Dental Care Questions

What you need to know about your pet's dental health

Vet Brushing Dog's Teeth
Vet Brushing Dog's Teeth. Vstock LLC/Getty

Companion piece to: The Importance of Dental Care for Pets Please see the vet question archive for more Q & A topics.

Healthy Mouth = Healthier Life

Each year, February is designated as Pet Dental Health month. Various organizations, including the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), the American Veterinary Dental Society promote pet dental health awareness campaigns.

February isn't the only time to think about good oral health though.

Keeping your pet's teeth and gums in good shape has many health benefits in addition to the sparkling fresh breath. Now is the time to schedule that checkup for your pet to ensure the best dental health possible.

My pet has bad breath. Are bad teeth and gums the cause?

Most likely, yes. However, it is very important to schedule a visit to the veterinarian. In rare cases, some diseases or situations can cause bad breath in the absence of, or in addition to, tooth/gum disease.

Conditions such as kidney failure, diabetes, nasal or facial skin infections, oral cancers, or situations where the animal is ingesting feces or other materials, can cause bad breath with or without periodontal disease.

What actually causes the bad breath when tooth/gum disease is present?

Bad breath, medically known as "halitosis," results from the bacterial infection of the gums (gingiva) and supporting tissues seen with periodontal disease (periodontal = occurring around a tooth).

What is the difference between plaque and tartar?

Plaque is a colony of bacteria, mixed with saliva, blood cell, and other bacterial components. Plaque often leads to tooth and gum disease. Dental tartar, or calculus, occurs when plaque becomes mineralized (hard) and firmly adheres to the tooth enamel then erodes the gingival tissue.

What can happen if my pet's teeth aren't cleaned?

Both plaque and tartar damage the teeth and gums. Disease starts with the gums (gingiva). They become inflamed - red, swollen, and sore. The gums finally separate from the teeth, creating pockets where more bacteria, plaque, and tartar build up. This in turn causes more damage, and finally tooth and bone loss.

This affects the whole body, too. Bacteria from these inflamed oral areas can enter the bloodstream and affect major body organs. The liver, kidneys, heart, and lungs are most commonly affected. Antibiotics are used prior to and after a dental cleaning to prevent bacterial spread through the blood stream.

But my pet is only 3 years old. Isn't this an "old dog/cat disease"?

No - dental disease is not just for senior pets. Each pet has individual factors- age, diet, dental anatomy - that play a role in the development of dental plaque and tartar.

 

Text: Copyright © Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM. All rights reserved.

Please note: this article has been provided for informational purposes only. If your pet is showing any signs of illness, please consult a veterinarian as quickly as possible.

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My pet doesn't seem like s/he is in any pain. Do they experience oral pain?
They may not verbalize or complain like a human would, but animals most likely feel pain with periodontal disease. The pain levels may be low, or very noticeable, and it varies with each animal. Obvious signs of oral pain may include: "chattering" teeth while eating or grooming, drooling, crying out, and refusing to eat.

Please see this informative article by a veterinary dental specialist, Ben H. Colmery III, DVM, "Pet Dental Care - Does it Hurt"?

My pet lost a tooth the other day. S/he seems fine. Do I need to do anything?
Yes - please see your veterinarian as soon as possible to check the pocket and other teeth. Exposed tissue can be very painful and are open to infection.

My vet has recommended a dental for my pet. What should l expect?
If your pet has a lot of periodontal disease, your vet will likely prescribe antibiotics for a few days prior to the dental. This will reduce the infection in the mouth and the spread of bacteria via the bloodstream. Pets need to be anesthetized for a full dental cleaning. Scaling tartar can be done while awake, but for a thorough oral exam and cleaning, animals must be anesthetized. Scaling tartar on an awake animal, without polishing the teeth, leaves a rough surface to the tooth, predisposing the tooth for more plaque and tartar accumulation, quicker.

Most vets strongly urge pre-anesthetic blood work to ensure that everything else is OK with your pet.

Your pet will be anesthetized, any medications or fluids will be administered, and the vet or veterinary technician will scale the teeth, examine the gums (and any pockets), extract diseased teeth*, and polish the teeth.

The equipment used on your pet's teeth is much like you would find in a human dental office.

*There are other options - such as root canals, crowns, etc. Please speak with your veterinarian about these options, or seek a referral to a veterinary dental specialist.

How can I care for my pet's teeth at home?
It is important to use products specifically designed for dogs and cats. Do not use human toothpaste on your pet's teeth. Products are available for cats and for ]dogs. Your veterinarian or veterinary technician can show you the proper techniques for your pet. Some animals do well with a toothbrush, some do not. Other products include finger swabs, tooth 'cloths', and mouth rinses. Talk to your vet about what type of product would work best for your pet. Ideally, the teeth should be brushed daily, as with humans. Even once every few days will be a big help.

It is important to watch the treats, too. The soft, gummy treats can be especially bad for the teeth - they are soft, sticky, and full of sugar. Treats such as raw carrots for dogs are a much healthier choice. There are many "dental treats" on the market now to reduce plaque and tartar buildup.

Has your pet had a professional dental cleaning?
Cast your vote!

Thanks for visiting, and watch for more Q & A articles in the future!

Text: Copyright © Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: "Open up and say Ahhhh" by sarah m scott on Flickr