Tooth Discoloration

When you consider that dogs and cats don't brush or floss their teeth, it is surprising that their teeth manage to stay as white as they do. But as pets get older, a lifetime accumulation of tartar -- a bacteria-laden film that naturally forms on the teeth and hardens into rock-hard plaque -- can stain their teeth an unhealthy brown.

"Brown tartar stains are a danger sign," says Carvel Tiekert, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Bel Air, Maryland, and executive director of the American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association. Brown stains on the teeth usually mean that large amounts of bacteria have already done their damage, increasing the risk of periodontal disease and causing bad breath as well.

When a tooth is red, on the other hand, you can bet that your pet has taken a solid knock by catching a hard object like a baseball, for example, or even biting a stone. Red means that there is bleeding deep inside the tooth, says Ira Luskin, D.V.M., a veterinary dentist in private practice in Baltimore. Without treatment, the injured tooth will eventually turn gray, meaning that the tissue has died, he explains.

A red tooth is bad, but a black tooth is even worse. "When you see a black tooth, you can bet it is not only dead but also badly infected," says Dr. Luskin.

Tooth discoloration isn't always a problem. Some dogs and cats will develop circles or streaks of dark brown on their teeth. These are usually caused by secondary dentin, a material that the tooth lays down to repair minor damage. In addition, puppies or kittens that were treated with the antibiotic tetracycline will sometimes have yellow or brown teeth when they are adults, says Dr. Tiekert.

See Your Vet If...

  • One or more of your pet's teeth are brown, red, or black
  • Tooth discoloration is accompanied by bad breath
  • Your pet can't open his mouth or is having trouble opening it
  • He can't close his mouth
  • He won't eat or has difficulty chewing or swallowing
  • His tongue, lips, or muzzle are swollen
  • There is a foreign object stuck in his mouth
  • His gums are red and swollen, or there is bleeding
  • Your pet is drooling or panting excessively
  • His tongue or gums are blue or pale
  • Your pet has ulcers on his tongue
  • He is gagging frequently
  • There is a lump anywhere on his face
  • He is pawing frequently at his mouth or face
  • There is a discharge from his mouth or nose that lasts two days or longer
  • His breath is consistently bad
  • Your pet's nose is dry, crusty, or bleeding
  • His mouth is foaming, or he's grinding his teeth
  • There is dried saliva around the mouth

Next Steps:

Back to Mouth, Nose, and Teeth Main Page
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