak to your veterinarian.

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