Bite-sized knowledge for the hungrily curious

Do non-human animals get cavities?

The Answer

For the most part, no.

Cavities are largely a uniquely human phenomenon. To explain this we need to look at what causes cavities in humans.

Cavities (or dental caries) are the erosion of a tooth’s enamel, caused by contact with acid. This lactic acid is created as a waste-product when bacteria consume sugars in the mouth.

Streptococcus mutans … lives in the nooks of our teeth, feeding on carbohydrates. It excretes lactic acid as waste, and the acid eats away at the enamel on which it rests. Over time, Streptococcus mutans can dig a hole in a tooth–otherwise known as a cavity.

The Evolution of Cavities – National Geographic

Put another way – cavities require four things.

  1. Specific bacteria
  2. A carbohydrate-rich diet
  3. Mouths where food and drink residue remains after consumption
  4. Time for the acid to work its way through the tooth enamel

Humans have evolved to have exactly the right type of bacteria in our mouths. Check. Human diet has become very rich in the types of carbohydrate sugars that these bacteria love. Check. Even with diligent cleaning and flossing, some residue remains in human mouths for some time. Check. And, humans have a lifespan that is quite long relative to other animals.

Other animals also generally have bacteria in their mouths, but the types and relative amounts are very different from those found in humans. The diets of other animals are also very different from humans. Animals typically chew their food (or not) differently from humans. And, for the most-part other animals generally don’t live as long as us.

Some animals don’t get cavities because they don’t have teeth (birds). Others have teeth that naturally fall out and get regularly replaced (sharks). Still others have teeth that exist mostly out of the mouth or get cleaned by other animals (crocs). Some swallow their food whole (snakes). Another way that some animals avoid cavities is to edit hard or crunchy foods like bones that scrub teeth and keep the bacteria and food residue from building up.

Animals may not get cavities but they are not immune from having other dental problems. Veterinary dentists engage in a number of prevention and treatment practices to keep domestic and zoo animals healthy. Wild animals are on their own…

… but at least they don’t have to worry about cavities.

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