By Dr. Bruce Little
February is National Pet Dental Health Month created through a joint effort by the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) and the American Veterinary Dental College (AVDC). This annual event provides information and recommendations about the most frequently diagnosed disease that effects dogs and cats, dental and gum disease, collectively called oral disease.
According to research done by the AVDC and the pet health insurance industry, approximately 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have some degree of periodontal disease by the time they reach age three, and this condition will only worsen if preventive measures are not taken.
Most dogs and cats exhibit some indication of dental disease by the time they are three years old, depending on the shape of their face and mouth, and depending upon the professional dental care and home dental care the family provides for their pet. More than just a cosmetic issue, dental problems in pets can be a sign of disease throughout other parts of the body.
Pet Dental Health Month draws attention to the fact that good dental hygiene improves the overall health of our pets giving them the opportunity to live long, healthy lives without complicating other issues related to their teeth and gums. Preventive care can help protect your pet and catch problems before they become more serious. This is an annual reminder to take your pet to the veterinarian for a comprehensive examination of all body functions, including dental health. Many animal hospitals have special discounted charges for pets who visit their veterinarian during February.
How Dental Disease in Dogs and Cats Develops
Most dental disease in dogs and cats occurs below the gum line where you can’t see it. Periodontal disease begins when bacteria in the mouth form plaque that sticks to the surface of the teeth. Aided by the minerals found in saliva, plaque begins to harden into calculus or tartar as it is sometimes called. This tartar is firmly attached to the teeth and can be seen on the surface of the teeth. However, this is only the beginning of trouble. The real culprit develops as plaque and tartar spread under the gum line. Bacteria in this hidden environment under the gum line is the real culprit in the development of periodontal disease. These bacteria create a cycle of damage to the supporting tissues surrounding the tooth that will eventually destroy the tooth, and it will either need to be extracted, or will fall out on its own. If left unattended, periodontal disease will progress into diseases that aren’t just bad for your pet’s teeth, it can damage the heart, liver, and kidneys as well. It can cause everyday pain, loose teeth making it difficult to chew food, bleeding gums, tooth loss, poor appetite, lack of energy and reluctance to play or be part of family activities.
Signs and Symptoms of Dental Disease in Dogs and Cats
Many pet owners are not aware of their pet’s need for oral care and aren’t informed of how common this disease is; however, they are aware of their dog’s bad breath! Along with bad breath, there are several signs that dental disease may have already started in a pet’s mouth. Below are several symptoms courtesy of the AVMA for which pet owners should be aware regarding oral disease:
- Bad breath
- Broken or loose teeth
- Extra teeth or retained baby teeth
- Teeth that are discolored or covered in tartar
- Abnormal chewing, drooling, or dropping food from the mouth
- Reduced appetite or refusal to eat
- Pain in or around the mouth
- Bleeding from the mouth
- Swelling in the areas surrounding the mouth
Some pets become irritable when they have dental problems, and any changes in your pet’s behavior should prompt a visit to your veterinarian. Always be careful when evaluating your pet’s mouth, because a painful animal may bite. Although cavities are less common in pets than in people, they can have many of the same dental problems that people can develop:
- Broken teeth and roots
- Periodontal disease
- Abscesses or infected teeth
- Cysts or tumors in the mouth
- Malocclusion, or misalignment of the teeth and bite
- Broken jaw
- Palate defects (such as cleft palate)
Treating and Preventing Dental Disease in Cats and Dogs
The treatment of dental disease in cats and dogs involves a thorough dental cleaning. X-rays may be needed to determine the severity of the disease. Your veterinarian or a veterinary dentist will make recommendations based on your pet’s overall health and the health of your pet’s teeth, and provide you with options to consider. When you go to the dentist, you know that what’s being done is meant to help you and keep your mouth healthy. Your dentist uses techniques to minimize pain and discomfort and can ask you how you are feeling, so you accept the procedures and do your best to keep still. Your pet does not understand the benefit of dental procedures, and it reacts by moving, trying to escape, or even biting. Anesthesia makes it possible to perform the dental procedures with less stress and pain for your pet. In addition, anesthesia allows for a better cleaning because your pet is not moving around and risking injury from the dental equipment. If x-rays are needed, your pet needs to be very still in order to get good images, and this is unlikely without heavy sedation or anesthesia. Although anesthesia will always have risks, it’s safer now than ever and continues to improve so that the risks are very low and are far outweighed by the benefits. Most pets can go home the same day of the procedure, although they might seem a little groggy for the rest of the day.
Prevention of the most common oral disease in pets consists of frequent removal of the dental plaque and tartar that forms on teeth. Regularly brushing your pet’s teeth is the single most effective thing you can do to keep their teeth healthy between dental cleanings and may reduce the frequency or even eliminate the need for periodic dental cleaning by your veterinarian. Daily brushing is best, but it’s not always possible, so brushing several times a week can be effective. Most dogs accept brushing, but cats can be a bit more resistant – patience and training are important.
There are many pet products marketed with claims that they improve dental health, but not all of them are effective. Chlorhexidine oral rinse is the most effective anti-plaque antiseptic. Chlorhexidine binds to the oral tissues and tooth surfaces and is gradually released into the oral cavity. It is safe for pets and rarely causes problems, though it does have a bitter taste if palatability enhancers suitable for dogs are not included. Some dogs may object to the taste of products containing chlorhexidine while others accept it with no difficulty. The Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) has listed numerous products that have earned the VOHC Seal of Acceptance in dentifrice products.
It behooves pet owners to pay close attention to the oral health of their pets, both from the standpoint of the health and well-being of the pet and the cost for maintaining a healthy pet. The best source of information is your animal hospital for a dental checkup at least once per year. A comprehensive oral examination can eliminate gum disease, malformed teeth that causes pain and discomfort to the animal, oral cancers that can be removed if caught in time, and many other possible conditions that are detrimental to the health of your family pet. Although you may see advertisement to the contrary, general anesthesia is usually necessary for a complete and thorough oral examination by your veterinarian. The plaque that accumulates below the gum line is the culprit in periodontal disease and it can only be properly diagnosed and treated while the dog or cat is under general anesthesia.
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