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Removing a dog's canine teeth, also known as "dental disarming" or more precisely "defanging," is a procedure where a dog's canine teeth are extracted for the purpose of reducing damage caused by biting.

As the saying goes "extreme maladies, require extreme solutions," but does this procedure really solve the problem of owning an aggressive dog and its associated liability?

Sure, when the only other solution is euthanasia, dental disarming may appear like a good alternative, but the procedure isn't with any flaws. 

What Dog Teeth Cause the Most Damage?

There are no doubts that dogs have been blessed with powerful jaws and sharp teeth. This amazing concoction is a daily reminder of their past history as hunters and scavengers. 

In particular, dogs have 42 teeth comprising 12 incisors, 4 canines (fangs), 16 premolars, and 10 molars.

If dogs used their powerful teeth with the sole purpose of tearing meat off bones and chewing stuff, life with them would be easy as pie. Instead, dogs use their teeth as well to defend themselves and attack. 

Among all of the dog's teeth, the canines (fangs) are the ones that often impress us the most, as these long teeth were meant to tear, slash and puncture. 

With no shadow of doubt, these teeth are the ones capable of exerting the most damage to skin, soft tissues, and muscles. Even if the canine teeth don't puncture the skin, the jaw pressure is often enough to cause significant bruising. 

Dental disarming may therefore be something owners of aggressive dogs may at one time or another keep into consideration, but is it really worth it?

Dog canine teeth

A dog's canine teeth are the most likely to cause harm

What is Dental Disarming in Dogs?

The term dental disarming can mean several things. It can mean filing down a dog's canine teeth, the removal of the canines or even, the application of a bite guard, explains board-certified veterinary dentist Dr. Anson J. Tsugawa, in an article for Los Angeles Times. 

In this article, we will be primarily discussing dental disarming that involves removal of a dog's canine teeth. 

The most correct term for this procedure is "defanging," that is, removal of the dog's fangs (canine teeth.)

A Procedure of Last Resort

When dealing with aggressive dogs, it's important to keep several factors into consideration. Dogs don't just wake up and decide to attack everybody they meet. Behind the aggression there are often valid reasons. 

Dental disarming should therefore be a procedure of last resort. In other words, if a dog is aggressive, he or she should be carefully evaluated by a behavior professional such as a board-certified veterinary behaviorist. 

Ruling Medical Conditions Out 

A board-certified veterinary behaviorist will run a battery of testes to determine whether the aggressive behavior may be triggered by an underlying medical issue. 

There are several medical issues that can lower a dog's threshold for aggression causing them to be more likely to act reactive and bite. These may range from underlying pain or discomfort, to low thyroid levels. 

Implementing a Management Plan

Once medical issues have been completely ruled out, the veterinary behaviorist will carefully evaluate what situations appear to trigger the aggression. 

With this information on hand, the veterinary behaviorist can make suggestions for a successful management plan. 

This may entail things like keeping the dog away from guests, having the dog wear a muzzle in critical situations, crating the dog, erecting a fence and never letting the dog run at large. 

These management rules are put into place to guarantee some level of safety so to protect other people or animals and prevent the dog from rehearsing problematic behaviors. 

Tackling the Underlying Issue 

A behavior professional will also carefully evaluate the dog's underlying motivation to bite and its primary function. 

With this information in hand, he or she can determine whether a behavior modification plan is feasible along with management.

Behavior modification entails changing a dog's perception about stimuli that the dog perceives as being aversive, and therefore, uses the aggression to keep them away. 

To help the dog become calmer around these stimuli, the professional may implement behavior modification techniques such as desensitization and counterconditioning. 

In addition, prescription medications may be added so to lower a dog's threshold so that he/she can be in a better learning state. 

Recognizing Early Signs of Stress

Owners of aggressive dogs are also instructed on learning to recognize the earliest signs of stress.

Most dogs follow a ladder of aggression when they feel threatened. Kendall Shepherd has created a handy illustration of the ladder of aggression which can help dog owners recognize the earliest signs. This can be found online for free. 

 With this information on hand, owners can therefore take quick steps to ameliorate the situation preventing the aggression from escalating into a full-blown attack. 

Dental disarming doesn't tackle the root cause of a dog's aggression

Dental disarming doesn't tackle the root cause of a dog's aggression

Problems With Removing a Dog's Canine Teeth 

When dogs engage in aggressive displays, we are only seeing the tip of the iceberg, in other words, the lunging, growling and biting.

In reality, these are just outward manifestations of an internal turmoil. Dogs who are using aggression are often fearful and trying to get themselves out of situations that cause them to feel uncomfortable, stressed and fearful. 

This even applies to dogs who resource guard food bowls and bones. Contrary to the outdated "dominance" beliefs that have  been promulgated over the years, these dogs are anxious about people approaching their valuable items and the growling and snapping are simply external manifestations of this internal emotional turmoil. 

A Welfare Issue

Disarming a dog without tackling the underlying fear will fail to address the dog's underlying emotions. 

When these underlying emotions are not tackled, they can cause a great deal of stress and suffering, points out board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Valarie V. Tynes, in an article on DVM360.

 Failure to therefore address these profound feelings of stress becomes a welfare issue. 

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Compensatory Mechanisms

One main flaw of disarming the dog is the false sense of security it may give dog owners. Just because a dog lacks the canine teeth, doesn't mean he can no longer cause damage. 

There is anecdotal evidence that dogs who undergo dental disarming end up compensating for the lack of teeth by biting with even greater force, further points out veterinary dentist Dr. Anson J. Tsugawa who practices in Culver City, California.

Risks of the Procedure

Dental disarming involving removing the dog's canine teeth is not without risks. The canine teeth in a healthy dog have very large roots and can be very difficult to extract, points out veterinarian Dr. Scott Nimmo.

 It is also possible for dogs to develop infections and even jaw fractures. Both these conditions can trigger pain which can further exacerbate underlying aggression.  

What About Filing Down a Dog's Canine Teeth?

In its least extreme form, dental disarming may entail filing down a dog's canine teeth until they're blunt instead of pointy.

This less invasive form of disarming does not inhibit the dog's ability to eat, but it is not without risks too.

Not performed properly, filing down a dog's canine teeth may expose the pulp cavity.  When the pulp cavity is exposed without a root canal, it may lead to pain and the potential onset of other pathological conditions. 

Make sure to consult with a reputable veterinary dentist before considering filing down your dog's teeth. 

What About Dog Bite Guards?

Some while back, dog bite guards were invented in hopes of reducing the impact of a dog's bite. These simply work by preventing dogs from clamping their teeth down.

However, even with these, it's important to point out once again, that these devices fail to tackle the underlying causes of the dog's aggression and relieving the dog's stress. 

On top of this, they are likely not very comfortable as the dog isn't able to close the mouth, forcing the mouth to be kept in an abnormal position which can turn out being uncomfortable and even stressful. 

The AVMA's Position Statement 

The AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association) has issued a position statement that goes against the removal or reduction of canine teeth. 

The position statement offers alternative options such as behavioral modification, environmental enrichment, and changes in group composition. 

The AVDC's Position Statement

The American Veterinary Dental College understands that removal of crowns of teeth in aggressive dogs may be necessary in some cases, but only after other corrective interventions such as  behavior modification and pharmacologic intervention have failed.

The AVDC's position statement recognizes that removal of all of a dog's teeth is an invasive procedure requiring surgical techniques that minimize trauma and that such removal will  absolutely not prevent injury to people or other animals.

When All Has Failed 

If all of the above options have been implemented, and yet, it is determined that the dog still remains a liability, then dental disarming may be considered as a solution of last resort.

It should come recommended by a board-certified veterinary behaviorist, along with a referral to a reputable veterinary dentist.

As with using basket muzzles though, dental disarming shouldn't prompt dog owners to think that their dogs are now entirely safe to be around since their dogs can no longer bite to their full potential.

It therefore remains fundamental that, despite the disarming, dog owners keep on working on avoiding putting their dogs into situations known to provoke aggression.

References:

  • Pethelpful: Is Removing Teeth in Aggressive Dogs a Solution or a Band-Aid?
  • American Veterinary Medical Association, Dental surgery position statement approved
  •  American Veterinary Dental College, Removal or Reduction of Teeth as a Treatment for Canine or Feline Aggression
  • Los Angeles Times: A veterinary dentist addresses canine disarming

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