Dental Disease

This article is designed to help you better understand your pet’s condition. This is not a substitute for a veterinary diagnosis; it intended for reference purposes and to supplement an existing diagnosis after a veterinary examination. If you have questions or concerns, please contact us at 740-432-5980. It is absolutely vital to have a veterinary diagnosis prior to following any of the instructions provided here.

Most people are very aware of their own teeth. We are subject to a constant barrage of information regarding plaque control, cavity prevention, and the catastrophic effects of bad breath. Many of us also visit our own dentists regularly. Despite this awareness of human dentistry, many pet owners still do not realize that their pets are subject to the same dental concerns. Often we think of our own oral health as cosmetic rather than actually being good for our health. Because we infrequently see our pets teeth we tend to forget about their oral health needs.

Why is it important to care for your pet’s teeth?

For exactly the same reasons it is important to care for your own. The most common disease in pet animals is periodontal (gum) disease. It affects at least 90% of dogs and 70% of cats over the age of 5 years. Periodontal disease is the result of bacterial infection of the structures that support the teeth. As it progresses, these structures weaken, leading to loose and lost teeth. While this is going on, the animal is fighting a constant battle with the bacteria in the mouth. As the animal chews its food, the infected and inflamed gums bleed, and a shower of very aggressive bacteria enters the blood stream. These germs are carried throughout the body and can cause infection in many areas. Among the diseases that have been documented as associated with periodontal disease are kidney infection and failure, liver infection and failure, heart valve infection and failure and arthritis. With the immune system constantly challenged by oral bacteria, it is less able to respond to other invasions. Mouths with advanced periodontal disease are sore so animals do not chew their food as well and may have a hard time digesting it properly so can suffer from malnutrition. The overall effect is that the quality and quantity of life suffer dramatically.

What can you do about dental disease?

Plenty. The first step is to look in your pet’s mouth. If the gums appear red or inflamed, if there is a foul odor, if you see pus at the gum line or if you see loose or broken teeth, arrange to have us perform an oral examination as soon as possible. The problem will be assessed and a treatment plan formulated.

This will usually involve us performing a professional cleaning and polishing of the teeth and may include extraction of unsalvageable teeth. We use the same ultrasonic scalers that are used in human medicine and polishing is done to fill in any microscopic defects where bacteria may grow. The procedures are very similar in both human and veterinary dentistry. The main difference in veterinary dentistry is that our patients must undergo anesthesia for this procedure and have a breathing tube placed to ensure they do not swallow or aspirate (inhale) the bacteria that we are taking off their teeth as it can damage vital internal organs.

We strongly recommend having a pre-anesthetic blood profile done on every patient that undergoes a dental procedure, partially because many of our dental patients are often middle aged or older and we need to make sure that their liver and kidneys are functioning well enough to handle the surgery. The body excretes anesthetic drugs through these organs; sometimes with age or underlying disease these organs do not function properly. When the liver and/or kidneys do not work as they should and an animal goes under anesthesia, it can have serious side effects and even be life threatening. Fortunately, the drugs available today make the anesthetic risk lower than the risk of dental neglect. It is particularly important in anesthetic patients because we are breaking up plaque and tartar that is full of bacteria that is being introduced to the body; we need to make sure the body is strong enough to handle that.

A pre-anesthetic profile is a simple blood test that we can complete right here in the clinic before putting your pet under anesthesia. Depending on what abnormalities, if any, arise, we can use a different anesthetic for your pet to specifically cater to their needs, place an IV catheter for emergency use, give them fluids, etc. Treatment will vary based upon the results and we will contact you to agree upon a treatment plan with you before we proceed to treat your pet if there are any abnormalities. You do have the option to decline the pre-anesthetic profile if you wish.

Once the teeth are clean you will be instructed about home-care. As with your own teeth, plaque and tartar will start to accumulate very rapidly unless you brush regularly. If you have a young pet with no signs of dental disease, you can start home-care right away, to prevent severe problems from developing. It is suggested that you start training your pet to accept having its mouth played with as soon as you bring it home. There is no need to brush kitten and puppy teeth, as they will be lost and replaced in the first year, but if you can get them to enjoy having their teeth brushed when they are young, it will make it much easier to carry out your home-care program when the permanent teeth come in. It is suggested, however, that when your pet is teething, (losing baby teeth in favor of permanent teeth) the gums will be sore and so it would be best not to be playing around with the mouth at that time.

When you brush your pet’s teeth, you cannot ask them to rinse and spit. Therefore, it is important that you use a brushing agent that is safe to swallow. Do not use human toothpaste as it will foam and distress your pet and when swallowed, it can cause stomach upset. Baking soda is also to be avoided, as the very high sodium content can be dangerous, especially to older patients. There are now several products specifically formulated for use on dog and cat teeth. According to many Veterinary Dentistry Specialists, the use of brushing agents (toothpaste) does not help the prevention of dental disease at all. In fact it is the physical contact of the bristles on the teeth removing plaque that is important. Animal toothpastes can be used if they make brushing easier; however many of them are tasty flavors for our pets and they may enjoy the experience more. If not, just don’t worry about using any at all.

Why Early Prevention is Important

Many owners will say that their pet does not exhibit signs of pain, even when there is an obvious problem. This is not surprising when we think about how dogs and cats act in the wild. As predators, they will often select a weak or distressed animal as an easy meal. If they reveal to the world that they are in pain, or ill, they stand a good chance of being eaten themselves. Also, if they allow dental pain to keep them from eating, they soon grow too weak to hunt and then starve. So, instead, they tend to put up with the pain and carry on. Studies have shown that dogs and cats have pain thresholds and tolerances almost identical to human subjects. This means that if something hurts you, it would hurt your pet to the same degree and in the same way. If you have ever had a tooth ache, you know the meaning of pain.

One final point

Dogs and cats use their mouths for many of the same essential and recreational functions that we use our hands. It follows that their teeth are as important to them as our fingers are to us. A pet with a sore mouth and missing teeth faces both physical and emotional challenges. Fortunately, with an increasing emphasis on preventative medicine, veterinary dentistry is starting to get the attention it deserves. The keys to a healthy mouth and a happier pet are: be aware of what problems can arise, watch for them, take steps to prevent them and treat them as soon as they are noticed.

How Severe is MY Pets Dental Disease?

There are 4 stages of periodontal disease:

Stage One: Occurs when bacteria cause an invisible film of plaque to form on the teeth. The bacteria react with minerals and other debris that accumulate in the oral cavity, eventually causing tartar. You learned about his already in the biofilms section. Gingivitis appears prior to tartar formation. It is seen as the reddened gum along this canine tooth. Since the gingiva are the first line of defense for the tooth against bacteria, any gingivitis is considered significant. This pet should be treated now before the problem progresses to more advanced periodontal disease, an all too common diagnosis in our hospital. If we treat the gingivitis now, when it is at Stage I, we can reverse the process in many cases. As the periodontal disease progresses, it becomes increasingly difficult to reverse this process.

Stage Two: Includes all the above and the underlying gum is more inflamed and is pulled further away from the tooth.

Stage Three: Includes all of Stage one and two. The pocket of bacteria under the gum line in this tooth is significantly weakening the periodontal ligament and weakening the bone of the jaw and is getting dangerously close to stage 4!

Stage Four: Includes Stages 1-3. Stage four is considered advanced periodontal disease and includes ulcerated gums, pus along the gum line, and severe tartar. When this happens your pet will experience pain and will become internally ill from the bacteria spreading to internal organs via the bloodstream. Pet’s with this problem are in jeopardy of internal organ failure. In Stage 4 periodontal disease the tartar can be so extensive that it is the only thing holding the teeth in the socket in some cases. When we remove the tartar the teeth literally fall out. In some cases the infection under the gumline has eroded away the gum tissue that normally covers the root. If the tooth has 2 roots it will cause a hole to appear between the roots where the gum has erodedthis is called a furcation lesion. Untreated Stage 4 periodontal disease can even lead to a fractured jaw.

Guernsey Veterinary Clinic, Cassie Gombeda RVT

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