Common Issues, Prevention & Treatments – Dogster

A few weeks ago, a gentleman came to my clinic with his English Bulldog. The first thing the man said was: “I think he has a tooth abscess.”

Tooth abscess is one of the many unpleasant and unhealthy end results of untreated dental disease. A major sign of dental disease in dogs is infection. It's normal for bacteria to live in your mouth. Dogs with dental disease can suffer from bacterial overgrowth, leading to gum recession, facial bone loss, pain, inflammation, and in some cases, dental abscesses.

Dr. Eric Bachas.  (Photo by Liz Acosta)
Dr. Eric Bachas. (Photo by Liz Acosta)

A tooth abscess occurs when an infection attacks the root of a tooth. This can be caused by severe periodontal disease or enamel damage that allows bacteria to get inside the tooth. The infection overwhelms the local immune system and pus fills the site where the roots are embedded. Swelling and pain occur as a result. Any tooth that develops an abscess is severely damaged—in short, it is decayed. Abscessed teeth require extraction or root canal treatment.

The symptoms of a tooth abscess can be subtle. Dogs with dental abscesses may be lethargic, lose their appetite, have bad breath, be reluctant to eat hard foods, and may resent having their mouths handled.

However, in this pit bull's case, the abscess was anything but subtle. The pit bull suffered severe swelling under his left eye. In fact, his left eye was so swollen that he couldn't open it and had a mucus-like discharge oozing from it. These symptoms usually occur when the roots of the so-called carnal teeth (the largest chewing teeth) become infected. Owners of dogs with this type of dental abscess often mistakenly believe that the eye is the source of the problem. In fact, the eyes are affected secondary to tooth swelling.

However, pit bull owners make no such mistake. He diagnosed the problem correctly. Suffice it to say, I have a feeling this isn't his first rodeo.

no. The owner stated that a month ago, the dog had a tooth abscess in the same area. At the time it was responding well to antibiotics.

Here's the thing: Tooth abscesses usually improve with antibiotics. But unless a root canal is performed or the tooth is extracted, they will almost always come back. I discussed this fact with the owner and it was self-evident for this particular patient.

He said I wasn't the first person to tell him what I told him. However, he did not want to properly treat the abscess because he believed anesthesia would be too dangerous for the pit bull. To make matters worse, his pit bull is 9 years old. Is this process too risky?

Sick bulldog on vet table
Image source: LWA/Getty Images

The easiest thing for me to do is to simply nod and send the person away with some antibiotics and painkillers. But I should set the record straight with the dog.

The concept that anesthesia is often dangerous is one of the biggest myths in medicine. Over the past decade, I can count on zero fingers the number of patients who have died, been dying, or developed severe complications from anesthesia under anesthesia. When a person uses modern techniques and agents, for all intents and purposes, anesthesia is not dangerous at all.

But what about pit bulls? Isn't it dangerous to give them anesthesia?

For Bulldogs, it's all about breathing. Bulldogs have trouble breathing at the best of times because they have a lot of excess tissue in the back of their throats. This causes the air to take a tortuous path.

However, during anesthesia, an endotracheal tube (breathing tube) is placed. The tortuous airway is bypassed and the airway is safe.

I will admit that there are two phases of anesthesia for pit bulls that are (slightly) more risky than for other dogs. There is a period of time after the initial anesthesia and before the breathing tube is placed. If an experienced person administers anesthesia, the risks are absolutely minimal. It only takes a few seconds to insert the tube.

Senior English Bulldog from Shutterstock.
Senior English Bulldog from Shutterstock.

Additionally, the risk increases during the time after the breathing tube is removed and before the dog is fully conscious. However, in my experience, most pit bulls are happy – for once in their life – to be able to breathe easily, and they are content to keep the tube in place until they are almost able to stand up and walk. Again, experienced clinicians should be able to easily manage risks during this time.

The last concern an owner has is that the dog is too old to receive anesthesia, so what? On the day I spoke with the owner, the dog was the smallest he had ever been. Dogs have at least a few more years to live. Tooth abscesses will keep coming back until they are properly resolved. The safest thing for your dog is to do this sooner rather than later, when the dog is older and the bone around the teeth can be more damaged.

I'm pretty sure I convinced him. At my urgent care clinic, we only do the most basic emergency dental work, so a root canal was not possible that day. I provided antibiotics and pain medication and recommended that he undergo comprehensive dental treatment with the family veterinarian. I hope he did.

Remember, when it comes to dental disease, an ounce of prevention is worth pounds of cure. If you brush your dog's teeth every day, the chances of you finding yourself in the situation I just described are slim.

Read more Dr. Bachas:

Featured image credit: Tienuskin, Shutterstock

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