Veterinary Dentistry: The Truth about the Tooth
Proper dental healthcare is a vital part of our pets’ health, but one that is all too often overlooked. Below are some answers to a few common questions on the subject.
Routine dental exams are part of every wellness check at ACMP
Why is dental health important in our pets?
Similar to human medicine, dental health has overall consequences for the patient’s wellbeing. While our dogs and cats may not be as self-conscious as we are about a discolored smile, there are serious consequences to ignoring dental health altogether.
Dental disease is a spectrum that begins with tartar (also called plaque) accumulation. If tartar is not promptly removed, it develops into calculus, a hardened material on the outside of teeth. If not addressed, this can lead to severe periodontal disease, or infections of the tissue around the tooth, including the gums, the ligament which holds the tooth in place, and the underlying bone. Eventually, this can result in loose teeth, a tooth root abscess (a pocket of pus around the root of the bone), and even jaw fractures or orinasal fistulae (holes between the mouth and the nose). Severe dental disease can also cause bacteria to spread to the rest of the body, causing damage to internal organs and leading to potentially life threatening sepsis.
Perhaps the most important aspect of dental disease is that it is often exceedingly painful. If you have ever had a toothache, you know how hard it can be to focus on anything else other than that excruciating sensation.
Our pets cannot directly vocalize what hurts,
so they can be living in chronic oral pain for years if their teeth are not appropriately treated.
What can I look for at home to know if my pet has dental disease?
Some pets may show characteristic signs of dental disease, including bad breath, dropping food, excessive drooling, or a sudden aversion to having their head or mouth touched. However, it is important to realize that you may not notice something specific, even if your pet has severe dental disease. Problems with teeth can develop slowly over time, and may not cause sudden changes. Also, many pets will continue to eat a normal amount, even if their teeth are causing them discomfort. Many owners of animals with severe dental disease often report that they did not know how painful their pet was until their behavior changed after treatment. After having their teeth properly treated, your cat or dog may seem like a whole new pet, with energy to spare!
What will a dental cleaning look like at a veterinary clinic?
Appropriate dental prophylaxis and treatment must be performed under general anesthesia. Before the dental, your vet may suggest pre-anesthetic bloodwork, or even imaging, depending on your pet’s age and any other conditions. This additional information will help adjust their anesthetic protocol to be as safe as possible.
Pets are sedated during the procedure and are sent home with antibiotics and pain reliever.
The day of the dental, your pet will be completely asleep for the procedure. Typically, the cleaning will be performed by a veterinary technician. It will begin with supragingival cleaning — scaling the teeth to remove tartar and calculus. This is typically done with an ultrasonic scaler. Next, the part of the teeth that is accessible below the gum line will be cleaned, a process known as subgingival curettage. Then, the teeth will be polished, in order to smooth the teeth and help prevent further tartar accumulation.
Next, a full oral examination should be performed. This includes periodontal probing, or checking for pockets next to the teeth indicative of periodontal disease.
A full dental examination may include radiographs (x rays) of the mouth. This can be an incredibly important step, as not all dental pathology is visible externally. It is vital to have your pet’s teeth taken care of at a practice which has access to dental radiography. If necessary, the veterinarian may then extract certain teeth. Sometimes, the best fix for severe dental problems is to completely remove the diseased tooth. This will remove the source of pain and potentially the source of the infection.
Dental X Ray can be an important part of your pet’s dental examination. ACMP uses digital x ray to help detect potential underlying problems not easily visible externally.
Your pet will most likely be sent home the same day, on oral pain medications and sometimes antibiotics.
Are dental cleanings dangerous if my pet is elderly?
Many owners are nervous about having their pet anesthetized, especially if they are an older animal. However, dental disease is often the most severe in geriatric patients. Old age is not in itself a disease, and many elderly animals are safely anesthetized every day. Even animals with co-existing medical problems may be placed under anesthesia with minimal risk, if appropriate caution and monitoring is used. While anesthesia is never completely risk free, the benefit of removing a source of pain often outweighs the risk.
How often should my pet’s teeth be cleaned?
The answer to this question depends on your pet’s breed, size, and other factors. Some dogs and cats need yearly dentals, while others may only need one every three or so years. At your pet’s annual examination, your veterinarian will look at his or her teeth and assess if a full anesthetized dental is indicated. It is important to have dental cleanings performed prior to the onset of severe disease. The best cure to this problem is prevention!
What can I do to care for my pet’s teeth at home?
The most important part of home care is regular teeth brushing. This should be done with an appropriate veterinary product known as an enzymatic dentifrice, not a human toothpaste. There are also pet toothbrushes available, some of which can be placed on your finger for easier manipulation.
Ask our veterinarians how to safely care for your pet’s teeth.
Brushing your pet’s teeth every day is ideal, but even two or three times a week can help reduce tartar buildup.
Judicious use of dental chews, toys, and special dental diets can also be helpful. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has a list of products that they have approved, which can be accessed at http://www.vohc.org/accepted_products.htm. This list is a good place to start for suggestions. However, it’s important to remember that dental chews are an add on to tooth brushing and dental cleanings, not a replacement!
While proper dental care requires some time and investment, it is worth it in the long run for your pet’s comfort and health. A happy pet has healthy teeth!