February- National Pet Dental Health Month – A Dental Q&A

by Dr. Tara Scarlett, published on February 16, 2016

Although your pet’s dental health is important all year long, the veterinary community likes to focus attention on this important matter every February. So, why do we believe your pet’s dental health is so important? Did you know that your pet’s dental health can be directly related to their systemic health?

Dental disease, in the form of excess plaque, tartar and periodontal disease (painful red gums), has been directly linked to kidney and heart disease. Also many studies have shown there is a link between chronic inflammation (which is present in severe dental disease) and cancer in both human and animal patients. When there is dental disease present we worry about our patient’s comfort level and ultimately the long term health of our patients!

Let’s take a closer look at dental disease and what it involves:

Q-What is plaque?

A-Plaque is the daily sticky buildup of food particles, saliva and bacteria that forms a soft layer on the tooth surface. This layer is somewhat difficult to see but it feels like a filmy layer on the tooth if you were to run your finger over the surface. If plaque isn’t removed daily by tooth brushing or some other form of mechanical abrasion (chewing on toys or dental treats or special dental diets) it can harden and contribute to the formation of tartar.

Q-What is tartar?

A-Tartar is the hard mineralized deposit that can form on teeth over time and lead to tooth decay. The presence of tartar can directly lead to periodontal disease. This layer can vary in appearance from animal to animal but quite often it appears as a light to medium brown material covering the shiny white enamel of the teeth.

Q-What is periodontal disease?

A-This is a condition that involves the gums and ligaments holding the teeth in place. Gingivitis is when the gums surrounding the teeth become inflamed, painful and infected. It can lead to gum recession (gums pulling away from the tooth surface and leading to tooth root exposure) and the loosening of the ligaments that hold the teeth in place. In severe cases, the affected gums recede to the point of causing tooth loss. Although periodontal disease can be caused by different systemic health issues, namely FIV and FeLV viruses in cats, and diabetes in both dogs and cats, most periodontal disease we see as veterinarians is directly related to tartar accumulation.

The worst part of dental disease is that is can be extremely irritating and painful for our furry friends! Our pets are very good at hiding their pain and oftentimes dental disease can go undetected by their owners for a long time. The complaints we hear most often related to dental disease range from halitosis (bad breath) to difficulty chewing food and/or dropping of food from the mouth. Owners may also notice a change in their pet’s attitude and they may shy away from contact around their face and mouth. In the worst cases  bleeding from the gums and mouth may also be noted.

So after hearing all the bad news, what’s the good news?? Dental disease is completely preventable!!

Q-How can I as a pet owner prevent dental disease?

A-The best first step is to start as soon as you acquire a new pet, whether it be a puppy or kitten or an older rescued animal. There are specially shaped toothbrushes and pet toothpaste sold in convenient kits at several pet stores. It’s important not to use human toothpaste as it contains Fluoride and could be potentially harmful to your pet if swallowed. For young animals, the teeth they have will eventually come out as the adult teeth come in but it’s important to get them used to having their mouths handled safely and to acclimate them to the feeling and procedure of having their teeth brushed. If you have an older rescued animal the same is true but the best first step is to have your veterinarian examine your new rescue to determine if any dental disease may already be present. You and your vet will then have a discussion about the best recommendations for your pet’s dental care. Remember for best results you should brush your pet’s teeth on a daily basis (to remove that plaque!!)

Q-What happens if my pet doesn’t like to have his/her mouth touched or allow me to brush them?

A-This is a very common issue our pet owners have. If your pet won’t allow you to brush their teeth with a standard pet toothbrush you can try using a soft piece of gauze wrapped around your finger and moistened with water to get a similar outcome. You can gently rub the gauze along the surfaces of your pet’s teeth and this mechanical abrasion will also help remove the daily plaque buildup.

Q-Okay, okay, I’ve tried the above and my pet will *still* not let me get anywhere near his/her mouth, now what??

A-First of all, you are not alone! It’s easy to get frustrated and give up when the above options don’t work but as a pet owner you still have many options to try and help prevent severe dental disease in your pet! There are several over-the-counter products marketed towards improving the dental health of your pet. These can range anywhere from gels and pastes, to water additives, dental treats and toys. For those special cases, there are even prescription dental diets available through your veterinary office. Now as with any product market it is definitely buyer beware! If it sounds too good to be true then it likely is! The veterinarians at House Paws all have their tried and true products that they recommend but there are too many to list them all here! Some favorites are C.E.T. Dental chews, Milk Bone dental chews and Dog Essential Healthymouth water additive.

Q-I go to the petstore and I see so many products that are geared towards the dental health of my pet, how do I know which ones are effective and safe?

A-That’s an easy one! The VOHC, or the Veterinary Oral Health Council, was conceived of and formed in the 1990’s to help with this very issue. This council consists of veterinarians and veterinary dental specialists, some of the most respected in their field, who decided to form the VOHC to help identify those dental health products that were shown through trials conducted with these products to show efficacy in slowing the progression of tartar accumulation and the progression to severe dental disease. These products are awarded a seal of approval and will have a corresponding ‘VOHC’ seal of approval on the package labelling. The website link below is a great one to check out to see all of those products recommended by the VOHC.


Q-What happens if my Veterinarian notices dental tartar and/or gum disease on my pet’s annual exam, what do I do now?

A-First of all, depending on the severity of the disease in your pet’s mouth, you Vet may recommend several different options. For those with significant tartar accumulation and/or periodontal disease, the best option is to have a professional dental cleaning done at one of our offices. Your pet will be placed under anesthesia and intubated (a tube placed in the throat to protect the airway during the dental procedure and to facilitate breathing). While under anesthesia they will receive dental radiographs or X-rays which can show any disease that may be present and affecting the teeth below the gum surface. In most cases dentals involve a ultrasonic scaling (removal of the mineralized tartar) and polishing of the tooth enamel surfaces afterwards. In some cases, extraction of a diseased tooth is necessary to address the dental disease and give your pet the best possible chance for a healthy mouth! Your pet may also have special medications sent home with them and this is decided on a case by case basis.

Q-I have an older pet, is having the dental procedure still safe?

A-This is a common concern among many of our clients. Although any anesthetic event poses a risk, no matter the age or condition of the patient, we strive to make it as safe as possible. We perform a full exam and offer pre-anesthetic blood screening to ensure the health of your pet before placing them under anesthesia. If there are any added risks due to an underlying health concern (diabetes, thyroid issues, heart disease etc.) your veterinarian will go over any additional diagnostics and/or treatments that may be recommended prior to your pet’s dental cleaning. Your pet is also maintained on IV fluids and monitored closely by our highly trained staff. We care for them as if they were our own!

Q-I hear that dental cleanings can be expensive, why is this?

A-As with any anesthetic procedure a lot goes into the care of your pet during their visit. This includes the dental X Rays and IV fluids, the medications necessary to anesthetize your pet and those that may be sent home additionally afterwards. The basic dental package is relatively inexpensive when taking your pet’s happiness, comfort and health into consideration. The cost of your pet’s particular procedure may vary however depending on whether dental surgery and extractions may be necessary, but rest assured we try to make the best decision for your pet each step of the way to ensure a positive dental health outcome!

Our staff has several combined years of treating pets with severe dental disease and we never get tired of hearing about how much happier pets seem to be after their dental cleaning, especially in cases with severe dental disease. Removal of diseased teeth and addressing the overall dental health of many of our senior patients has resulted in them leading longer, healthier and happier lives!

We hope you enjoyed this little Dental Health Q&A. If you should have any further questions regarding your pet’s dental health or would like to inquire as to the cost of this procedure please feel free to speak to one of our Veterinarians or someone on our House Paws staff!

For more information on dental disease we recommend a great website geared towards informing owners – http://www.avdc.org/home.html

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