By Sarah Liu and Carolyn Cockroft
Dental Care for Your Pets
Proper dental care prevents major disease.
While most conscientious owners provide their pets with healthy diets and grooming, as well annual visits to the veterinarian to keep vaccines up-to-date, many are not aware of the importance of dental care. Studies by the American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) reveal that nearly two-thirds of pet owners overlook the dental care recommended by veterinarians. Yet diseases of the oral cavity, if left untreated, are often painful and can lead to more serious health problems including heart, lung and kidney disease. According to the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), research shows that 80 percent of dogs and 70 percent of cats will show some kind of gum disease by the age of three. In fact, one of the most common maladies seen by the American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Animal Hospital (AAH) staff is dental disease. “Many pets have multiple diseased teeth,” says Dr. Louise Murray, vice president of AAH. “Pets with dental disease are often in severe pain—imagine having not just one toothache, but many.”
Periodontal (gum) disease starts with early-stage gingivitis, or plaque buildup that gradually causes inflammation below the gum line and can be very painful for your pet. If left untreated, an advanced stage of periodontitis can cause damage to the jawbone and soft tissue around the teeth and eventually lead to loss of teeth. Even worse, the bacteria generated by this disease can spread throughout the bloodstream into the internal organs.
To prevent the onset of these diseases in your pet, include three essential steps in your pet’s dental hygiene:
- Practice regular at-home dental care. The AAHA advises to check your pet’s teeth and gums for signs of discolored teeth; swollen, red, or bleeding gums; persistent bad breath; loose or loss of teeth; or any unusual growth in the mouth. Other warning signs are disinterest in eating, playing with chew toys, or drinking cold water. Introduce your pet to having teeth brushed, preferably at a young age; however, getting an older animal accustomed to a teeth cleaning regimen is possible over time with patience, treats, and lots of praise. Never use human toothpaste, which can make your pet sick. An excellent video from the American Veterinary Medical Association AVMA), gives step-by-step instructions on how to teach a dog or cat to accept daily tooth brushing (see resources below). Some chew toys can help build and protect strong teeth. Gnawing on safe teeth-cleaning chew toys can reduce some softer tartar buildup and stimulate your pet’s gums. Supplementing your pet’s diet with dry cereal and treats designed to help remove plaque can also achieve similar success. Look for dental treats that have received the Registered Seal by the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC). These enhancements, however, cannot replace the effectiveness of regular tooth brushing.
- Maintain annual visits (twice a year for pets in their senior years) to your veterinarian. . Because veterinarians understand the benefit of comprehensive physical checkups for pets, examining an animal’s teeth is part of every annual office visit. Many types of gum disease are hard to detect, and a trained animal physician will be able to identify symptoms not observed by the pet’s owner .The doctor will look for developmental anomalies, accumulation of plaque and tartar, periodontal disease and oral tumors. Based on this thorough oral examination, the veterinarian can advise you on whether or not a follow-up professional dental cleaning is necessary.
- When prescribed by your veterinarian, have your pet’s teeth professionally cleaned. The need for this procedure will vary in pets and depend on the presence of pre-existing disease, the level of homecare, diet, breed of animal, and individual habits. Before a professional dental cleaning, your veterinarian will review your pet’s general health and previous dental history. Depending on the pet’s age and other conditions, the doctor may require some preliminary bloodwork or other tests. According to the American Veterinarian Dental College AVDC), anesthesia is essential for a thorough, safe cleaning, because it permits a comprehensive assessment of the tissues, and allows dental radiographs to be made when indicated, followed by the cleaning (scaling and polishing procedure) above and below the gum-line. In some cases, where advanced periodontal disease is present, tooth extraction may be necessary. To learn more about how to ensure your pet receives a professional veterinary dental cleaning, visit the AVDC website at http://avdc.org/AFD/
February is National Pet Dental Health Month, but a regular dental health program must be followed year round. While the use of anesthesia and the expense of a professional cleaning are sometimes a concern for pet owners, the initial cost of teeth cleaning will spare you the burden of a more costly medical treatment in the future should your pet develop serious health problems due to dental neglect. As with any surgical procedure, anesthesia is administered by trained technicians and closely monitored—the risks are minimal when compared to what could lead to life-threatening condition should your pet not be treated.
Dentals “are not about cosmetics,” Dr. Fenichel says, but “keeping important teeth in your pet’s mouth and keeping your pet comfortable. Often, clients express fear that if their pet loses all of his teeth, ‘How will he manage?’ The truth is, after a much-needed dental, they’re eating a lot more comfortably than when they had a mouthful of awful teeth.”
Daily brushing and visits to the dentist for a proper cleaning are an integral part of our wellness plan for ourselves and our loved ones. Why not provide the same care for your animal companion who is an important member of your family? In return, you will be rewarded with your pet’s physical comfort and more years of affection.
American Animal Hospital Association:: https://www.aaha.org
American Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals: https://www.aspca.org/news/untreated-dental-issues-can-lead-major-pain-pets
American Veterinarian Dental College: http://avdc.org/AFD/
American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA): https://www.avma.org/Pages/home.aspx
AVMA instructional video on tooth brushing: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wB3GIAgrTPE