Cavities in Dogs

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM
By Rhiannon Koehler, DVM on Dec. 14, 2023
Vets check a Westie's teeth.

In This Article


What Are Cavities in Dogs?

If you’ve ever had a cavity in a tooth, you know how painful cavities can be. Pet parents often forget to prioritize their dog’s oral health, which unfortunately leads to painful dental conditions, including cavities.

Although cavities are much less common in dogs than in people, pet parents should be aware of the signs that their dog could have a cavity and how cavities are managed.

Cavities, which are also called dental caries, are pockets of tooth decay that develop due to prolonged exposure to oral bacteria. Bacteria remaining on the teeth after a dog eats—especially after carbohydrate-rich foods—cause acid to build up, which eats away at the outer enamel layer of a dog’s tooth. Over time, the pocket will become deeper, affecting the dentin and pulp chamber. The dentin is the layer beneath the enamel, while the pulp chamber is the inner part of the tooth with nerves and blood vessels.

Cavities usually look like a dark spot on the tooth’s surface. You’re more likely to notice a cavity on one of your dog’s back teeth. Cavities typically develop in the pits of the tooth rather than on smooth surfaces.

The true prevalence of cavities in dogs is unknown, but one report stated that slightly more than 5% of adult dogs referred to a dental service had cavities. More common dental problems in dogs include fractured teeth and periodontal (gum) disease.

Cavities in dogs aren’t emergencies, but you should contact your vet for a dental evaluation if you’re concerned your dog may have a cavity.

Many treatment options will only be available through a veterinary dentist. Ask your vet for a referral if treatment is outside the scope of their practice and you wish to preserve your dog’s affected tooth.

Symptoms of Cavities in Dogs

Symptoms of cavities in dogs may include:

Causes of Cavities in Dogs

Dogs likely develop cavities less commonly than people because their diet does not include a lot of sugars and acids. They also tend to have cone-shaped teeth and more space between their teeth than people.

Dogs who eat a diet with fermentable carbohydrates, poor quality food, and table scraps may be more likely to develop cavities than dogs fed a high-quality diet. Additionally, dogs who receive routine dental care are less likely to develop dental caries.

Genetics likely contribute to a dog’s likelihood to develop cavities or other dental issues. Breeds predisposed to cavities are generally the same as those predisposed to dental disease. Examples include:

How Veterinarians Diagnose Cavities in Dogs

Your vet may be able to see a cavity on your dog’s tooth while your pup is awake.

However, to perform a thorough oral exam and fully assess any cavities—including probing the painful spot—your dog must be anesthetized. Anesthesia also allows your vet to perform a dental cleaning and take X-rays of any affected teeth, which are necessary to determine the best treatment strategy.

Treatment of Cavities in Dogs

Treatment of your dog’s cavity will depend on the cavity’s severity. X-rays allow your vet to determine whether the pulp chamber is exposed and whether the tooth’s vitality is compromised.

Cavities that aren’t severe can usually be debrided and restored with a filling, which is like the fillings people get at the dentist. The affected areas of the tooth are drilled away, and the defect is filled.

Teeth with more severe lesions may need a root canal and restoration. In severe cases, extraction of the tooth is recommended. Dental surgery to repair a cavity or extract the tooth requires anesthesia and typically takes one hour or longer.

After dental surgery, your veterinarian will provide instructions to ensure the surgical site heals appropriately.

Recovery and Management of Cavities in Dogs

After surgery, dogs usually recover from anesthesia within several hours and regain their appetite and energy within one to two days.

If your veterinarian prescribes an antibiotic, such as clindamycin, or a pain medication, like carprofen, be sure to follow their instructions for administration. Your veterinarian may also recommend restricting access to hard foods and certain toys after surgery.

Ask your veterinarian whether you need to adjust your dog’s diet or restrict chew toys and games, such as tug-of-war.

Prevention of Cavities in Dogs

The single most effective action a pet parent can take to prevent their dog from getting cavities is regularly brushing their dog's teeth. Daily brushing is the gold standard.

Speak with your veterinarian about dental products, treats, water additives, and other products, but keep in mind that none of these items is as effective as brushing your dog’s teeth.

Ensure you feed your dog a high-quality diet and avoid sugary treats. If you have any questions about your dog’s diet, your veterinarian can discuss appropriate options with you.

Prescription dental diets are available for dogs who are prone to dental issues. Examples include Hill’s® Prescription Diet t/d Dental Care or Royal Canin®/MD Veterinary Diet Dental.

Regular checkups with your veterinarian are also essential for protecting your pet’s dental health.

Your vet will recommend dental cleanings as necessary, which will allow them to fully assess your dog’s dental health. Your veterinarian can also apply a sealant to any teeth they feel may be prone to cavity development.

Cavities in Dogs FAQs

How much does it cost to fix a cavity in a dog?

Costs for cavity repair vary widely. These procedures require anesthesia, a thorough oral exam, X-rays, and dental surgery. With cleaning, fillings, and possibly extractions, costs may reach $600 to $1,200. If multiple teeth are affected, you can expect this cost to increase.

What are the stages of a dog’s cavity?

Cavities develop in five stages:

  1. Only the enamel, which is the outer white layer of the tooth, is affected.

  2. The cavity extends to the dentin, which is the tooth layer beneath the enamel.

  3. Damage progresses to the pulp chamber in the center of the tooth, which includes blood vessels and nerves.

  4. The overall structure of the crown is damaged.

  5. Most of the crown is lost and the tooth’s roots may be exposed.

How do you treat a dog cavity at home?

You cannot treat a dog’s cavity at home. Veterinary treatment is required to prevent further damage to the dog’s tooth and relieve pain.

Featured Image: dima_sidelnikov/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Rhiannon Koehler, DVM


Dr. Rhiannon Koehler is a veterinarian and freelance medical writer. She received her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine and Master of Public...

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