When your dog sits by your chair panting in anticipation of any morsel that might make its way to the dog zone, do you sometimes lose the urge to finish the rest of your meal due to the pungent wafting of his dog breath in your direction? When your cat jumps onto the table to stand on the newspaper because you are trying to read it, do your eyes start to water from the vapors that are emitted from her mouth as she starts to groom herself? I suspect that more owners than not have had up close and personal experiences with dental disease in their pets.
That “dog or cat breath” is often a sign of periodontal disease in pets, the most common medical condition seen in veterinary medicine. “But I feed them good food,” you may insist. True, crunchy food and other chewable snacks can help a little with tartar buildup, but realistically, if you didn’t brush your teeth for eight years you might expect to have some degree of dental disease no matter how much crunchy stuff you ate. Dogs and cats are no different. And the wilting odors coming from your pet’s mouth are not just socially awkward, they are a sign of smoldering, persistent infection in the mouth.
Now is a good time to grasp your trusty companion firmly by the face and slide those lips back away from all the teeth, all the way down the side of the mouth. Mild dental disease looks like teeth that are sort of white with some brown, and gums that are mostly smooth and pink where they meet the tooth. Moderate dental disease has more brown on the teeth and puffy, red gums. Severe dental disease involves heavy tartar on the teeth, red gums, and often a gooey grey line of pus oozing between the gums and the tartar on the teeth. Teeth that move when you touch them are beyond severe, they are abscessed and in need of medical attention.
Basic treatment for dental disease involves general anesthesia, use of an ultrasonic scaler to remove tartar both on the crowns and under the gums, and polishing of the teeth. When the animal is asleep each tooth can be evaluated carefully. X-rays can show the status of the tooth roots in the bone. Rotten teeth need to be extracted. The mouth cannot heal, no matter how many antibiotics you throw at it, if it has infected teeth festering in the jaw. Many pets end up losing large numbers of teeth during dental procedures, and the interesting thing is that after they recover from the anesthesia they usually feel so much better that it is immediately noticeable. Don’t worry that a pet who has had to have most of its teeth extracted will have a hard time eating. Teeth may be needed to rend flesh from bone in the wild, but not one single tooth is required to subdue a kibble.
The fact that effective dental work requires anesthesia is often a big worrying point for many people. When coupled with the fact that most animals with significant dental disease tend to be geriatric it can seem to some that dental work is too dangerous to risk. Keep in mind that being old is not a disease. Rotten teeth on the other hand, shower the body with bacteria that can cause organ damage, pain, and many other health problems. I know that I wouldn’t want to live the last four years of my life with pus dripping from my painful, stinking mouth, and I bet your pets probably wouldn’t want that either. These days the anesthetics we have available are very safe. Pre-anesthetic bloodwork can look for hidden problems, and excellent monitoring and supportive care measures are available. When good precautions are taken it is extremely unusual to have any problems, even for older or compromised patients.
Of course the ultimate goal should be to prevent dental problems rather than have to fix them. Getting teeth cleaned before they become catastrophic gives us a chance to save them, and is much less expensive and easier on the pet. At home the best thing you can do for your pet’s teeth is to brush them. In order to be effective it needs to be done at least three times a week, but why not just make it a daily routine? Dogs and cats do not tend to like the mint flavor in people toothpaste, and they don’t need to be swallowing all that flouride, so get them a meat flavored pet toothpaste instead. You only need to brush the outsides of the teeth, and pay special attention to the big chewing teeth on the sides of the cheek. For all you cat owners out there who are having a good laugh at the prospect of brushing the cat’s teeth, I understand the reality of that situation. Some cats learn to like it, but no amount of tooth brushing is worth a gigantic nightly wrestling match or loss of fingers by the owner. In those cases we will just have to monitor closely and perform anesthetic cleanings when needed.