Many people are very surprised by a veterinarian telling them that Fido or Kitty has tartar build up, gingivitis and teeth that need extraction for various reasons. In fairness to owners, we don’t see our pets’ teeth unless the effort is made to periodically lift up our pets’ lips and examine the oral cavity. Face it, our dogs and cats don’t smile so we rarely see their pearly whites! Sometimes it is a foul odor and or drooling from the mouth that has prompted an owner to seek veterinary advice on oral hygiene. Often by this stage, the pet has experienced discomfort or even pain in the mouth and a drain on overall health from infection.
Seldom does a dental problem cause a pet to stop eating, as nature provided them with a strong instinct for survival and often the dental discomfort or pain has been a gradual onset problem for them. It is not uncommon for a veterinarian to hear “but my dog/cat is still eating normally”. If you, as an owner, have had a cold sensitive tooth, a canker sore, or some other localized oral pain, it is likely you have not gone without eating for much longer than part of a day, provided you have a normal, healthy appetite. You adjust by chewing on one side of the mouth or just grin and bear it to dull the hunger pangs and get through the meal as soon as possible. You also have the benefit of complaining to your spouse, friend, parent, etc. about the problem and if it persists, you are going to seek advice from your dentist and likely gain a solution to the problem.
As an owner of a pet dog or cat, you owe it to them to be attentive to the care of their teeth and oral structures in order to maintain a healthy and pain free mouth. It should part of a routine at home check over of a pet’s weight, demeanor, searching for lumps and bumps on the skin, etc. to check the teeth for tartar build up, red gums, broken teeth, redness or swelling anywhere in the mouth. You should expect a thorough oral exam of your pet from your veterinarian at a wellness exam, provided your pet’s temperament permits this safely. When budgeting for proper pet care, it is realistic to plan for the expense of dental exams. Cleanings and treatment of your pet under general anesthetic at the veterinary clinic every one to three years is reasonable, depending on your pet’s age and dental concerns that can vary with owner’s oral care at home, pet’s lifestyle (trauma) and genetics. Dental equipment is expensive and coupled with anesthetic and close monitoring of your pet, as well as skilled professionals working on your pet; you can expect the basic dental exam and cleaning visit to be a few hundred dollars and extractions to increase costs significantly. However, it is a rewarding investment in your pet’s overall comfort and well being. They are dependent on you to plan for these expenses.
The following is a review of some of the more common dental concerns in dogs and cats that we see as veterinarians:
Puppies and Kittens:
1/.Malocclusions: These situations can occur and will be evident at the young puppy or kitten visits for wellness and vaccinations. Underbites and overbites can be seen which may or may not be of significance to proper function. Your veterinarian will advise accordingly. Occasionally the lower jaw is narrow, causing the lower canine, or “fang teeth” to dig into the gums or palate of the upper jaw – ouch! It is important to attend to problems with the pet’s “bite” early in the first few months of life while the jaw is still growing to have the best effect from intervention.
Baby cats and dogs, like humans, get baby teeth before their permanent set. This transition takes place roughly between 3.5 to 7 months of age. An extra dental wellness visit at 5 months of age, which is usually after the vaccine series visits are finished, is wise to monitor the transition of deciduous, or “baby” teeth to permanent teeth. It is relatively common, especially in toy and small breed dogs, to have the baby canine (fang) teeth retained even when the permanent canine teeth have erupted. This causes the permanent tooth to erupt in an abnormal position and can lead to problems in the pet’s future plus excessive food and eventually tartar build up results if the extra tooth is not removed. Extraction of these retained teeth is indicated as soon as possible. These can lead to dental problems in the future. A dental exam of permanent teeth can be easily done at the spay or castration of the pet if it is done at 6 months of age. Sometimes there are missing, abnormally developed or extra permanent teeth. Your veterinarian can assess the need for intervention in these situations.
Sometimes a baby tooth will get fractured from trauma – banging the teeth into something or too forceful a pull in a “tug of war” game – careful! The fractured tooth should be extracted soon after the incident to prevent infection of the root of the baby tooth, which could affect the health of the adult tooth waiting to erupt.
Adult dogs and cats:
1/. Periodontal disease – This is a similar syndrome to what most of us human work diligently every day to prevent in our mouths and what prompts us to visit our dentists regularly for cleanings and examinations. Plaque and tartar build up on the teeth results in gingivitis and if severe enough, erosion of the support structures for the teeth, namely the ligaments and bone around the tooth. How do we deal with this? We brush our teeth. Prior to the advancement of personal hygiene of modern times, humans dealt routinely with frequent decay and loss of teeth, especially if they lived past the typical life expectancy of their 40’s. Did these people suffer oral pain from this phenomenon? You bet. Why would a dog or cat be any different? Thus, regular brushing of the teeth of pets helps tremendously with the war against periodontal disease.
For the majority of owners that don’t brush, regular dental cleanings at the veterinary clinic can greatly compensate for the lack of oral hygiene displayed by animals that cannot brush their own teeth or owners that do not attend to this on a regular basis. A typical dental visit for a dog or cat involves pending most of a day at the veterinary clinic. First of all, the pet is assessed for overall health, possibly getting some blood and/or urine tests done if needed, such as concurrent disease or concerns for advanced age. Then he/she will undergo a general anesthetic, preferably on intravenous fluids throughout and then getting a detailed and proper dental exam with probing the teeth and gums for gingivitis, infection, bone erosion, etc. Dental x-rays are often done to supplement the information about the structures not visible above the gums., such as the roots of the teeth. A cleaning of the exposed crowns of the teeth and the small space under the gum line that is a hideout for harmful bacteria and inflammation is performed. Beware the “dental cleaning” done in an awake animal by self-professed animal “dental hygienist” that hand scales visible chunks of tartar off the teeth with a sharp tool. This gives the appearance of cleaner teeth but is very limited in the successful treatment and prevention of periodontal disease. Aggressive hand scaling of the teeth can cause permanent damage to the tooth enamel. No matter how quiet natured a pet is, the ultrasonic scaling over the outside and inside of all teeth (water spraying throughout) coupled with curettage of the pocket under the gums (uncomfortable for sure) could not possibly be accomplished without the dog or cat undergoing a light general anesthetic. With the modern equipment and drugs used, general anesthetic is regarded as a safe and routine procedure in veterinary medicine, provided the pet does not have serious concurrent illness.
Teeth with advanced periodontal disease need to be extracted to eliminate the source of infection and pain for the animal. Antibiotics and pain relief are included in the protocol in these situations. Dental blocks or “freezing” are used in pets as well to decrease the pain felt when waking from anesthesia after extractions.
Fractured teeth: Trauma can result in the fracturing of teeth, resulting in the exposure of the internal blood supply, called the pulp. This allows bacteria from the mouth to be exposed to the root underneath and the potential is high for a root abscess to occur. If you’ve not had the distinct pleasure of experiencing this painful predicament , just ask any human friend or relative that has had a tooth root abscess just how painful it was and it should prompt any caring owner to tend to fractured and contaminated teeth in their pet with a high priority. Some teeth can be salvaged with a root canal, often at a specialty practice, or extraction is indicated.
A word about cats: Cats have a much higher tendency to have a condition whereby the tooth undergoes focal erosions and eventually resorption of the tooth into the jaw bone. The cause of these lesions is not fully established and there are definitely some cats quite prone to them, despite even the most attentive owners to their cat’s dental hygiene and diet. Visibly an examiner will see a very inflamed spot of gums, where the tooth meets the gums, with a dark pink thickened appearance to the gumline. Under this inflamed area will be a deep pit in the enamel of the tooth, exposing the nerves and causing pain to the cat. This is detected with the probing portion of the dental exam under general anesthetic. With continued erosion, the exposed surface of the tooth weakens and can actually fracture off from a minor force, such as chewing on food, grooming etc. The same process goes on under the gumline in the roots of the teeth. These eroding teeth need to be examined, x-rayed and treated with varying degrees of extraction, then the gums are sutured over the painful tooth and after a short healing period, presto! – a pain free mouth.
In summary, we hope we are successfully educating pet owners about the importance of dental health in the lives of their pets and bringing the level of care out of the dark ages, as has occurred in the human world. Pets are faithful members of the family and with careful planning, proper dental care for your pet can be a routine part of your veterinary visits and your pet will be very grateful for the improved overall health and lack of pain and discomfort in the mouth.