What is a root canal?
The center of the tooth is referred to as the root canal and contains the soft tissue (pulp) that nurtures the tooth. The pulp is made up of the nerve tissue, blood vessels, and lymphatics. The center of the tooth that contains the pulp is call the pulp cavity.
Root canal therapy is a treatment which involves removing infected pulp from the root canal of the tooth, sterilizing (disinfecting) the canal, and replacing the removed tissue with dental material. The root canal is accessed through the crown of the tooth.
"Root canal therapy is a treatment which involves removing infected pulp from the root canal of the tooth, sterilizing the canal, and replacing the removed tissue with dental material."
Once the root canal is filled with the dental material the access through the crown is filled (restored) to prevent further access of bacteria to the root canal.
Ultimately, the goal is to prevent bacteria from gaining entry into the tooth. 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, exposing the pulp, bacteria and oral debris enter into 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 make their way out of the root apex (the tip of the root surrounded by bone) and infect the bone around the root (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 during 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 to the bone surrounding the root resolves and the tooth returns to immediate pain-free function.
Above: Fractured canine tooth. Below: Restored tooth following root canal therapy.
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 root canal therapy can be performed by any licensed veterinarian, 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 avdc.org or speak to your veterinarian.