Dog Dental 101
According to some studies, as many as 80% of cats and dogs over 3 years old suffer from dental disease. While we can usually treat this at the clinic, it’s expensive (as it requires a general anaesthetic and surgery), so we strongly recommend prevention if possible!
Dental Disease in Dogs and Cats
Unlike humans, “caries” or cavities are rare in pets. Instead, most problems result from a build-up of plaque and tartar. Plaque is hard to see - a pale-coloured film covering the teeth, made up of food material, dead gum cells, and a massive growth of bacteria feeding on the debris. If left undisturbed, plaque turns to tartar - dark coloured staining or even crusts on the teeth, as minerals in the food and saliva precipitate out and cause the plaque to “set”, like concrete.
However, it’s what you can’t see that’s the most important - the plaque extending down under the gum line. As this bacterial film spreads along the teeth, it gradually invades the small (and perfectly natural) pockets in the gums that exist around where the teeth come through. Unfortunately, once the bacteria colonise this area, they cause gum infection and inflammation, called gingivitis. This infection leads to swollen, darkened, and sore gums.
However, it can get worse - after a while, the bacteria start to attack the ligaments that hold the teeth in place. This periodontal disease results in loose teeth, infected tooth abscesses, and severe pain - in some cases, the pet may actually stop eating because the pain is so severe, or lose the affected teeth.
Systemic Dental Disease
This phrase seems a bit strange - surely dental disease just affects the teeth and mouth? However, we are increasingly understanding that dental problems can affect other body organs too. In particular, dental disease can be a cause of inflammatory conditions such as kidney failure, strokes, and heart disease, and may even be involved in certain types of arthritis and blood poisoning (septicaemia).
Prevention is better than cure…
There is one approach to preventing dental disease that is more effective than anything else. It’s probably something you do for yourself every day…
Brush their teeth!
Yes, really - tooth brushing is really effective! Make sure you use a nice soft brush to start with, and always use a pet-safe toothpaste (human toothpaste burns the mouth, and can even be lethally toxic to dogs).
In addition, use of a suitable (and pet-safe) mouthwash can be really helpful as well - you just put it in their drinking water. Although it doesn’t get rid of tartar or plaque that’s already present, it will prevent any more from building up.
Finally, some people use rawhide chews to help scrub and clean the teeth. They’re much less effective than brushing, but may help. However, do be careful with rawhide chews - don’t feed them to cats (whose delicate teeth can be fractured), and don’t offer too many to dogs, especially if they’re greedy and tend to swallow them rather than chewing! If swallowed whole, they can block the bowel.
A safer option is a special dental diet a dry food that helps to clean the teeth when crunched. Again, it isn’t as effective as tooth-brushing, but may be helpful.
But sometimes, curative surgery is necessary too
Unfortunately, once the infection spreads below the gums, tooth brushing isn’t always enough to sort it. Instead, we carry out a procedure called “a dental”. This does require a general anaesthetic (very few cats and dogs will allow you to operate on their teeth while awake…), but with modern drugs and our expert vets and nurses, this is usually safe even in very old and very ill pets.
Once asleep, we’ll carefully check all their teeth, making sure that we make a record of what problems are affecting what teeth. To do so, we’ll carefully remove all the plaque and tartar - sometimes, there are perfectly healthy teeth hiding underneath! Then, any teeth that are so loose or infected that they can’t be saved will be carefully removed, and any repair work necessary done on those that are salvageable. Finally, we’ll clean and polish the teeth (just like your dental hygienist does), wake them up, and send them home with a lovely bright smile!
Now it’s your job is to keep them that way…!
If you’re concerned about your pet’s teeth, make an appointment to get them checked out at the clinic!