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Teeth Chattering in Dogs
Tony Johnson, DVM, DACVECC
Published: May 23, 2023
Shih Tzu showing teeth
Shih Tzu showing teeth

Teeth chattering in dogs can be caused by several different things. Some veterinarians believe that the source of teeth chattering is usually dental or oral (mouth) pain until proven otherwise. An abscess, broken teeth, or gingivitis can cause pain; even some ulcerations or growths that don’t touch the teeth can cause chattering as a response to that pain.

Dogs can also suffer from pain in the temporomandibular joint (TMJ). A dog with arthritis around that joint or who has or has had a jaw fracture may chatter their teeth in response to that pain. Teeth can rub together if the jaw is clenched or from grinding the teeth. Imaging such as X-rays or computed tomography (CT) (both done under anesthesia) may be recommended to help your veterinarian better visualize what is happening in the jaws or mouth.

Even though the most common cause is somewhere in the mouth, the source can be elsewhere, including the gastrointestinal tract, or involving a neurologic disease. In some greyhounds, and likely in some other breeds, it’s a relatively common sign of anxiety and often ends as the cause of anxiety ends, such as a veterinary appointment.

Generally, the first step in treatment is a tooth-by-tooth exam under anesthesia with dental imaging, either X-rays or a CT scan.

Tooth Resorption

Tooth resorption is when the dentin, or the harder outside of a tooth, is inflamed and disintegrating. Teeth need to be evaluated closely for any tooth-resorbing lesions, as oral lesions may not be visible even on dental radiographs.

Identifying tooth resorption can be difficult, and choosing which teeth to pull requires experience and judgment. You and your veterinarian should discuss whether referral to a veterinary dentist is in your pet’s best interest.

Gastrointestinal Issues

With some gastrointestinal issues, dogs may become nauseous, vomit, drool, or have gastroesophageal acid reflux. Lab work and imaging, such as ultrasound or endoscopy (a camera scope fed into the GI tract) or surgery, might be recommended. In cases caused by gastrointestinal issues, medications may help stop the chattering within the first week.

Focal Seizures

Focal seizures are sometimes a neurological cause of teeth chattering. A focal seizure is a type of seizure that only affects a certain area in one half of the brain, not both halves. A dog with focal seizures may chatter their teeth or display what may be referred to as “fly-biting behaviors,” where they snap at the air as if chasing an insect. However, unlike other causes of teeth chattering, a dog experiencing focal seizures will not respond to you as they normally would when you call them by name, make noise, or so on, and they may seem to stare off into space.

Before this type of seizure, your dog may act unusual, such as walking back and forth or clinging to you. If your dog stops chattering their teeth during a short trial of anti-epileptic drugs, the cause of the chattering is likely related to the seizures.

Other less common causes of teeth chattering exist, such as pain in other parts of the body or even hormonal changes. A physical examination and consultation with your trusted family veterinarian, along with appropriate testing, can help pinpoint the cause of chattering and help guide treatment.

Additionally, taking videos for your veterinarian and listing all signs can be helpful to get them started on the best diagnostic path for your pet.

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