(116) Like Pulling Teeth: Dental Care for the Veteran and the Service Dog

Miss Molly profile

Golly, Miss Molly

A Blog about a Service Dog and her Veteran with PTSD

(Supporting the Veteran and the Family Caregiver)


Teeth chew your food, become your smile, empty your wallet, betray your stress, and chatter when you are cold. Life with them can be miserable. Life without them is worse.

Although William sported a set of perfect teeth before Vietnam, he returned with 32 broken or decaying teeth. They had no disposable pre-pasted toothbrushes back then. Stopping in the bush to brush while in pursuit of the enemy never happened. Consequently, an entire generation of Veterans returned home in need of dental care.

While the VA serves the Veteran well in many areas, dental care leaves the Veteran all bark and no bite. Many Veterans leave the dental office one tooth less than their previous visit because getting an appointment takes a year or longer and too much damage occurs to save teeth.

In William’s case, it took one year to see a dentist for a cracked tooth. Just as his appointment time came, he received a call from the VA canceling the appointment. After another six months, he received another call canceling his next appointment. Finally, after another year passed, the dentist retired and the VA told William he needed to wait until the clinic hired a replacement. He received an appointment quickly and saw the new dentist, who marveled at how long it took to serve him in his condition. Because William’s tooth abscessed, the dentist needed to treat the infection first before removing the tooth so another appointment was scheduled two weeks later. The day before the appointment, the VA clinic called, telling him the new dentist left and it would be at least three months before they could get him in to see yet another dentist.

By this time, William took his bark to the phone and demanded help from the Denver VA, telling them about his experience, the delays, and the returning abscess. The next morning, the VA called and sent him to a private oral surgeon the same day. The young surgeon sedated him and completed the cleaning of the abscess, pulling of the tooth, and a bone graft within one hour. William arranged to pay out-of-pocket for the next stage of the work, which will keep his bridge intact—something the VA dentist said was hopeless. This will save two perfectly good teeth that the VA dentist needed to destroy to build a new bridge had that dentist stayed with the VA.

Now we seek dental insurance for William despite coverage by the VA with his 100 percent disability. While we first try to work through the VA, there are times when the VA fails. After all, working with the VA can be like pulling teeth.

Canine Periodontal Disease 

Miss Molly came to us with a cracked molar so our first doctor’s visit required anesthesia, an IV, and pulling of a tooth. With the medical insurance we purchased for her, she receives a free dental check-up and cleaning every six months with her “well-baby” medical appointment. Hoping to avoid canine periodontal disease, keeping her appointments rises to the urgent list.

The American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC) offers a brief explanation of how poor dental hygiene for your dog can result in periodontal disease. Untreated, the disease may result in weakening bones; fractured jaw; sinus problems; and, complications to the liver, heart, and kidneys (see picture of canine periodontal disease at left–these are not Miss Molly’s teeth!). Any of these symptoms shorten the lives of our fury friends.

While the AVDC suggested bad breath is the only visible symptom of canine periodontal disease, an article by Russell Welfare, DVM stated more signs may be visible. These include discolored or teeth with tartar build-up, loose teeth, sensitive or painful mouth, drooling (except for the Saint Bernard, who drools all the time), dropping food, weight loss or loss of appetite, and/or red or swollen gums.

Whether man or beast, proper dental care is essential to overall health—now that is something to sink your teeth into.

Post your Comments: 

What do you do to keep your pet or service animal’s teeth in good condition? Please reply below. 

Sources cited:

About the blogger 

Dr. Penelope “Penny” Culbreth-Graft is a retired city manager and graduate professor. She lives with her disabled Vietnam Veteran husband, William, and his service dog, Molly, on Cheyenne Mountain in Colorado. She writes, paints, cares for her husband, and spends time with her granddaughter.