February is National Pet Dental Health Month. A few years ago I wrote a piece about the importance of good dental hygiene in dogs and cats. For a number of months afterward, clients came in and discussed their pets’ teeth, having been prompted by the article. Seeing how important dental health is to overall pet well-being and comfort, it is very worthwhile reprising this topic.
We will do dental education as a quiz!
Q: What percentage of dogs and cats have dental disease by the time they are three years-old?
A: 80% of dogs and 70% of cats
Believe it or not, dental disease starts when pets are young. Our furry creatures are not wild animals (even those get tooth problems) and their genetics and diet compound tooth problems. Frequently we see young dogs with dental tartar and many cats with oral resorptive lesions, where the gums are dissolving away the teeth.
Q: Dental disease is easy to see.
A: False. While tartar on teeth is visible, many problems occur below the gum line. Tartar can accumulate on roots, causing pain and tooth loss. Resorptive lesions can also be masked by the gums. It is not unusual to take X-rays of teeth to only find out that a root has decayed away! Bacteria can ride down roots, causing painful abscesses. All of this can occur while the tooth looks normal.
Q: A discolored tooth is nothing to worry about.
A: False. Frequently a discolored tooth is a dead tooth. Teeth are composed of several layers, with the middle being nerves and blood supply. These blood vessels are essential as they feed and nourish the tooth. A variety of things can cause a tooth to die — trauma, infection, breakage. Dead teeth can lead to tooth root abscesses and pain. Any discolored tooth should be examined.
Q: What is the single most important act you can take to keep your pets’ feet healthy? Brush daily? Give dental chews? Use a dental water additive?
A: Brush teeth daily. Every day a small film of bacteria forms on teeth. Given a bit of time, this biofilm hardens, forming dental tartar. Brushing teeth daily has been shown to be the most effective way to decrease tartar and plaque build-up. Daily may be a stretch for most people, but aim for every other day. This does not have to be long and drawn-out, 15 seconds goes a long way!
Q: Is it important for my veterinarian to examine my pet and his/her teeth at least once per year?
A: Absolutely. Just as you see the dentist for your own teeth, so must your pet. Your veterinarian will know what to look for in their mouths and be able to provide guidance on how to address any problems. Do not assume that simply because your pet is eating that their teeth are healthy!
Q: My pet will show signs that their teeth hurt, right?
A: Not always. While drooling, wincing, and simply refusing to chew may be some clinical signs of disease, most pets appear to carry on as normal. But this does not mean that they are not in discomfort.
Q: Aside from the mouth, what else can poor dental hygiene effect?
A: Most organ systems. The mouth is a hive of bacteria and these little guys don’t stay there! Bacteria readily enters the blood when there is oral disease and can cause kidney damage, liver disease, heart valve problems, and a host of other ailments. Good oral health may greatly extend the health, comfort, and lifespan of your pets.
Q: My dog’s groomer brushes his teeth and may remove some tartar, is this sufficient?
A: No. A thorough dental examination with dental X-rays, and under the gum cleaning is ideal for oral health. Remember that much of dental disease is not readily visible. Simply cleaning the tops of the teeth leaves much disease behind. As necessary, your veterinarian will recommend sedation in order to keep your pet’s mouth happy.
Dan Teich, DVM, Medical Director, District Veterinary Hospital. www.districtvet.com