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Dental disease is the most common yet ignored and undetected disease affecting both canines and felines today.
Why is this the case? People don’t like to or are not able to look inside their canine or feline’s mouth. It is not pleasant to evaluate the teeth and gums, and can be difficult as well as dangerous depending on your pet’s temperament. Animals don’t like this either. Unless a pet owner is diligent from an early age, it can be challenging to start brushing a dog or cat’s teeth once that pet is older. Because we don’t see what the teeth look like it is easy to ignore dental disease in the earlier stages. Animals are also very good at hiding pain and are survivors; therefore, they may not show symptoms of dental pathology until it is very advanced. I see patients on a daily basis that have had teeth fall out of their mouth due to rotting, and yet these animals are still eating dry food and have good energy. People are also worried about cleanings that are performed under anesthesia.
Why is this a concern? Dental disease affects more than just the teeth. Debris from food starts to build up on and in between your pet’s teeth. Without routine brushing or other oral care this material solidifies over time to form tartar. This plaque continues to build up. Bacteria that are present in the mouth are also present in the tartar. The bacteria in the tartar stimulate the immune system, triggering the body to attack its own gum tissue. Overtime, pockets or gaps develop around the teeth, and the attachments of the teeth are loosened. As this goes unchecked, eventually the teeth become rotten and can fall out. Depending on the severity of the infection, it can span the entire mouth; but it doesn’t stop there. The damaged gum tissue allows bacteria to spread into the bloodstream and body. It can affect multiple organs such as kidney, liver, heart, etc. The infection in the mouth can also spread to neighboring tissue including the sinuses and bone. I recently had a patient that had such advanced dental disease, that the bones of the upper and lower jaw had almost completely disintegrated. The remaining teeth were loose, and yet I was so worried about the jaw crumbling that I didn’t feel it would be safe to do a dental cleaning. That canine was the inspiration for this column. As veterinarians it is important that we do a good job educating pet owners about the importance dental hygiene for our patients.
Dental wellness should begin at puppyhood and kittenhood. This is the time when it is the easiest to start routine preventative care. Puppies and kittens are very willing to let you rub gauze on their teeth, and later introduce a finger brush or tooth brush. There are a multitude of products from dental diets, treats, oral rinses, water additives, etc to try to make routine oral care easier. Routine veterinary wellness visits at least annually will let you know the status of your canine or feline’s mouth. Your veterinarian can help you create a custom care plan that is tailored to the needs of your cherished companion. It is normal for a patient to need routine dental cleanings just like in people. Routine preventatives are not substitutes for thorough cleanings. Even when the teeth look clean, there can be dental disease below the gum line.
Dental cleanings under anesthesia are the best way to remove bacteria below the gum line, as well as remove plaque build up and polish the surfaces of the teeth. A cleaning in an awake patient is not as thorough, period. Scraping the tooth surfaces with a dental instrument can temporarily remove tartar; but unless you polish the teeth, you are actually creating more groves for bacteria and plaque to build up on. All dental procedures should be done with intravenous fluid support for safety. This not only helps the kidney and liver process the anesthetics, it gives support to the heart, and provides venous accesses if emergency drugs are needed. Blood work should be done prior to any procedure just like in people. Many animals that are externally healthy in appearance can have abnormal lab values. All cleaning procedures should be followed up with antibiotics. Cleaning the teeth releases a large amount of bacteria into your pet’s mouth and into the rest of the body. In cases of advanced dental disease, there may be teeth that are loose or rotting that may need to be extracted.
Good dental health is pivotal for a long healthy quality of life for our cherished companions. Your veterinarian can play a key role in helping you develop a treatment plan for your canine or feline.