Dental disease in our pets is one of the most common problems they will experience as they age and contributes to many other diseases. Even at a young age, pet’s teeth begin to accumulate plaque and eventually calculus that in time will result in periodontal problems. This occurs because of normal bacteria that live within the mouth that colonize the surface of the teeth. These bacteria also can enter the bloodstream and move on to other parts of the body, including the kidneys, lungs and heart where they contribute to disease.
Signs of dental disease in our pets can be subtle. Difficulty eating and obvious pain are not often seen. Instead, behavior changes such as lethargy and less interaction with owners are more common. A foul odor from the mouth is sometimes present. Gums can be visibly inflamed or bleeding and teeth may be loose or discolored. Some animals only resist inspection of their mouths. Sometimes pets show no signs at all even though they are likely experiencing discomfort. A large number of dental problems are not visible, and exist under the gums and in the roots of the teeth. Abscesses can form in the roots producing pain and sometimes swelling of the jaw. Dogs and cats are more accepting of day-to-day difficulties than are humans, especially if slowly progressive as is dental disease.
Most dental disease can be avoided. Home care is very effective, and if done right is not very difficult. Daily or near daily brushing is the most effective, least expensive option. Use a pet toothpaste (edible and attractively flavored!) and some form of brush to work on the outside surfaces of the pet’s teeth. Gradually working into it and using treat rewards works best. Focus especially on the rear teeth. Various chew treats can also help. Greenies, soft rawhides (Virbac, CET) all can be part of a home care program. Oral rinses and gels can be applied to the gums to reduce bacteria. Several dental diets exist that mechanically reduce plaque on the teeth.
Most animals will need periodic professional cleaning in our hospital. Anesthesia is required to effectively clean the teeth. This is because the biggest problems exist under the gum line, an area that cannot be reached while awake. Depending on the age and health of your pet, several precautions should be taken, including preoperative blood testing, intravenous fluids and adjustments in anesthetic medication. The teeth should be carefully examined and a chart of abnormalities should be made. Dental radiographs can be taken with specialized equipment. Up to 80% of tooth lesions are visible only through dental radiographs. If problems are identified in your pet’s teeth, several options usually exist for treatment. Sometimes extraction of the tooth might be recommended. Some teeth require surgery for removal. Other times careful cleaning or even restoration with a root canal or other endodontic methods might be offered. Most restorations are only available through a specialist or a veterinarian with a special interest in dentistry. All healthy teeth should be scaled with an ultrasonic device, polished and fluoride should be applied. Depending on the treatment needed, your pet may be sent home with antibiotics or pain medications.
Keeping your pet’s teeth healthy is one of the most rewarding ways to improve their lives. Home care is effective and not difficult to accomplish. Regular veterinary care is still usually needed but is less traumatic and more effective if owners help out at home. If problems are found and promptly solved, your pet will often visibly feel better and live happier and longer.
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