Sometimes it can be hard to understand everything that is advertised on a vet’s website! If you’ve seen ‘dental x-ray’, you may well be wondering how this differs from other x-rays, and whether it’s important. Read on as we explain dental x-rays for pets.

What is dental x-ray?

A dental x-ray machine is a special piece of equipment which allows your vet to take x-rays of the inside of your pet’s teeth, their tooth roots, and their upper and lower jaw. It’s much like the x-ray machine that your own dentist may use on you, and only uses small amounts of radiation. However, unlike people, pets need to be under a general anaesthetic for dental x-rays.

What does ‘digital’ dental x-ray mean?

Digital x-rays are sent to a computer, where they can be enhanced or enlarged for viewing. They can then be stored digitally too. An added bonus is that they can be easily shared. So, for example, if your vet would like to send the x-ray to a veterinary dentist for advice or for an estimate for referral, they can do this quickly and easily.

Digital x-rays are the modern, updated version of the old x-ray films, which are developed in a dark room and can only be viewed by looking at the x-ray film on an x-ray viewer light source.

Why are dental x-rays important?

X-rays are important for assessing the health of your pet’s tooth roots and jaw bones. Unfortunately, many teeth can look healthy above the gum line (especially after a clean); but have serious problems below the gum line. Importantly, these conditions are painful for your pet, and could be missed without dental x-ray. Remember, most pets are very stoic, and not very good at showing when they are in pain!

A prime example of something that could be missed without dental x-rays would be FORLs in cats (feline odontoclastic resorptive lesions). Also known as ‘neck lesions’, this painful dental condition causes erosions on the ‘neck’ of the tooth, at or below the gum line. Another example would be an infection of the tooth root or pulp, which can be caused by a fractured tooth, amongst other things. You also need dental x-rays to check for any bone loss due to periodontal disease.

Rabbits’ teeth continue to grow throughout their lives, so rabbits are very prone to dental disease. Dental x-rays are very useful for assessing the health of your rabbit’s teeth and jaw, as well as assessing the extent of abscesses.

Dental x-rays are a good way to detect problems early on, before they are obvious to the naked eye.

Why does my pet need to have an anaesthetic for dental x-rays?

There are a couple of reasons for this, the most obvious being that pets won’t sit still for the x-ray otherwise! Even the tiniest movement will affect the quality of the image. The x-ray plate also usually needs to be inside the pet’s mouth, which would be impossible conscious. There is also the safety of the x-ray machine operator to be considered; since they need to step behind a protective screen to take the x-ray. This would not be possible if they were also trying to hold your pet still.

Dental x-rays are usually taken during a professional teeth cleaning (sometimes called a ‘scale and polish’), or a dental procedure. These can also only be properly performed under a general anaesthetic. Cleaning needs to go below the gum line, which is painful and dangerous if performed consciously

Are dental x-rays safe?

Dental x-rays only use a small amount of radiation and are considered safe. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no known incidences of radiation side effects from dental x-rays in pets. 

Ideally all dogs and cats should have regular professional teeth cleaning under general anaesthetic, with the exact frequency depending on your individual pet’s circumstances. It is considered safe for your pet to have dental x-rays taken at each of these cleanings. Consider, many people have dental x-rays taken every year!

In short, dental x-rays are a safe and extremely useful tool for assessing the health of your pet’s teeth and surrounding structures. They help to pick up issues early on, as well as issues which aren’t visible to the naked eye.

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