Dental Disease: What You Need to Know
Chances are, if your dog or cat is more than 4 years old, your veterinarian has mentioned dental disease or talked with you about dental care. February is National Pet Dental Health Month so I am coming at you this month with a 3-part series in an attempt to bring awareness to dental disease and help you to provide the best care for your fur baby.
So, exactly what is dental disease?
Dental disease or periodontal disease is defined as infection and inflammation of the tissues that surround and support the teeth due to plaque (bacteria). Without daily brushing, plaque accumulates on the teeth and leads to gingivitis (inflammation of the gums), gum recession, periodontitis (inflammation of the ligaments and alveolar bone), loose teeth, severe infection, and even fractured jaws.
How can I prevent this from happening to my pet?
You know what I am going to say: D A I L Y B R U S H I N G! I know it is not always easy or able to be performed but it truly is the single most effective means to maintain good oral health. Full disclosure: I have three dogs and a cat, two human babies, and a husband. I used to brush my dog’s teeth regularly, but now I am lucky if my 4-year-old brushes her teeth twice a day. I understand how difficult and challenging it is to make time in your day. If you aren’t able to brush, there are other ways to ensure your fur baby's teeth are taken care of. Treats and special diets labeled with the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal of approval have been tested and proven to reduce plaque build-up. Unfortunately, pet food and especially pet treats are not subject to strict regulations for their label claims, so just because a product is labeled as a ‘dental chew’ does not mean it is good for your animal’s teeth. Please be cautious and seek out the VOHC seal. You can see a list of the approved products here.
It is important to visit your veterinarian regularly to help control any disease sooner rather than later. You veterinarian will stage the dental disease (stages 0-4) and likely recommend a professional cleaning for stages 1-4. The good news? Investing in frequent professional cleanings will prevent severe periodontal disease from happening to your pet.
I really do not want to put my animal under anesthesia to have her teeth cleaned. Isn’t there another option?
Oh, I wish! As humans, we understand why the dentist and hygienist are scaling and polishing our teeth, and we are able to point out where we are painful. Animals do not have this ability (believe me, I wish they did!), so to be able to perform a thorough exam and to clean the mouth completely, they do need to be under general anesthesia. I understand how scary anesthesia can be. I was a pet owner before I became a veterinarian - I’ve been there! I will tell you, our profession has come a long way in regards to anesthesia. Bloodwork, which is recommended before any animal undergoes general anesthesia, helps us to evaluate internal organ function and tailor the anesthetic protocol specifically for your dog or cat. Local dental nerve blocks are performed which numb the mouth and thus help to decrease the amount of anesthetic gas used (meaning your fur baby doesn’t have to breathe in as much anesthesia, yay!). Most animals are up and walking around within 15-20 minutes of procedure completion. Having animals under general anesthesia allows the veterinary team to not only remove calculus, scale, and polish the teeth, but to perform subgingival scaling – as large amounts of plaque accumulate under the gum line. It also allows us the chance to take x-rays of the teeth. I can’t tell you how many times a tooth looks perfectly normal, only to find disease appear on the x-ray.
Last month, a dental cleaning was performed on an older dog with a lung mass. With proper planning and labwork, the dog did great during the procedure and recovery was uneventful! I know this isn’t always the case, but weighing the risk with the reward is important. Dental disease leads to disease in other areas of the body like the heart and kidneys. It is also extremely painful for animals even though they may not be showing discomfort in a way you would expect. Investing in a professional dental cleaning, if that is what your veterinarian recommends, will increase your pet’s quality of life. And it provides you a clean slate to start over with home dental care!
I hope this helps to educate you a bit more about the effect dental disease can have on the health of our pets. Next up: specific dental conditions in dogs & cats. Happy brushing!
– Leigh Hofmeister, DVM