Are Antlers Safe Dog Chew Toys?

Dog Tooth Broken by Antler
Lab Breaks Tooth Chewing Antler

Bennie had a fractured tooth due to chewing antlers & nylon chews.

Reindeer antlers have become a cheap and popular chew item for sale at many pet stores. Dog owners, intrigued by this “natural” item, are purchasing them thinking they will probably be equally intriguing, healthy and entertaining for their dogs. However, what people don’t realize when purchasing, is they may also be setting their dog up for a trip to the vet dentist, as happened to Bennie.

Pet Tooth Fracture Case Due to Antler Chew

Bennie, a 2 year old Labrador Retriever, came to Arizona Veterinary Dental Specialists when the owner noticed he seemed to be uncomfortable and in pain. When asking about Bennie’s chew toys and habits, the owners told us they typically offer antlers or nylon chew toys to Bennie. Upon oral examination, a complicated crown fracture of the upper fourth premolar was noted.

Dog Tooth Broken by Antler

Painful fracture of Bennie’s tooth.

A complicated crown fracture is defined as a fracture that exposes the center or pulp of the tooth. Once the pulp is exposed, the tooth is painful as the nerves are exposed. Eventually the tooth becomes infected and dies. After the tooth dies, it loses its sensitivity, but the infection will eventually spread to the root tip and this infection will cause chronic pain and can spread to the surrounding tissues. Often times these infections sadly go unrecognized until a large swelling develops under the eye.

Fortunately in this case, Bennie’s family recognized the problem early and promptly scheduled an appointment with us. Because of early diagnosis, the tooth was saved with root canal therapy and a crown was placed to preserve the function and strength of the tooth. Bennie’s long-term prognosis for keeping this important tooth is excellent, and another fracture is less likely now that his owners realize the impact of the antlers and nylon bones.

Top, before root canal therapy. Bottom, post-root canal therapy.

Top, before root canal therapy. Bottom, post-root canal therapy.

Pet Tooth Fractures and Infection

Many pet owners choose natural treats and toys for our pets such as antlers, chew hooves and hard-pressed rawhide – all with the best of intentions for their pet. However, from an oral health standpoint, pet owners must be careful not to introduce a chew toy that may cause tooth fractures resulting in dental pain and infection.

The tooth is a living structure with the pulp tissue inside. The pulp contains the nerves and vessels that extend through the dentin layer of the tooth. If the enamel and dentin is fractured off the tooth, the inside of the tooth can be exposed. The result is pain and infection in the tooth. If the pulp inside of the tooth is exposed, not only will pain result, but the tooth will require treatment. The only two treatment options are surgical extraction or root canal therapy.

Many chew toys that are intended for pets also have the potential for dental and gastrointestinal problems. Every dog use these chew toys differently and what can fracture a tooth in one dog, may not in the next. Some pets may chew appropriately; while others may break a chew toy quickly swallow it, resulting in a potential GI obstruction or chew too hard and fractured a tooth.    Watch your pet play or chew a new treat or toy. If your pet chews the toy very quickly and tries to swallow it before chewing completely, take the chew away and don’t offer it again. If the pet chews too aggressively and the tooth fractures, exposing the pulp, the tooth will require extraction (loss of function) or root canal therapy (additional expense). Ask yourself if these potential outcomes are worth the risk.

Pet Chew Toy Guidelines

The simplest guideline to follow is to consider whether you would hesitate chewing on the treat or toy yourself. If the answer is yes, it is likely to cause dental injury to your pet. The toy or treat should be soft enough to bend or have some “give” to it.

The list of excessively hard toys and chews includes:

  • antlers
  • bones
  • hard-pressed rawhides
  • hard nylon style bones
  • bully sticks.

What is an appropriate chew toy?

For dogs, pliable dental chews, and other toys with resilience will be less likely to fracture teeth. Some products are manufactured to reduce plaque and calculus and are safe for your pet. A comprehensive list of approved dental products can be found on the Veterinary Oral Health Council’s website.

How do I notice my pet has oral pain?

After a pet fractures a tooth, they do not stop eating and often will continue to play and do not appear painful. Some pets will stop playing with certain hard toys or may start chewing on the other side of the mouth. In the majority of cases, the injury will go unnoticed by the owner. This is why it’s important to inspect your pet’s mouth on a regular basis. Brushing your pet’s teeth daily will allow you to inspect your pet’s teeth at the same time. Remember, avoiding giving your pet hard treats and toys does not avoid tooth fractures completely, as many pets will pick up rocks, bite chain link fences or break teeth when colliding with another pet while playing.

Some teeth are hard to inspect, such as those in the lower jaw, far in the back of the mouth. Often times, these damaged teeth are only noted when the pet has professional dental cleaning including intra-oral dental x-rays under general anesthesia. Annual professional dental cleanings are recommended for most pets and will give an opportunity to inspect the entire mouth both above and below the gumline.

If you notice a fractured tooth, you should schedule an appointment with a veterinary dental specialist for an oral examination and treatment.