Have you lifted up your pet’s lip lately and taken a good look at their teeth? Almost every older dog and cat have some degree of dental disease that can cause foul breath, tooth discoloration, red and bleeding gums, loose teeth, pain, and loss of appetite. It starts with gingivitis, and inflammation of the gums. Gingivitis is reversible if treated promptly, but if left unchecked, the condition advances to periodontitis, which is painful and can cause teeth to become abscessed or fall out. Having your veterinarian check your pet’s mouth is the first step in treating and finding ways to prevent dental disease.
Bad breath is often the first sign that an animal already has dental disease. Because bad breath is so common, this sign of disease is often just accepted and causes no concern to owners. Proliferating bacteria, food particles and saliva accumulate at the gum line, forming a slimy substance called plaque on the teeth. If plaque is not removed, it mineralizes and hardens into tartar or calculus which is very hard to remove. As the gums recede, gum structures detach from the root and pockets form, weakening the tooth’s support and exposing its roots. Tartar build up further encourages bacterial deposits, and bacteria eventually invade the gums and the tooth’s root. Ultimately, the tooth may loosen and fall out or a deep abscess will form.
But what is dental disease exactly? Stage 1 of dental disease is periodontal disease and is still reversible. The gum tissue is pink, not inflamed, and adhered to the bone. The tooth is fairly free of tartar or calculus buildup. Stage 2 of dental disease is early signs of gingivitis which include inflamed gum tissue, noticeable buildup of tartar and calculus, no bone loss at this point, and bad breath begins. Stage 3 of dental disease is advanced signs of gingivitis. The gum tissue is inflamed and possibly bleeding, severe calculus buildup, and bad breath is noticeably increased. Stage 4 is severe dental disease. Loss of gum tissue, possible ulcerated gums, root exposure, noticeable bleeding, severe calculus buildup, loose teeth, bone loss, decrease in appetite, severe bad breath, and painful mouth. When bacteria is constantly present in the mouth it will enter the bloodstream and cause damage to vital organs like the heart, liver, and kidneys. These type of diseases are much harder to treat and can cause premature death of the pet.
Unfortunately, most pets do not show obvious signs when suffering from dental disease. They are programmed like their wild Canid and Felid relatives to not show any signs of weakness. If they do show weakness, they are moved down the ladder of seniority or singled out by a larger predator. Our domestic canine and feline friends behave in the same manner. They do not know that they can do anything about their dental problems, so they just learn to “live” with it. The signs of pain come on very gradually, so the owner frequently associates the pet’s behavior with just getting older. By contrast, when you treat a dental problem correctly, owners frequently notice a rapid improvement in their pet’s demeanor. In my opinion, dental disease is the most common reason for a pet to act older.
The only way to treat dental disease is to have your pet under general anesthesia and have a full oral exam with x-rays of every tooth performed. 80% of dental disease is below the gum line and cannot be seen by just looking in the mouth so if x-rays are not taken you have no idea of what is lurking beneath or how to treat it. Once the cleaning and scaling has been performed each tooth is probed for pockets and exposed roots. If deep pockets are present or if x-rays show signs of disease the teeth can be extracted at that time.
Lately there have been a barrage of “anesthesia free” dental services popping up at feed stores and other places. In no way is this a treatment for dental disease, all it is doing is temporarily removing tartar, it is not getting rid of the bacteria or addressing the problems below the gums. It gives the owner a false sense of security and leaves the pet in the same boat as they were before.
After having a proper dental treatment, there are many products available to help slow down the accumulation of tartar, bacteria, and plaque on your pet’s teeth. There are special diets, dental chews, and water additives that are available, they won’t do much about existing tartar but will help slow down the build-up. The best treatment would to brush your dog or cat’s teeth twice a day with a pet tooth paste after they eat but this is hard for most pet owners to accomplish so any brushing is encouraged.
When you pro-actively treat dental problems by having a dental performed by your veterinarian once or twice a year everyone is a winner. The pet benefits because they feel better, act better, and relate better to their owner. The owner benefits because their pet acts better, their breath is not offensive, and so the human-animal bond is strengthened.
M. H. Archer, DVM