Healthy white teeth may look great on your dog or cat, but good dental health is also essential for overall quality of life and body health. Good oral hygiene will help to prevent periodontal disease and associated systemic illness such as infection, chronic pain, behavior changes, difficulty eating, and even long-term microscopic changes to organs such as the heart and liver. Eyes may be the window to the soul, but teeth are the portal to many organ systems.
How Dental Disease Develops
Periodontal disease is an infection of the tissue surrounding the teeth, and it takes hold in progressive stages.
It starts as a bacterial film on the teeth called plaque. Initially, plaque is soft, and brushing or chewing hard food and toys regularly can dislodge it. When the bacteria die they can be hardened by the calcium and other chemical components in saliva. This forms a durable, rough substance called tartar (or calculus), whose surface is ideal for allowing more plaque to accumulate. If left to spread, plaque and tartar can lead to gingivitis, an inflammation of the gums, causing them to become red and swollen and to bleed easily. As calculus develops below the gum line, professional cleaning will be needed to help manage it. If the plaque and tartar buildup continues unchecked, infection can form around the root of the tooth.
In the final stages of periodontal disease, the tissues surrounding the tooth are destroyed, the bony socket holding in the tooth erodes, and the tooth becomes loose. This can be a very painful process for your four-legged friend, but it can be averted with proper dental care.
We at District Vet follow the recommendations of the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) in evaluating puppies and kittens for problems related to deciduous (baby) teeth, missing teeth, extra teeth, swelling, and oral development. As pets age, we examine them for developmental anomalies, accumulation of plaque and tartar, periodontal disease, and oral tumors. We can perform a basic oral examination while pets are awake, but anesthesia is required for a more complete examination, including below the gum line, where tartar buildup is often the most severe.
Veterinary guidelines recommend regular examinations and dental cleanings under general anesthesia for all adult dogs and cats. These may begin as early as two years of age, depending upon the condition of the pet’s oral health, although more emergent dental conditions, such as retained deciduous teeth, may require attention at an even earlier age.
Dental Prophylaxis – Professional Teeth Cleaning
Dental cleanings may be recommended yearly or as needed for dogs and cats, depending on lifestyle, genetics, and any specific issues that may need to be addressed.
Pre-Anesthetic Exam. We perform a brief oral exam, as allowed by the patient, to notate any visible dental abnormalities that may need to be addressed while under anesthesia. At this time, we draw blood to assess blood cell counts and organ function in order to minimize anesthetic risk and to develop an individualized anesthetic plan.
Anesthetic Monitoring. When the pet is under anesthesia, its vital signs are monitored and recorded by a licensed veterinary technician. These physiological parameters include heart rate, pulse strength and rhythm, oxygen saturation, respiratory rate and quality, mucous membrane color and capillary refill time, temperature, blood pressure, and ECG. This helps ensure your pet’s safety while under anesthesia.
Dental Radiographs. X-rays of teeth are necessary to fully evaluate your pet’s oral health, as they provide a view of the tooth’s composition and the bone structure surrounding it. The veterinary team can detect abnormalities that cannot be found through physical examination alone. X-rays can confirm the need for tooth extraction or additional therapies, such as antibiotics, when teeth are loose or badly infected.
Scaling and Polishing. Using instruments much like those of human dentists, we remove plaque and calculus. Polishing with a special paste smooths out scratches to the tooth enamel.
Your Role in Your Pet’s Oral Health
Equally important to annual dental exams by the veterinarian is at-home dental care, including brushing your pet’s teeth every day if possible. The AAHA recommends a technique for both younger and older animals, although it’s easiest to start brushing when your pet is young.
To introduce a pet to the idea of dental care, start slowly and gradually. The idea is to make it a positive experience, not something your pet will want to avoid!
Dip a finger into beef bouillon or canned tuna juice and gently rub along the gums and teeth. The most important area to focus on is the gum line (the crevice where the gums meet the teeth), where bacteria and food mix to form plaque. Focusing on the gum line, start at the front of the mouth, then move to the back upper and lower teeth and gum areas. This can be most easily accomplished by giving your pet a bit of a hug from behind.
Once your pet is okay with a little bit of touching, gradually introduce gauze over your finger and rub the teeth and gums in a circular fashion. When your pet becomes comfortable with the gauze, try brushing with a toothbrush specially designed for pets. The bristles should be held at a 45-degree angle to the tooth surface and moved in an oval motion. Gradually add pet toothpaste, but never use human toothpaste or baking soda, as both will upset your pet’s stomach and potentially cause toxicity.
Pet toothpaste is designed to be swallowed, so you do not need to rinse your pet’s mouth after brushing. If your pet does not accept the toothbrush, stay with the gauze pad.
Focus on the outer surfaces of the teeth that you can see. Attempting to brush the inner surfaces may result in injury and is best done when your pet is under anesthesia for a dental procedure.
Pet treats formulated for dental care are becoming more popular. While they are not a suitable substitute for regular brushing, they may help supplement your dental home care routine. When shopping for dental treats, always look for the Veterinary Oral Health Council Seal of Acceptance. These products have been studied by veterinary dental specialists and are proven to slow the accumulation of plaque and tartar.
Always be aware of possible signs of dental disease or conditions that may need to be addressed by the veterinarian. If you notice any of the following, please contact us:
- Bad breath
- Bleeding or red, inflamed gums
- Loose or missing teeth
- Dropping of food
- Sensitivity, pawing in mouth area
- Mood or personality changes
- Decreased appetite and/or weight loss
- Swelling or lumps on or near the mouth, or under the eye
For more information about dental care, visit the websites of the American Veterinary Dental College (www.avdc.org) and the American Animal Hospital Association (www.healthypet.com) or give us a ring.
Hill resident Dan Teich, DVM, practices at District Veterinary Hospital, 3748 10th St. NE, www.districtvet.com.