Open wide: Why dental care is so important for your pet

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Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

So now that we have covered heart disease, we’re moving on to dental health. February is pet dental health month. Sure, dogs have stinky mouths and your cat smells like cat food, but is it REALLY that big of a deal? Bad oral health affects many parts of the animal, and most of all, it hurts.

When you have a big cavity that needs a root canal, or a chipped tooth, it doesn’t take long to take some pain relief and call a dentist to get in immediately. What about when our pets have a tooth issue? Usually, they just keep eating, chewing their bones, and going about their daily business. They aren’t doing this because it doesn’t hurt, it is just how they are adapted.

Owners notice bad teeth when their pet’s breath starts smelling bad, but often by that point, dental disease has a stronghold. What most people don’t know is that the majority of dogs and cats have already started to develop dental disease by the age of 3. They are still young at 3, but if we don’t address their dental care early, we risk shortening their lifespan and causing them pain. Bad breath is the tip of the iceberg. My dogs often have bad breath, especially after they have been eating horse poop. Much more important than bad breath is gum health. When the origin of bad breath is tartar build-up on teeth, we start to risk organ health as well as tooth health.

Doggie breath is never going to be sweet, but a pet with healthy teeth, gums, and digestive tract should have breath that isn’t too objectionable. You must take this with a grain of salt, depending on what they just ate, but ongoing bad breath is a cause for a veterinarian visit.

There are multiple reasons why clean teeth aren’t just cosmetic. Bacteria form colonies and live within the plaque on teeth, but also between the gum and the tooth. If you look along the edge of the gum and see brown or yellow, this is just the tip of the iceberg. These hidden bacteria are very dangerous. You will also often see a thin (the thicker it is the more disease has progressed) red line along the gingiva (where the tooth meets the gum.) The bacteria living under the gums have a quick access to the bloodstream, and the inflammation is displayed by this line. This means that they can easily infect the heart, kidneys and other organs. If any organ has mild compromise, circulating bacteria can have irreversible effects on it. Dogs that have bad teeth suffer organ failure at a higher rate as they age.

Pet dental cleanings can get expensive because they must be done under anesthesia. However, the earlier their teeth are cleaned, the less expensive and invasive the procedure. When teeth don’t have a chance to be infected and weakened, they will not likely need to be surgically extracted. This saves time, money and discomfort for your pet.

Why cleanings under anesthesia are important

There are many things we do when we clean a pet’s teeth that aren’t comfortable. Scaling plaque from between the tooth and gum isn’t the most pleasant experience. I will tell you from experience that I have to think about my happy place when this is happening to me. I am a human, and I know not just what is happening, but why I must stay still. For pets, it is nearly impossible. Add to that the fact that your pet’s oral hygiene is likely not as good as yours (unless you brush their teeth twice daily and floss), so the procedures are a little longer.

It is also an important part of a dental procedure to take dental x-rays. This allows us to see the root of the teeth, the inner cavity and the ligament attachment of the tooth. Weakness in any of these parts ensures that your pet is feeling pain and the tooth needs some work. It also allows us to make sure the tooth was fully extracted with no pieces left fused to the bone. In this day and age, if your pet is having a tooth pulled without an x-ray they are not getting the appropriate standard of care. Dental x-rays must be taken with a pet under anesthesia, since they have to be perfectly still while having a sensor plate in their mouth. These sensor plates are delicate, and a pet’s reflex to a little hard object in their mouth is not to hold it gently.

Dental procedures also tend to be longer in our pets, since there are so many different aspects. Even the most patient of our animals (or us) would be hard pressed to lie perfectly still for a couple hours when they are wide awake.

Why regular dental treatments are important

There are many situations where pets come in with tooth problems, but owners haven’t noticed any signs. The majority of animals will not stop eating or fetching balls even with terrible tooth issues. Many owners notice a new life to their pet after dental procedures, but until this change, they never knew anything was wrong.

I will often see a dog with worn teeth on one side of their mouth, and when I have a chance to probe the gums or take x-rays under anesthesia the reason becomes clear. Often, if one tooth hurts, dogs will compensate by chewing on the other side of their mouth. This isn’t something that is very noticeable unless you’re opening and closely inspecting each tooth surface. I know from personal experience that there is only so long you can ask your dog (and especially cat) to sit and say “ahhh!” which is why a focused dental exam is so necessary.

Examining teeth is an important part of our physical exam, so ask your vet to go over what they are seeing. Brushing or wiping teeth at home can go a very long way to delaying the need for dental procedures. There is some breed variability, so if you have a breed of dog that is prone to dental disease (toy breeds or mixes, dachshunds, dogs whose teeth aren’t aligned ) it is even more important that home dental care is part of your routine. If you are absolutely unable to do home tooth care, make sure that you address options with your veterinarian. My cat will not allow me to brush her teeth, end of story. So I understand. There are ways to desensitize pets to these things, and we may recommend more frequent follow up if it cannot be done.

Forget the dry foods, chew sticks and dental bones, and instead discuss a perfect plan with your veterinarian. Be upfront about budgets and capabilities. We would rather make a plan that you can follow than simply send you out the door with something you will never use again. If your pet needs a procedure that you need to save up for, there are things we can do in the meantime to make them more comfortable. The earlier we see dental problems, the less likely that it will be at a time where the options are only to pay a lot of money or leave your pet in pain.

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher is a veterinarian at All Points Animal Care in Rutland. Have a question on this or any animal health topic? E-MAIL:

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