Avoiding Dental Disaster

Ellie here, with kind of a personal question: Did you brush your teeth this morning?

You did? Awesome!

Now – how about your pet’s teeth?

Silence . . . hmm . . .

Did you know that just like in humans, animals’ teeth can accumulate bacteria and other nastiness? When the normal bacteria that live in the mouth adhere to the teeth, they form a sticky layer called a biofilm. In as little as three days this biofilm can harden, transforming into a tough material called plaque or dental tartar. This process is quick, too – over 80% of dogs and 70% of cats have dental disease by the age of three years! Now that’s what I call a dental disaster!

Although it’s super gross to look at, plaque isn’t the worst thing to happen to your pet’s mouth. The real problem starts when bacteria migrate under the gums, or gingiva. This causes local infections and inflammation of the gingiva (you might know this condition as gingivitis). The gums become red and sore, which can be painful for dogs and cats alike.

This is a model of a dog’s mouth, complete with gingiva.

And here’s a cat’s mouth.

Meanwhile, those pesky pathogens continue to wreak havoc. They can set up shop in the deep part of the tooth under the gums (the root), resulting in abscesses (pockets of pus) that cause pain and can loosen teeth. Bacteria can also get inside a tooth, killing the living tissue within. Once that happens, the only options are a root canal or removal of the tooth (extraction).

Even worse, once bacteria crawl under the gums, they’re able to reach the bloodstream and travel to other organs in the body – including the kidneys, liver, and heart!

So, by now you’ve figured out that the oral health of your pets is a big deal. Signs of dental disease you may notice in your pet include:

  • Decreased appetite, or chewing on one side of the mouth. (Though most animals continue to eat despite the pain and discomfort it causes – after all, they’re hungry.)
  • Bad breath (halitosis.)
  • “Chattering” (moving their jaws together quickly.)
  • Behavioral changes, including a loss of interest in toys and not wanting to be patted on the head.
  • Excessive drooling, sneezing, or discharge from the mouth.
  • Bleeding from the gums or mouth.
  • Loose teeth, discolored teeth, or masses in the mouth.
  • Swelling or drainage under the eye.
  • It’s even possible for dental disease to be so severe that a pet’s jaw may break!
  • Sometimes nothing! Pets can be so good at hiding discomfort that you may not notice any changes. Affected pets may act relatively normal and still be eating and playing. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to bring your pet in at least once a year so your pet’s mouth (and all the other parts of them!) can be examined.

So, what should you do if you see these signs in your pet? A trip to the veterinarian should be your first step. After evaluating your pet, your vet may suggest an Oral Assessment and Treatment (or OAT, also referred to as a “dental” or dental surgery).

OATs are performed under general anesthesia. Vets do this for several reasons. One reason is that the medical team needs to take x-rays (radiographs) of the pet’s entire mouth. A wiggly pet makes for blurry x-rays! These pictures allow the vet to see what’s going on below the surface of your pet’s pearly whites. Remember that even though cat and dog teeth are relatively large, we can only see ⅓ of the tooth, so ⅔ lives under the gums.

Here, we lifted the gingiva. See how deep down those teeth go?

See what I mean? Good thing we take x-rays so that we can see the whole tooth and safely clean it! Having a pet under anesthesia also ensures we can protect the pet’s airway. After all, pets don’t spit on command!

During your pet’s OAT, veterinary technicians will also check the depth of the gingival sulcus (the area between the pet’s tooth and the gum). A very deep sulcus can indicate more severe disease. If any teeth need to be removed, now is the time. Your vet may have discussed extractions with you before the procedure, or may call you during the OAT to give an update and get your consent to extract one or more teeth (depending on what we find after cleaning and radiographs).

The remaining teeth will be scaled (to get all the tartar off both above and below the gumline) and polished (to smooth them out and get rid of any rough spots to which bacteria could adhere in the future). Sometimes the mouth will also be rinsed with a special pet “mouthwash” to help kill bacteria. Bonus: extra kissable breath!

Once your pet comes home, what do you need to do to keep those teeth sparkling clean? Well, that takes us back to my original question! Daily brushing is recommended for all dogs and cats. In addition to keeping your pet’s teeth clean and healthy, brushing can help lengthen the time between procedures. Don’t use human toothpaste – there are special toothpastes available that are safe for pets to swallow, and they come in yummy flavors like chicken, peanut butter, and salmon!

Ask your vet about techniques to get your pet in the habit of good oral hygiene. Even if your pet isn’t a fan of brushing, you can still place toothpaste on rubber toys such as Kongs so when your pet chews, their teeth get rubbed with the paste. A good general rule for pet toys is that they should be soft enough that you can indent them with your fingernail (so firm rubber toys are fine; bone, antlers, and hooves are too hard). Dental diets and dental treats are also available to help remove tartar.

A few examples of the dental treats we sell here at our office.

By performing regular brushing and having OATs done by your veterinarian, you can help keep Fido feeling fine!

Stay tuned for a future blog entry where we follow one of our doggy friends through his OAT “dental day!”