Teeth brushing incredibly powerful for pet care

By Dr. Jonathan Cullom
Marine View Veterinary Hospital

Does your pet seem to have “morning breath” all day long?

Have you looked in their mouth lately? It has been estimated that up to 75 percent of dogs and cats have some form of dental disease by the age of three.

Chronic neglect, dietary choices and the simple passage of time can all conspire to create a painful, debilitating condition in the mouths of pets which can have consequences beyond the mouth itself. Pets who are asked to live with this condition will often present to their veterinarians with symptoms such as a decreased appetite, mild weight loss, or a perceived discomfort associated with the head.

Yearly oral exams are vital to grade the dental status of all pets. The accumulation of unsightly tartar is the most obvious observation made by most owners.

Yet it is often the more subtle inflammation of the gum tissue (known as gingivitis) that provides a glimpse into what may be occurring below the gum line. As bacteria in the mouth grow in numbers, so does the severity of the gingivitis.

As this condition progresses it causes the tooth itself to lose its attachment to the gums, which can ultimately lead to a tooth not having enough tissue to keep it adequately anchored into the jaw. In these situations the most likely course of action is to extract the tooth.

In addition, it is a widely accepted belief that the bacteria associated with infected teeth can travel throughout the blood stream and have an adverse effect on major organs such as the heart, liver and kidneys. For example, diabetes in a cat or a dog can be more difficult to control as the infection in the mouth interferes with the body’s ability to sense and use insulin.

With so many of our pets now living to advanced ages thanks to an increased ability to detect and manage chronic disease, it is vital that we do not undermine this progress by ignoring disease in the mouth.

Prevention is the very best form of medicine. Getting a pet used to idea of a toothbrush and fluoride free pet toothpaste at a young age is the single greatest thing that can be done to improve a pet’s oral health in the long run.

The act of brushing does not need to be an invasive task but needs to occur every day for the best results. If a brush could just be applied to the outside surfaces of all teeth for 1 to 2 minutes a day, the incidence of dental disease in our pet population would decrease dramatically.

There are few things, which are as cost effective, but incredibly powerful as daily teeth brushing. Dental chews containing antiseptics and dental diets used on a daily basis are also options for those who do not have the ability to brush.

A pet whose mouth exhibits any degree of gum inflammation is a candidate for a dental cleaning. This is best done by trained veterinary personnel under a general anesthetic.

Many owners are intrigued by the possibility of dentals performed while their pet is awake on the grounds that it is “less invasive” and as a way to avoid anesthesia and minimize cost.

Although it is easy to see the appeal of such a strategy, it ultimately fails for numerous reasons. First, conscious dental cleanings do not properly clean beneath the gum line, leaving behind the bacteria that ultimately are causing the dental disease. Up to 66 percent of all dental lesions are found below the gum line. Ignoring this part of a tooth is not an acceptable way to care for a mouth.

Second, when teeth are hand scaled but not polished afterwards (a common practice during non veterinary dentals), grooves in the enamel of the teeth are left behind which actually lead to a faster accumulation of plaque and tartar. Any money that is saved and risks that are avoided during procedures such as this will ultimately be cancelled out when the patient’s tartar returns again and problems ignored the first time around are forced to be dealt with.

Finally, it should be noted that “anesthetic free” dentals are not subject to any form of oversight in the way that veterinary procedures are by the Department of Health. Back in the days of the Wild West, there was a reason that all the cowboys had terrible teeth--their dentist was also their barber!

Most of us have experienced some form of tooth discomfort at some point in our life. Our pets are much tougher than any of us when it comes to pain so talk to your veterinarian today and make sure that your furry friend is not suffering in silence.

(Truth about Cats & Dogs is a monthly column written by local veterinarians. Participating hospitals are Marine View Veterinary Hospital in Des Moines, Des Moines Veterinary Hospital and Burien Veterinary Hospital.)

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