Tooth Trouble - Preventing Periodontal Disease in Your Pet
Treatment for dental problems can cost pet owners a lot of money and worry and can cause your pet a great deal of unnecessary suffering. The good news is that a little bit of regular preventive care can go a long way toward keeping your pet’s teeth healthy, strong, and disease free.
Dr. Jan Bellows, who owns All Pets Dental Clinic in Weston, Florida, and has written two books on pet dental care for other veterinarians, has found the magic words that get pet owners’ attention. “I tell people, if you take care of your pet’s mouth, you can add 2 years to his life,” Dr. Bellows says.
That is because failing to clean a pet’s teeth regularly can lead to periodontal disease, which causes not only pain but also big health problems if left untreated. It is usually a snap to keep pets’ mouths healthy with some simple routine care. Unfortunately, many owners do not know this, resulting in signs of periodontal disease in 85% of dogs and cats 4 years of age and older, according to the American Veterinary Medical Association. In fact, periodontal disease is the most commonly diagnosed health problem in dogs and cats.
Just like in people, it all starts with plaque.
Periodontal disease is just a fancy term for gum disease. Basically, when a dog or cat eats, the meal leaves a coating on the teeth that can feed armies of hungry bacteria. That is plaque. If it is not brushed away, plaque hardens into a yellow or brown substance called calculus or tartar, which can only be removed by a veterinarian.
Pet owners can check for a problem simply by taking a whiff. “If your pet’s breath does not smell like roses, take him to a veterinarian,” Dr. Bellows advises. Yes, roses. That is because less-than-flowery breath is an early warning sign of periodontal disease. So-called “doggie breath” really is not normal—and certainly not a joking matter.
Tartar isn’t the only sign of trouble in your pet’s mouth. Other signs of periodontal disease include:
- Bad breath
- Loose teeth
- Receding gum line
- Reluctance to play with chew toys or drink cold water
- Swollen or bleeding gums
Also watch for changes in your pet’s eating habits or repeated pawing at his mouth. Any of these signs should prompt a visit to your veterinarian.
Taking care of your pet’s teeth can add several years to his life.
Periodontal disease in pets happens in stages. To formulate a treatment plan, a veterinarian will examine the mouth and take x-rays of the teeth to properly diagnose the disease and determine how far it has progressed.
In the early stages of gum disease, plaque and tartar form, irritating gums and causing inflammation (called gingivitis) along the gum line. If it is caught early, the problem can be remedied with a professional dental cleaning at the veterinarian’s office, followed by regular home care.
If it progresses to later stages, however, periodontal disease can cause bleeding, receding gums, loose teeth, and loss of bone. At that point, surgery is often necessary to clean out pockets of bacteria deep under the gum line and try to reattach gum tissue that has pulled away from the bone. The most serious cases sometimes require extraction of the affected teeth. “Once the teeth are gone, the periodontal disease is gone. You don’t want to have to do that,” says Dr. Bert Dodd, a board-certified veterinary dentist and part-owner of the Animal Dental Clinic in Austin, Texas.
Major mouth problems do not happen overnight; they take years to develop. “Periodontal disease is really a disease of neglect,” Dr. Dodd says. Left unchecked, it can wreak havoc on a pet’s body. Bacteria from the mouth can leak into the bloodstream and harm internal organs. “Periodontal disease can cause all kinds of complications, including problems with the heart, liver, kidneys, joints, and lungs,” explains Dr. Dodd.
Dr. Bellows remembers seeing an aging terrier mix with stage IV periodontal disease, and the dog’s kidneys were failing as well. “It turned out that the same bacteria that was in the dog’s mouth was also in his kidneys,” he says.
Periodontal disease is a disease of neglect. Routine care can stop it before it starts.
Some people assume stinky breath is normal and let a problem go on for far too long before seeking help. “In the worst-case scenario, people will bring in a dog or cat that is in pain, and the breath smells horrible. By that time, teeth usually need to be extracted, and the owner feels guilty,” says Dr. Bellows.
Fortunately, pain caused by periodontal disease can be prevented simply by stopping the disease before it starts.
RX for a Healthy Mouth
Your veterinarian can best determine when your pet needs a professional tooth cleaning, but about once a year is a good guideline for healthy pets, according to Dr. Dodd. Pets with periodontal disease may need cleanings several times a year. In addition, many veterinarians suggest that pet owners have their dog’s or cat’s teeth professionally cleaned before starting a home care routine. The article starting on page 6 contains great tips for taking care of your pet’s teeth at home.
A professional cleaning for pets is similar to the treatment humans undergo at the dentist’s office. After examining the pet’s mouth, the veterinarian removes the tartar from the teeth, both above and below the gum line. If the gums are diseased, he or she may recommend removing tissue to promote better dental health. After that, the tooth surfaces are polished using an abrasive paste and then rinsed to remove residue and plaque.
To have a professional tooth cleaning, your pet will be administered general anesthesia. “The anesthesia is a big issue for a lot of people; they worry about it,” says Dr. Bellows. Your veterinarian will do everything he or she can to make undergoing anesthesia as risk free as possible. A preanesthetic exam (including laboratory tests) will be conducted to ensure that your pet is healthy enough to undergo the procedure. In addition, new anesthetic products and recent advances in anesthesia technology have made general anesthesia for healthy pets a much more pleasant experience. There are now anesthetics that ensure your pet is alert and virtually back to normal just minutes after the dental cleaning is completed. Talk to your veterinarian about these and other protocols that ensure a safe, pleasant, and pain-free experience. That way, you can be confident that your pet is comfortable and well taken care of.