Dental disease is one of the most common health problem that affects our pets. Nearly all dogs and cats will suffer from dental disease at some point in their lives, and many develop it at a young age.
What happens to our pets at home—the food and treats we give them, the toys they chew and play with, and the home dental care we provide—has an impact on their oral health. Dental disease is also genetic. I often see pets living in the same home, eating the same food and treats, who have significant differences in their oral health.
Dental disease contributes to heart, kidney, and other health problems at its later stages, but at all stages, it is often a source of chronic pain and infection.
When I was a kid, I broke both of my front teeth getting out of a swimming pool. I had to wait a day or two to get into the dentist, and it hurt to eat. The tooth fractures I had were pretty minor, just chips really. I see dogs and cats all the time with much more significant problems that cause much more pain, like fractures that expose the pulp of the tooth, severe periodontal disease, and areas of tooth resorption. Most of the time, we as owners don’t know how much our pets’ mouths hurt. When a dog’s leg hurts, he limps. When a cat has a wound, she licks it. But dogs and cats don’t have an easy way to show us their mouths hurt. They generally go on eating as before, and the signs of mouth pain are varied and not readily noticeable.
In veterinary dentistry, our goals are to prevent the dental issues that lead to chronic pain and infection and to treat pain and infection when it exists. Pets that have significant dental disease are usually noticeably happier after a dental.
PREVENTIVE HOME DENTAL CARE
Just like it does for people, prevention of dental disease in dogs and cats involves both home care and professional care. At home, tooth brushing is the most effective form of preventive care. Because brushing is painful for pets that have established dental disease, brushing should only be started on puppies and kittens or on adult pets either after a professional dental treatment or after being examined by a veterinarian. Brushing is very effective at removing plaque, the soft white film that accumulates daily on teeth. When plaque is not removed from the teeth, it becomes mineralized over time. This mineralized plaque is called dental calculus or dental tartar and is yellow or brown in color and very hard. Brushing is not very effective at removing dental calculus; it needs to be removed during a professional dental cleaning using a scaling instrument.
Tooth brushing needs to be introduced gradually so it becomes a rewarding bonding experience, not a wrestling match. With patience and consistency, most pets will allow you to brush their teeth. While tooth brushing is the most effective home care prevention, there are many other products available that can help with at-home preventive care. Talk to your veterinarian for dental prevention tips. For information on dental products approved by the Veterinary Oral Health Council, visit their website. There’s even a specific diet, Hill’s t/d, that has been shown to help prevent dental disease.
PROFESSIONAL VETERINARY DENTAL CARE
A professional veterinary dental procedure involves a full oral exam by a veterinarian and a full dental cleaning (scaling and polishing) of all teeth surfaces and should also include dental X-rays. The most important aspect of the cleaning is the removal of plaque and tartar below the gum line and in pockets of infection around the teeth. A thorough exam and cleaning can’t be done on even the most cooperative pets without anesthesia; professional dental cleanings and most other veterinary dental procedures are done under general anesthesia. While anesthesia is never 100% risk free for any patient, properly administered anesthesia with proper monitoring in healthy pets, even healthy older pets, carries very low risk. The benefit of improved quality of life far outweighs the low risk of anesthetic complications.
I look into dogs’ and cats’ mouths during physical exams every day. While many dental problems can be identified during a physical exam, many dental problems aren’t visible until pets are anesthetized and have X-rays taken and are thoroughly examined with a dental probe.
COMMON DENTAL PROBLEMS IN DOGS AND CATS
When plaque is not removed frequently from the teeth, it becomes mineralized and forms dental calculus (tartar). The brown or tan material on the surface of the teeth is dental calculus. As dental calculus builds up on a pet’s teeth, it provides an ideal surface for plaque, which is then mineralized to become even more dental calculus. As this process continues, the bacteria that’s always present in plaque and calculus gains access to the tooth under the gum line and causes inflammation and infection of the tissues that surround the tooth root and hold it in place in the bony socket. These tissues that surround the tooth are called periodontal tissues; disease of these tissues is called periodontal disease. When periodontal disease is just beginning, some of the changes can be reversed by scaling the affected areas and providing good preventive care. As the disease progresses, more and more of the tissues that surround the tooth are destroyed, including the bony socket. This results in pockets of infection around the teeth, gum recession, and/or tooth mobility. These changes can sometimes be reversed or stopped with periodontal surgery, but often times, the disease is severe enough and the affected tooth needs to be extracted.
Since periodontal disease results in pain and infection, pets feel much better and eat much better when it is treated, even after they have many teeth extracted.
Dogs and cats frequently break their teeth. This can happen as a result of trauma or from normal chewing behavior. Broken teeth are usually sensitive, and if the break is bad enough to expose the center of the tooth, the pulp, it causes severe pain. Broken teeth should be examined and X-rayed.
To help prevent broken teeth, don’t give your dog real bones, antlers, hard nylon chew toys, or other similar hard objects to chew on.
FELINE RESORPTIVE LESIONS
Resorptive lesions are a very painful issue, and the cause is not well understood. They are unfortunately quite common in cats. Resorptive lesions occur when cells that reside in the tissue adjacent to the tooth resorb the mineralized portion of the tooth. This exposes the sensitive part of the tooth and is very painful to the cat. There is no known way to prevent or repair this problem. Affected teeth have to be extracted. Unfortunately, as many as 50% of cats will develop resorptive lesions.
I have treated enough cats with resorptive lesions to know that these cats feel much better and have significantly improved quality of life when the affected teeth are extracted, even if that results in a cat with few or no remaining teeth.
A HEALTHY MOUTH EQUALS A HAPPIER LIFE
Just like their owners, pets may suffer from a variety of illnesses during their lifetime. We have little control over many of these illnesses. Dental disease is an ailment that affects nearly all dogs and cats during their lifetime. Fortunately, dental disease is something that we can both prevent and treat. With proper dental care, both at-home and professional veterinary dental care, pets can live happier, healthier lives.