Pearly whites: Why regular dental care is so important for your pets

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher / Photo

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher / Photo

Dr. Anna Dunton-Gallagher

Next week marks the beginning of February and also Pet Dental Health Month. I thought that this was the perfect time to talk about animal dentistry, especially on the heels of an anesthesia article. I often find that a fear of anesthesia is the top reason that people do not get dental procedures done on their pets. Hopefully my article last week assuaged some of your fears about anesthesia, so now I will talk about why dental cleanings are so important to your pet’s health.

Dental health in our pets is about much more than just doggy or cat-food breath. While bad mouth odor certainly affects us, poor dental health affects your pet in many more ways than just halitosis. Just this morning, my dogs tried to eat rabbit poop. When I asked them to stop, they snuck into the pasture and moved on to horse poop. Needless to say, their breath doesn’t smell good, and that is no surprise. However, there is a difference between breath that has just encountered poop/carrion/dirt/mice and actual dental disease. Most pets have started to develop dental disease by the age of 3. That is very young, especially for cats. We don’t typically think of young animals having dental issues, but it happens quite often.

Imagine if you never brushed your teeth from the time your adult teeth came in. How do you think your mouth would look, smell and feel? Now that our pets are living longer and healthier lives, we must take into account the affect that bad dental health has on them overall. There are multiple reasons why clean teeth are the best medicine. 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. The bacteria living under the gums have a quick access to the bloodstream. This means that they can easily infect the heart, kidneys and other organs. If any organ has mild compromise, circulating bacteria can have irreversible affects on it. Dogs that have bad teeth suffer organ failure at a higher rate as they age.

The kicker for most people is that pets need to have dental cleanings under anesthesia for them to be fully effective. Please don’t let this deter you. We do this for good reason. Most of the bacteria that we need to clean is just underneath the gum surface, so we can’t just “pop” it off awake. This is not a comfortable procedure, and if you can think back to your last dental cleaning, I am sure that you can imagine why. Scaling calculus is a little bit loud, somewhat uncomfortable, and it feels funny. Putting probes underneath the gum is something we can’t reason out with our pets. We cannot ask our pets to stay perfectly still and explain the reasoning to them. Any movement risks damaging their gums and decreases our ability to clean effectively.

Once we have removed the tartar, we probe the depth of the gum. Any deep pockets indicate that the gum has become unattached to the tooth line, which leaves the tooth root open for infection. We also take x-rays of the teeth. Because pets are not able to tell us if chewing is uncomfortable on a specific tooth, x-rays tell us the exact integrity of the teeth. There must be absolutely no motion while we are taking these x-rays. To ask a pet to stay still while we place a tiny x-ray plate in their mouth is not realistic. I actually struggle with this myself at the dentist. If your pet were to bite down on the sensor, I can assure you the cost of dentals would rise drastically! These are very pricey and delicate pieces of equipment, but are necessary as they can provide us with a lot of important information.

When dental cleanings are done on a routine basis they are usually fairly fast. However, if it has been a long time since your pet’s last dental or they have any affected teeth that must be surgically extracted, dental procedures can take a long time. Pets are much more comfortable, happier and better served when they are under general anesthesia for these procedures.

Once the teeth are cleaned with an ultrasonic scaler, fully examined, and any damaged teeth have been extracted, we move on to polishing. Polishing helps the surface of the tooth have a better integrity, not to mention look more beautiful! Pets are then woken up from anesthesia and get to go home later that day.

Often owners are surprised when teeth are fractured, infected or loose. We all wonder why our pets wouldn’t stop eating, playing ball or chewing on sticks. I know that when I needed a root canal I certainly wasn’t chomping away on hard candies. Our pets tend to be tougher than we are, however, and still have a strong survival instinct. Even when pets need many teeth extracted, they rarely have come in to see us for not eating. This is part of why a good oral exam is so important in our physicals. Often we will see teeth with twice as much calculus on one side, which lets us know that there is an issue and they have mostly been chewing on the other side. Sometimes gingivitis is the only indication that we have of teeth that are affected, but is the first sign of a larger issue.

Don’t assume that if your pet is eating and chewing that their teeth aren’t a problem. Complete exams at least yearly and good oral home care are our best tools to keeping good dental health.

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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