Did you know the most frequently diagnosed disease that affects dogs and cats is actually oral disease? More than just a cosmetic issue, untreated dental problems in pets can damage internal organs including the heart, liver, and kidneys.
According to research done by 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 without preventive measures. All too frequently, by the time a pet owner realizes there’s a problem, the oral disease has already progressed to the extent that it’s causing serious issues with the animal’s health and well-being.
Preventive care can help protect your pet and catch problems before they become more serious. Plus, studies have shown that the average cost for preventing oral disease in dogs and cats can be up to five times cheaper than treating the condition.
The best way to prevent dental disease is a combination of care at home and also by a veterinarian. First and foremost, your pet should have a dental examination by your veterinarian at least once a year.
Most pet dental disease occurs below the gum line where you can’t see it. Periodontal disease is the most frequently diagnosed and most debilitating oral disease. However others include broken teeth, root abscesses, tumors in the mouth, misalignment of the teeth and bite. Your veterinarian will be able to identify and diagnose these issues.
In addition to an annual exam, both dogs and cats should be checked frequently at home for signs of dental disease. Look for symptoms like bad breath, red and inflamed gums, broken or loose teeth, discolored or tartar-covered teeth, abnormal chewing or drooling. Keep in mind that other symptoms can be discreet, such as refusing to eat, dropping food, evidence of pain by rubbing the face with the paws, or bleeding around the mouth. If you see any of these symptoms, bring your pet to the veterinarian ASAP.
Veterinary Dentistry for Dogs
A common first indication in dogs might be particularly bad breath or body odor. Most dogs have a characteristic breath odor, however, periodontal disease will eventually progress to a noticeable halitosis. In other words, an odor that gets your attention!
Other indications of oral disease are red or swollen gums, brown or yellowish teeth, bleeding from the mouth, frequent pawing or rubbing at the face and mouth, and reluctance to eat hard foods. If you observe any of these signs, you should immediately contact your local animal hospital. Periodontitis not only causes problems with eating and digestion, but it also harbors bacteria that eventually transfers to the bloodstream and can cause severe heart, kidney and liver disease.
It can be more difficult to discover dental disease in cats than dogs. Cats get periodontal disease, although with less severity and frequency than dogs. A more common dental problem for cats is tooth resorption, a process when the cells on the inside of the tooth begin to eat their way to the outside and the tooth decays from the inside out. Veterinary dentists aren’t sure what causes tooth resorption, but by the time it’s diagnosed, it’s often too late to do anything for the cat other than to extract the problem tooth.
Anything you can do to help prevent plaque and tartar accumulation will benefit your pets. And it’s important to be consistent.
Teeth cleaning: Brushing your pet’s teeth is the single most effective step in the maintenance of oral health between professional dental examinations. To prevent dental disease in your pets, brush their teeth at least three times per week, if not daily. Gentle brushing with a soft bristled toothbrush will help remove plaque and tartar. Use toothpaste formulated for dogs or cats, or even just brush with water. Don’t use human toothpaste, because fluoride can cause kidney problems if swallowed.
Pets might resist brushing in the beginning, but they’ll eventually get more used to it! The key to success is to be patient and gradual in your approach, brushing mainly the outsides of the cheek teeth located under the upper lip. A dog that resists brushing may have painful areas in the mouth that need to be addressed, and after those are corrected, they’ll accept brushing more readily.
Food and treats: Pet food manufacturers have developed dry dog and cat food designed to help scale plaque and tartar from teeth. Extensive research by these companies has found that the kibble size and the content of the food product may have influence on the development of plaque and tartar in your pet’s mouth. You can also give your pet treats to help remove plaque and prevent development of tartar. Treats such as Milk-Bone Brushing Chews, Greenies and CET chews are effective in controlling plaque and tartar.
Oral rinse: There are also water additives, oral sprays, gels and dental sealants that can be purchased from your veterinarian or pet store to aid in this process. 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’s safe for pets and rarely causes problems, though it does have a bitter taste. Some dogs may object to the taste of products containing chlorhexidine, while others accept it with no difficulty. The rinse is applied by squirting a small amount inside the cheek on each side of the mouth. The chlorhexidine gel is applied by smearing it onto the teeth.
Use the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) as a resource to find these products. A list of products with the VOHC Seal of Acceptance can be found at www.vohc.org.
Invest in Your Pet’s Dental Care
The best resource is a dental checkup at least once a year. 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 while the dog or cat is under general anesthesia. Anesthesia makes it possible to perform dental procedures with less stress and pain for your pet. Anesthesia also allows for a better cleaning because your pet isn’t moving around or risking injury from the dental equipment.
X-rays may be needed to evaluate the health of the jaw and the tooth roots below the gum line.
Veterinary dentistry includes the cleaning, adjustment, filing, extraction, and repair of your pet’s’ teeth and all other aspects of oral health care. These procedures should be performed by a veterinarian or a board-certified veterinary dentist. Veterinary technicians are allowed to perform certain dental procedures under the supervision of a veterinarian in many states. There are, however, an increasing number of individuals who aren’t veterinarians that advertise pet dental cleanings without anesthesia. This procedure without anesthesia may help to freshen your dog’s breath and make their smile look better on a temporary basis; however, most of the problems in dog’s and cat’s mouths are not visible without anesthesia and x-rays.
For additional resources, visit the American Veterinary Medical Association at http://www.avma.org, the American Veterinary Dental College at http://www.avdc.org and the Veterinary Oral Health Council at http://www.vohc.org.
Compiled by Bruce W. Little, DVM