Veterinary orthodontics is the field of study dealing with malocclusions in our pets. Occlusion is another word for the bite, or positioning, of the teeth and jaws, and a malocclusion refers to the misalignment of teeth or the incorrect relationship between the teeth of the upper jaw (maxilla) and lower jaw (mandible). The goal of veterinary orthodontics is to ensure that your pet’s mouth functions properly without pain.
There are four classifications of malocclusions in veterinary medicine:
Class I: The upper and lower jaws are in normal position, but one or more teeth are misaligned.
Class II: The lower jaw is shorter than the upper jaw. This is also known as an overbite. In many cases, the lower canine teeth come into contact with the affected pet’s palate, causing pain and inflammation.
Class III: The lower jaw is longer than the upper jaw. This is also known as an underbite. While normal in some breeds, including the English Bulldog, these malocclusions may cause problems in others.
Class IV: One side of the lower jaw is shorter than the the upper jaw, and one side is longer than the upper jaw. This is also called a wry mouth.
Class II, III, and IV malocclusions are genetic in nature, meaning that they are passed down from generation to generation.
Retained deciduous teeth (or baby teeth) are another potential problem that can lead to malocclusion. Just like us, our pets lose their baby teeth to make room for larger adult teeth. When baby teeth don’t fall out, they can cause overcrowding of the mouth or may cause the adult teeth to erupt in a misaligned fashion. Retained deciduous teeth can also lead to a condition called dental interlock, where the positioning of the teeth acts as a barrier to growth in the shorter jaw. This can cause long term malocclusion issues.
The goal of veterinary orthodontics is to correct malocclusions. Usually, this can be done through either extraction (or removal) or shortening of the offending tooth or teeth, or by moving affected teeth. Veterinary orthodontics is not for cosmetic reasons (after all, your pet doesn’t care if his teeth are a little crooked!), but instead to correct malocclusions that are causing pain or causing malfunction of the mouth.
When tooth movement is needed to correct malocclusions, veterinary orthodontists can use brackets, retainers, and elastics much like human orthodontists. Movement of teeth requires prolonged pressure applied to a tooth. The movement occurs as the bone around the tooth remodels--the bone where the pressure is applied is resorbed and at the opposite end, the bone is remodeled.
At best, malocclusions do nothing to cause discomfort to our pets. But often, they cause abnormal wear to teeth, and in worst case scenarios, they cause pain when misaligned teeth touch the palate, causing irritation and even perforation!
In cases where malocclusions are not adversely affecting the pet, it’s best to just keep a watchful eye on the situation and not intervene. However, if your puppy or kitten’s teeth are not coming in as you expected, it is important to address the problem sooner rather than later. Speak to your veterinarian about what he or she thinks should be done to correct improper bites or retained baby teeth.