Does My Dog Need a Root Canal?

By Lorraine Hiscox DVM FAVD Dip. AVDC; Jan Bellows, DVM, Dipl. AVDC, ABVP

What is a root canal?

Fig. 1: X-ray showing a dog's root canal after therapy; the root is filled and the crown is restored.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 called 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 the 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 dog needs root canal therapy?

When a dog breaks a tooth and exposes the pulp, bacteria and oral debris enter the center of the tooth. As a result, a painful inflammation of the pulp (pulpitis) develops, eventually causing the nerves and blood vessels to die (pulp necrosis). The bacteria then move out of the bottom of the root (the root apex) and infect the bone around the root (called apical periodontitis).

Both pulpitis and apical periodontitis are very painful. Given that infection of the tooth and ultimately the bone around the root is highly likely, broken teeth with pulp exposure should be treated as soon as possible, either with standard root canal therapy or extraction. Veterinary dentists tend to recommend root canal therapy where possible, as this treatment preserves the function of the tooth.

Why would I want my dog 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 dog’s life. The alternative is to extract a tooth that has good periodontal support. This requires soft tissue surgery and possibly bone removal. The incisions are made through the gums to the supporting bone; the bone on the outside of the tooth may need to be removed. There will be sutures (stitches) placed to close the surgical wound. Your dog will require about two weeks to recover from the surgery and diet and chewing behavior may have to be modified during that time.

Is root canal therapy painful?

Just the opposite. Root canal therapy removes the infected and inflamed pulp, and the sterilizing process kills the bacteria. The canal and crown access are filled with inert material that prevents further entry of bacteria into the tooth. In most cases, the destruction of the bone surrounding the root resolves and the tooth returns to immediate pain-free function.

Fig. 2: Fractured canine tooth in a dog, showing an exposed root canal.
  Fig. 3: Dog's canine tooth after root canal therapy; the root is filled and the crown restored.

Is it expensive to have my dog’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 dog 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 dog, visit or speak to your veterinarian.

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