Whenever I meet new people, my eyes are immediately drawn to their teeth. Come on, we all have our particular traits that we notice about others — the hair, the eyes, the fingernails … need I go on? I obtained my dental awareness honestly, as my father, uncle and sister are all dentists. They get to see a broad spectrum of human patients, from those who take immaculate care of their pearly whites, to those who likely never brush their teeth.
One of the many "hats" I wear as a veterinarian is to be a pet dentist, and I see the same variety of patients as well; however, the patients I see rely on you, the owners to care for their teeth on a daily basis.
When is it time for Fido or Fluffy to make a visit to the pet dentist? Your veterinarian can help you decide if your pet needs more than toothbrushing while examining him at his annual visit, so it is important that your pet have routine veterinary care. We assess the amount of tartar buildup, as well as gum health, checking for broken teeth and checking for tumors in the mouth. If you notice a foul odor coming from your pet’s mouth, dental disease is most likely the cause.
Plaque forms on teeth daily, as bacteria in the mouth feed on food particles and produce a film. This plaque can be brushed away, but once it mineralizes (hardens) it is called tartar, the yellowish brown substance that cannot be brushed off the enamel. Tartar builds up over time, creating a haven for bacteria to colonize under the gumline, causing gingivitis (redness and swelling of the gums), and destruction of the attachment of the gum to the tooth roots. Eventually, the bone that holds the tooth roots in place is eroded, and this is known as periodontal disease. Unfortunately, I see many patients whose periodontal disease is so advanced that several teeth have already fallen out.
Broken teeth are also a common finding on physical examination, and often owners are unaware. Although pets feel just as much pain as we do when a tooth is broken and the pulp (bundle of nerves and vessels) is exposed, they may not have the same reactions we would. Dogs, and even more so cats, are very good at hiding their pain by nature. Subtle signs, like dropping a few kibbles, chewing on one side more than the other, or gradual weight loss, may be the only signs of dental pain. Broken teeth with pulp exposure should be extracted, or have a root canal performed at a veterinary dental specialist, to prevent an abscessed tooth. Anything that could break human teeth can break an animal’s teeth, so tough rubber or synthetic nylon bones are recommended instead of real bones, rawhides, or hard plastic.
Cats have their own unique dental diseases, and as I mentioned, are even better at hiding their discomfort. They can develop resorptive lesions, in which the body begins to erode a tooth away, starting from the root upward. There is no cure, and it is just as painful as it sounds. Any tooth with a suspected resorptive lesion should be extracted. Stomatitis is another painful condition in which the gingiva (gum tissue) becomes inflamed, sometimes throughout the entire mouth. This is an immune disease, and often removing the teeth in the affected area will stop the immune response. Sadly, in some cases there is no choice but to remove all teeth in the mouth. Pain free, these cats can go on to eat normally and live happy lives.
If these problems are detected on a physical exam, your veterinarian will likely recommend a dental cleaning under general anesthesia to assess the mouth. A dental cleaning is a very routine procedure, and anesthetic risk is very minimal for a healthy patient. An ultrasonic scaler is used to remove plaque and tartar from the teeth, then the enamel is polished to smooth its surface, and finally, fluoride treatment is applied to the enamel. Pain control, including local anesthetic in the mouth (similar to Novacaine injections) is used as necessary if teeth need to be extracted. A dental cleaning is good for the overall health of a pet, as it removes a large source of bacteria from the body, that would otherwise be circulating in the bloodstream and affecting the kidneys, liver and heart.
What can you do at home for the dental health of your pet? Yes, I mentioned toothbrushing above, and this can be done with a pet toothpaste, and a soft bristled toothbrush, fingerbrush or piece of gauze on the end of a finger. Ask your veterinarian for advice if your pet won’t let you brush. A healthy smile is just as important for your pet as it is for you.
Dr. Sara Smith is a 2008 graduate of the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine and is an associate at Delphos Animal Hospital.
Dr. Sara Smith: Make a visit to the pet dentist