Written by Dr. Nina Mantione
Perhaps most common health problem I see in pets is dental disease. Unfortunately, until dental disease is very severe, most pet owners aren’t even aware it exists.
Dental disease in our pets is very insidious. Gradually, over time, the beautiful pearly whites that come with youth, are affected first by dental calculus, then by gingivitis and finally by full blown dental infections that lead to bad breath, loose teeth and oral pain. What I have learned from my years in practice is that our pets are shockingly stoic about oral pain. The vast majority of pets will continue to eat and behave normally even with advanced dental disease. This doesn’t mean that they aren’t uncomfortable, but it does mean that their teeth can become quite bad before we realize there is a problem.
Dental disease doesn’t just have local effects on the mouth, but it can also cause problems systemically. The chronic infection and inflammation of gingivitis and periodontal disease is known to contribute to heart disease in people, and we know that constant stimulation of the immune system by chronic infections can have far reaching adverse effects. Blood borne infections from oral bacteria can cause infections in the heart and kidneys and other organs.
Signs of dental disease are easy to recognize once you know what you are looking for. A healthy mouth has shiny white teeth, pink gums with no evidence of redness or swelling along the tooth margin, and breath that – while maybe not minty fresh – is at least not awful. Dental disease starts with dental tartar or calculus, a brownish gray deposit that occurs along the tooth – gum margin. This can quickly lead to gingivitis, which is an inflammation of the gum tissue. Gingivitis appears as red and swollen gums. Once calculus and gingivitis set in, a pet’s breath will become more and more foul. As dental disease progresses, the gums will recede, exposing the roots of the teeth which then become loose and finally oral pain will become more apparent as pets are reluctant to chew or sometimes even eat at all.
Dental disease must be treated by having your pet’s teeth cleaned, a procedure that requires anesthesia in order for us to do a thorough job.
The best thing that we as pet owners can do to prevent dental disease in our pets is brush their teeth. I know that this is not the easiest task, especially in cats (my own cats look at me coming with the brush with a clear expression of “dream on – that is not happening today!”), but a thorough brushing every day will help to diminish the plaque and tartar that lead to more serious dental issues such as periodontal disease. This also allows you to look at your pet’s teeth on a regular basis, so that problems such as a fractured tooth or an abnormal growth can be noticed early.
If tooth brushing isn’t possible due to an uncooperative pet or an overloaded schedule there are other things that you can do that can help to promote a healthy mouth.
Chewing is a natural behavior that helps to minimize tartar formation. You can take advantage of this instinct (and protect your expensive shoes) by providing chew toys for your pets. There are a myriad of toys on the market that are made specifically to help promote dental health. I can always spot a “good chewer” in my exam room because their teeth and gums are typically in excellent condition.
If your pet isn’t a vigorous chewer then you can try one of the many dental treats on the market. These are typically yummy tasting and can help prevent tartar formation because of their ingredients, their shape, or both. Talk to your veterinarian to help pick a treat that will work best for your pet.
Finally, diet can play a role in dental health. There are diets that are specifically formulated to avoid the buildup of the tartar and lower the risk of periodontal disease. You can feed these diets alone or combine them with another food to help improve your pet’s oral health. At least some dry food is better for preventing dental disease than an all wet food diet.
With a little planning and (hopefully) some daily brushing you can help your pets avoid the problem of dental disease and keep those choppers healthy!