Wilbur, a four-month-old Dachshund with a dash of Papillon or Chihuahua in the mix, was to be my first foster pup. A standout at the shelter, his irresistible face and personality sealed the deal. Once I got him home, I noticed that his lower jaw was considerably shorter than the upper one. Although he appeared to be almost chinless, it made his smile more pronounced. No big deal, I thought— he’s so adorable.
Two months later, I had him neutered, and when I picked him up, a handwritten note attached to his aftercare instructions suggested that he should be seen by an orthodontist immediately. My first response, like that of most people unfamiliar with this veterinary specialty, was one of disbelief. I thought perhaps it was some kind of joke. But no. According to my vet, Wilbur had a malocclusion that required treatment —the sooner the better.
Luckily, in nearby Pasadena, Calif., I found Jennifer Lynn, DVM, who has dedicated her practice exclusively to canine and feline dentistry for the past 15 years. Dr. Lynn explained Wilbur’s Type II, base-narrow malocclusion to me. His mandible (lower jaw) was much shorter than his maxilla (upper jaw), resulting in what most people refer to as an overbite. In growing pups, the jaws sometimes develop at different rates, but Wilbur’s situation was so extreme that there was no chance of the lower jaw ever catching up.
This was more than an issue of looks. His mandibular canines, which normally wing out in front of the maxillary canines, were not only behind them, but were linguoverted—that is, angled inward toward his tongue. Since his permanent teeth were still erupting, they hadn’t had time to do damage, but eventually, this misalignment could prevent him from closing his mouth, as well as injure his palate. The good news was that, treated early, the teeth could easily be shifted to give Wilbur a healthy, comfortable bite.
Why not just pull them? According to Dr. Lynn, canine teeth are important. Their roots are roughly double the length of their crowns, so removing them requires oral surgery and, sometimes, a bone graft. Lower canines make up a good portion of the chin, help hold the tongue in place and are used for grasping.
What about crown reductions? In cutting the crown, the tooth’s pulp is exposed. A small portion of the pulp is removed and the top of the tooth is shortened and reformed. Called a vital pulpotomy it’s not without potential complications, and needs to be monitored with annual dental X-rays.
Ball therapy is another option. Teeth can sometimes be moved into place in response to pressure generated by the dog chewing on an appropriately sized rubber ball for fifteen minutes three times a day. If, like Wilbur, the dog has no interest in anything that’s not stickor bone-shaped, then you don’t get to try that approach.
Orthodontics—braces—are actually the most gentle way of dealing with a malocclusion. Rather than surgically removing the teeth, they are carefully coaxed into position.
So, on to braces, and yes, they do come with rubber bands, or elastic chains, as they’re also called. With Wilbur under anesthesia, buttons were cemented to the lower canines and molars at the back of his mouth. Guided by composite extensions, pressure supplied by elastic chains attached to the buttons would gradually shift his teeth to the desired position.
Keeping the elastic chains intact proved to be the biggest challenge. Almost daily, Wilbur managed to dislodge one while chewing on found objects. I became an expert on reattaching them. Once, he managed to pop off a button, and had to be anesthetized so a new one could be put on. Thankfully, treatment is of short duration, two or three months on average. Wilbur didn’t require a retainer, though some dogs do. Once everything’s in place, it tends to stay that way because the dog’s normal bite acts as a natural retainer.