Advances in veterinary medicine are measured by the move to more sophisticated techniques. Teeth replacement with dental implants is an example of this trend. Many veterinary dentists feel that dental implants in pets can offer the same benefits that they do in humans. Others are more skeptical.
A recent commentary by eight veterinary dentists in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association questions whether dental implants improve the quality of our pets' lives. Following is a summary of that commentary.
The Benefits of Human Dental Implants
Dental implants for lost teeth have a reported 90-95 percent success rate in humans. This procedure is now commonplace in human dentistry. Replacing lost teeth prevents neighboring teeth from moving to fill the empty space. Such tooth migration can result in the loss of the neighboring teeth or interfere with normal chewing. Dental implants restore normal mouth structure and normal chewing. Dental implants also prevent jaw bone loss that occurs when teeth are lost.
The benefits of human dental implants are not limited to medical concerns. A natural looking mouth can improve self-esteem and improve psychological health.
The Benefits of Pet Dental Implants
Benefits of dental implants in pets are not as clear. The authors of the commentary report that there is very little evidence that proves dental implants are safe or that they improve the quality of pets' lives. Studies in dogs are limited to laboratory animals without access to the activities of normal life. These animals lacked the variety of foods, chew toys, and the grabbing, pulling and tugging of normal dog activity. In other words, the dental implants were not tested by real life experiences.
The experimental dogs did not have complicating periodontal disease that is common in normal dogs and which might cause implants to fail. The studies were of very short duration (3-6 months), so little is known about the long-term success of dental implants in pets.
The main potential benefit of pet dental implants is the prevention of jaw bone loss. Bone shrinks in all directions from the space left by lost teeth. If multiple teeth are lost in one area of the jaw, bone loss can be large. The authors quote an advocate of pet dental implants that claims bone “continues to shrink until it reaches a level equal to when the animal was a pup or kitten, resulting in a [weakened] jaw.” There are no studies to confirm such dramatic bone shrinkage.
According to the authors, other implant benefits like promoting neighboring teeth health, limiting teeth movement, and reducing tooth root exposure have also yet to be scientifically confirmed.
Toothless dogs often have protruding tongues which is visually unpleasing. Typically they are fully functional with few eating problems. However, it is impossible to prove that dental implants would improve self-esteem in these dogs.
The Risks of Pet Dental Implants
Dental implants require multiple episodes of general anesthesia. Although veterinary anesthesia has advanced, it is not without potential risks. This is especially true for older animals that are the most likely patients for these procedures.
Besides swelling and pain, human patients have experienced nerve damage and infection after surgery. Longer term problems include loose implants due to poor bone re-growth, or inflammation and broken implants.
Implant success is dependent on routine dental care. Failure to brush daily increases the risk of periodontal disease. Periodontal disease is the most common reason for dental implant failure in humans. Dental care in pets tends to be occasional rather than routine. This increases the risk of implant failure in pets.
The Cost of Implants for Pets
A single-tooth implant in humans can range from $3,000 to $4,500, excluding tooth extractions. Average charges for pet implants are not as available. Even if veterinary prices are cheaper than human procedures, the cost of multiple anesthesia episodes could still make the costs similar.
Medical advance is constant and inevitable. It gives us more choices to offer our patients. This commentary asks an important question: Just because we have the technology, is it necessary that we use it? The authors conclude that without proof of benefits, the real risks and expense of dental implants for pets outweigh their usefulness and should not be considered a routine choice in pets.
Dr. Ken Tudor
Tannebaum, J; Arzi, B; Reiter, AM; et. al. The case against the use of dental implants in dogs and cats. J Am Vet Med Assoc 2013; 243(12):1680-85.