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Pet dental health matters year round
Although February was Dental Health Month for pets, every month of the year is important for dental health awareness. For our furry friends, just like for people, good oral heath is vital for the overall physical well-being.
According to the American Veterinary Dental Society, 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats show signs of oral disease by three years of age! Resorptive lesions (similar to cavities) are the most common tooth disease in cats; in fact, 20 percent of cats will develop at least one resorptive lesion in their lifetimes. Depending on what x-rays reveal, these painful lesions require surgical extraction or crown amputation to provide relief. Also, one in four pet patients will have a chipped or broken tooth that requires examination and x-rays to determine treatment. These are chronic painful conditions for which patients may not show any clinical signs!
However, some pets do show signs of oral disease ahead of time. Signs of oral disease include bad breath, changes in eating or chewing habits, excessive drooling, blood from the mouth, pawing at the muzzle or mouth, swellings, draining sinus tracts, chronic sneezing, and nasal discharge are just some of the common signs associated with dental/oral disease. Any of the above signs are good reasons to take your pet to the veterinarian for a complete oral and physical examination.
Routine dental care for pets is vital to long-term health. Normal oral bacteria begin the oral disease process. Combined with food and saliva, these bacteria cause a slime layer to develop called plaque. Calcium salts from the saliva deposit into the plaque layer to begin the formation of tartar (calculus). This tartar then adheres to the crown of the tooth and below the gum line. All of this plaque and tartar contains millions of bacteria, which, if left in place, progresses to inflammation and infection of the gums, which is called gingivitis. If this cycle continues without treatment, the infection progresses below the gum line, causing periodontal disease.
The periodontium is the connective tissue, bone, and gum (gingival) that supports the tooth root. If then left untreated, the periodontal disease will cause bone loss, damage to the supportive tissue around the root, pain, tooth loss, and systemic complications. This inflammation and infection associated with periodontal disease not only affects the mouth, but may damage other organs, such as the liver, heart, and kidneys if left untreated!
During a veterinary dental prophylaxis (also known as a dental cleaning), the patient is anesthetized and a tracheal tube is inserted to prevent the inhalation of foreign materials or liquids. The veterinarian will perform an initial oral exam, looking not only at the teeth, but also the tongue, lips, soft and hard palate, cheeks, and the throat area for any abnormalities. The veterinarian or licensed veterinary technician will scale the plaque and tartar from the crown of the tooth and from the space below the gum line. This space below the gum line is known as the subgingival space, and subgingival scaling is the most vital step of the process of slowing periodontal disease. To be effective and to avoid creating tissue damage, this step must be performed on anesthetized patents.
Next, subgingival spaces are probed for pocket depth. X-rays are done on teeth with potential abnormalities to visualize what is happening below the gum line. The mouth is charted for the medical record, and if problems are noted, a plan for corrective oral surgery is developed. Pain medication and antibiotics are routinely administered for patient comfort and healing. The patient is recovered from anesthesia and discharged home to their families later in the day.
Regular dental care from home is also recommended. There are several options, but remember anything you can do to prevent plaque and tarter build up will help. To truly be effective, home dental care must be a consistent effort. Dental chews are a good start for healthy mouths. Rawhide chews and dental biscuits have good results. However, pay close attention to calorie content of these products. I recommend staying away from dried bones, hooves, and hard plastic toys, which commonly break teeth and damage gums. Dental diets (especially for cats) and oral rinse products also are of benefit.
Brushing daily is by far the most effective way to keep your pet’s mouth healthy between professional exams and cleanings. Almost all pets will accept brushing if started slowly and if they are rewarded at the end. Use pet specific toothpaste as human toothpaste should not be swallowed with daily brushing. If you have questions or need help with at-home care, ask your veterinarian.
Pets who have yearly oral exams, dental cleanings as indicated, and consistent at-home care will see significant long-term health benefits. It is best to start at an early age, but adult dogs and cats can learn to tolerate brushing, too. As Ben Franklin said “An ounce or prevention is worth a pound of cure.” So “flip the lip” and start brushing!!
Todd Wihlen, DVM
Animal Hospital of Pittsford
Monroe Veterinary Associates