I was staying with my parents last Thanksgiving weekend when I walked in on a curious, but not uncommon scene: They were lounging in their designated easy chairs, tuned in to the National Dog Show, where an exquisite cohort of canines competed, primarily, in a contest of looks. In the same room, on the same chairs, tuned in to the same channel were their dogs — which, while precious in many ways, are far from dog show material. One in particular, Fargo, has a set of chompers that resemble a disheveled porcupine, which would absolutely earn him a failing grade if he were to participate in the show.
Teeth, in fact, are a huge factor in deciding which dogs win, hence the reason why the judges always take a good, long gander inside their mouths. Naturally, staring at Fargo and his gnarled mouth, then back at the flat screen, where each participating dog was displaying a smile better than my own (and I had braces for years), I was struck by what I thought was a laughably preposterous idea: doggie braces.
But, as it turns out, dog braces are a very real thing — not for the reason you might think, though. While people generally get braces for the purpose of achieving a straight smile, as veterinary dentist and oral surgeon Donnell Hansen explains, “I truly don’t care if dogs have a straight, Pepsodent smile. I don’t care about them having a beautiful set of Chiclets in their mouths. What I do care about is if their teeth are in the wrong spots.”
While having teeth in the wrong places can certainly pose problems for us humans, it can be even more troublesome for dogs, which have particularly long, sharp canine teeth. “If you imagine a German Shepherd or Labrador, their lower canine teeth — those big, giant fangs — can come in a little bit too narrow and hit the roof of their mouth,” Hansen explains. “If that continues, they can make holes in their palate, right out of the top of their face.”
Not only is this incredibly painful for the dogs, making eating nearly impossible, it can result in serious infections, too. “The consequences of traumatic occlusions [contact between teeth] can be substantial,” says Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer at the American Kennel Club. “Teeth striking teeth or soft tissues may result in tooth fracture, tooth inflammation (pulpitis), periodontal inflammation, pain and death of the tooth.”
While all of this sounds extremely serious, Hansen does admit that the use of a full set of braces (with brackets and chains, like we see in humans) is relatively rare, with many veterinary dentists opting for simpler, less intensive ways of shifting the teeth, such as what Hansen calls “passive orthodontics,” like these molded crowns or inclined planes, as opposed to devices that make use of elastics, screws and wires. There’s a good reason for this: As Hansen explains, “If you think about how people have to maintain braces — my nephew has braces, and he can’t have gum and has to be careful with popcorn — how are you going to explain to a Labrador to stop chewing on stuff outside? You can do your best, but they’re still a Labrador, and they’re still going to get into mischief.”
Furthermore, when it comes to putting on the braces, the dog often needs to be healthy enough to either undergo anesthesia or compliant enough to tolerate repeated pokings and proddings. (Which, good luck finding a dog like that.) “Most of us are pretty selective about what pets and what family we’ll consider any types of orthodontics for,” Hansen adds, since the upkeep can be a lot of work.
What, though, of cosmetic reasons? Does anyone use doggie braces for that? And is it even allowed? “If it’s truly for cosmetic reasons, we’re all going to say, ‘That’s very sweet and cute. We understand that you’d like to have a prettier bite on your dog.’ But if it’s not medically warranted, I don’t know of a dentist who’d be willing to do that,” Hansen says. There are, however, some odd instances where that line can become blurred: “It gets dicey when it’s medically appropriate, but it’s also a show dog or a breeding dog.”
Technically speaking, cosmetic procedures are bannable offenses in dog shows run by the American Kennel Club, and that includes the National Dog Show. “The American Kennel Club doesn’t condone or approve any form of cosmetic surgery used to modify or change the appearance of a dog,” Klein explains. “Braces aren’t and shouldn’t be appropriate for all dogs — they’re only used in cases where it’s absolutely necessary for a dog to eat and survive a pain-free life.”
“Orthodontic care should never be provided for deceptive purposes,” Klein continues. “Orthodontic procedures would preclude a dog from being exhibited in an American Kennel Club showring.” To further his point, he sent me this related section from their most recent dog show judge rulebook:
“[R] Change in Appearance, Disqualifications A dog which has been changed in appearance by artificial means, except as specified in the standard for its breed, may not compete at any show and is to be disqualified. (Rules, Chapter 11, Section 8)”
Regarding the whole breed thing, Klein explains, “There’s variability between breeds in evaluating a ‘normal’ or acceptable occlusion. An acceptable bite for a Boxer isn’t acceptable for a German Shepherd.”
“A dog is considered changed in appearance by artificial means if it’s been subjected to any type of procedure that has the effect of obscuring, disguising or eliminating any congenital or hereditary abnormality, any undesirable characteristic or anything that improves a dog’s natural appearance, temperament, bite or gait,” he adds.
Again, though, the lines can become a bit blurry here, too. For instance, because of breeding and whatnot, the “natural appearance” of some dogs, according to the American Kennel Club and other dog show organizations, can include the results of procedures like cropped ears and docked tails (Boxers are one of those breeds, for example). Both of these procedures, of course, are constantly argued about by dog lovers and breeders, half of which believe them to be cruel and unnecessary, and the other half of which believe that they have health benefits, “And hey, they look good, too.”
All of which is to say that using a procedure under the guise of health, with cosmetic appeal as a side effect, isn’t totally unheard of in the dog show world. “You have to walk a very fine line of whether it’s ethically appropriate versus medically appropriate,” Hansen says.
In the end, though, Klein says, “The primary objective of veterinary orthodontics is to provide a comfortable bite for companion animals.”
That means, even though my good pal Fargo looks like a shark that bit into a dense ball of titanium, as long as he feels all right, braces are probably a no-go.