One aspect of pet health that is commonly overlooked is dental health. Signs of dental disease can be very difficult to detect to the untrained eye. Most people associate pearly white teeth and a lack of bad breath with good oral hygiene. The fact is, by the age of 2 years old, 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some form of periodontal disease! This can be caused by tartar build up, inflammation of the gums (gingivitis), gum loss or bone loss. Usually, by the time the owner notices a problem with their pet’s breath, significant and sometimes irreversible damage to the pet’s teeth and gums has occurred. In addition to pain and infection, poor oral health can cause other unexpected consequences to a pet’s health such as systemic infection, cardiac, liver or kidney injury, abscessed teeth, oronasal fistulas and can actually shave years off of a pet’s life.
Veterinary professionals are often asked by pet parents why their pet has dental disease. I encourage people to think about the amount of time and care that is devoted to the care of their own teeth – twice (or more) daily brushing, antiseptic mouth washes, flossing, floride treatments, twice (or more) annual ultrasonic scaling with an oral hygienist and at least once yearly full mouth oral exams and dental radiographs with a dentist. Chances are, most pets get their teeth brushed once a month with their groomer and do not have their first ultrasonic scaling and dental radiographs until they are over the age of five years old. Imagine not brushing your teeth or seeing a dentist for the first 30+ years of your life!
Daily home care of your pet’s teeth is extremely important to their oral health. Equally important are annual dental cleanings with a veterinarian. During a dental cleaning, the patient is put under full general anesthesia. This allows the veterinarian to fully examine every tooth for signs of decay, fracture, infection or gingival inflammation. Dental radiographs are often taken of each tooth to evaluate the root of the tooth to look for signs of infection in the bone or tooth root. Thick calcified plaque (tartar) is then cleaned off of each tooth with an ultrasonic scaler on each tooth above and below the gumline (this is a very important step since most dental disease is below the gumline). The teeth are polished to remove microscopic scratches and provide a smooth surface which can help slow the return of plaque. Any diseased or fractured teeth can then be extracted if needed.
Understandably, a lot of pet parents have reservations about putting their pet under general anesthesia and prefer to do “awake dentals” for their pets instead. To help ease your mind, please see our blog regarding general anesthesia and safety precautions that are taken at 4 Paws to ensure the best outcome for our patients. In general, awake dentals are highly discouraged in the veterinary community for several reasons. This procedure can be very stressful and traumatic for pets as they do not understand why their teeth are being poked and prodded and why they are being restrained (think of the anxiety most people have seeing the dentist). Awake dentals do not allow cleaning below the gumline which, as previously stated is where the majority of tartar build up and dental disease occurs. Full examination of the mouth for signs of periodontal disease, tooth decay, tooth fracture and oral masses is also not possible with this procedure.
Believe it or not, plaque can start to return within 24 hours of a professional dental cleaning which is why it is so important to heed veterinary recommendations and practice at home dental care. This includes daily brushing of your pet’s teeth as well as various mouth washes, dental diets or dental treats. Treats marked with the VOHC (Veterinary Oral Health Council) seal of approval have been tested and proven to help slow progression of plaque buildup and periodontal disease in pets.