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It’s National Pet Dental Health Month!

February 7, 2013

February is National Pet Dental Health Month. This is a great time to learn about dental disease in dogs and cats, what exactly is involved when your pet is scheduled for a dental cleaning at Grand Avenue Veterinary Center, and the steps you can take at home to help keep your pets’ mouths healthy.


What kind of dental problems do dogs and cats have?

It is uncommon (though not impossible) for dogs and cats to develop cavities in their teeth since they usually do not have much sugar in their diet. Dogs and cats fed candy or other sugary treats can be at higher risk for forming cavities, which is one reason (among others) to avoid them. More commonly, dogs develop plaque, tartar, and periodontal disease similar to adult people.

Even with diligent dental care, there are always bacteria living in the mouth and on the teeth. These bacteria both live in and contribute to the formation of the sticky film on the teeth we call plaque (you may sometimes see this called “biofilm”). Plaque is soft; when we brush our teeth or our pets’ teeth we are physically removing this soft film. In addition, most pet toothpastes contain an enzyme that helps break down plaque on contact.

There are a few reasons to be concerned about plaque. One, the bacteria living there produce substances that can damage the teeth and cause inflammation in the gums (gingivitis). Secondly, over time plaque hardens into tartar, which is firmly cemented to the teeth and cannot be brushed off.

Microscopically, the surface of tartar is very irregular and provides even more area for bacteria to live. It also contributes to gingivitis and can cause the gums to recede, opening up more space for plaque, bacteria, and tartar to invade as well as infiltrating the space between the gums and teeth. If not addressed, this can ultimately cause infection under the gum line and undermine the strength of the tooth roots’ attachments to the gums and jaw bone (periodontal disease).

Cats may develop an additional problem called feline oral resorptive lesions (FORLs). These are not cavities; rather, one or more teeth are spontaneously and progressively reabsorbed by the body. It is not known what causes them and there is no known prevention. Not every cat will develop FORLs, but an individual cat who has had one has a higher risk of forming more in the future. Since these teeth are painful and susceptible to infection, they should be extracted.


What exactly happens to my pet during a dental cleaning?

Your pet’s dental cleaning is similar in many ways to your own trip to the dentist. The entire mouth is examined thoroughly for problems with the teeth, gums, inside of the cheeks, lips, and tongue. The tartar is removed from the teeth both above and below the gum line using an ultrasonic scaler. The teeth are then polished, leaving a smooth surface that helps delay reattachment of plaque and bacteria.  Each tooth is then examined individually for problems and the gums around each tooth are probed for abnormal gaps called “pockets” which can indicate areas of infection. Dental x-rays are taken of any suspicious areas. Teeth with severe problems may need to be extracted.

The obvious difference between your pet’s dental cleaning and your own is that pets do not tolerate these procedures when awake, so anesthesia is required to properly examine and treat the mouth and your pet will spend the day at the clinic. A team of both a doctor and a certified veterinary technician are dedicated to your pet’s care during their stay. Our dental patients are always immediately supervised throughout their procedures and their blood pressure, heart and breathing rate, and oxygen levels of the blood are monitored continuously.


What About Anesthesia-Free Dental Cleanings?

Tartar that is visible on the surface of the tooth is the “tip of the iceberg” when it comes to dental disease. The most important part of a dental cleaning is removing plaque and tartar that is forming below the gum line (“subgingival”). This is where active inflammation and infection can affect the normal attachment of the tooth root to the gums and jaw bone. Scaling just the visible tartar on the tooth without cleaning these subgingival spaces does not significantly benefit your pet, and it is simply not possible to thoroughly clean these subgingival spaces (or thoroughly examine and probe the entire mouth including the surfaces of the teeth that face the tongue and under the tongue) in an animal who is awake, no matter how cooperative.  In addition, even the smallest movement or jerk of the head while scaling the teeth can result in injury to your pet’s mouth.

Anesthesia is never 100% safe, but modern anesthetics and patient evaluation, as well as close supervision and monitoring of the patient while under anesthesia, minimize these risks. . If you have any questions about our anesthesia protocols, please feel free to speak to one of our doctors at any time.


Are my pet’s teeth really bad enough to need cleaning?

Because of fears about anesthesia, a very reactive approach has been taken to pets’ dental care in the past. The mouth and teeth were more or less left alone until there was severe tartar buildup or infected teeth that needed to be pulled. Now we know that oral pain and discomfort are often “silent” in our pet dogs and cats; because they must eat to survive, they must be in severe pain to stop eating due to dental disease. This does not mean that an unhealthy mouth is not uncomfortable.  A more preventative approach benefits our pets’ comfort and prevents mild dental disease from progressing to the point where severe periodontal disease, tooth root infections, tooth loss, or even damage to the jaw bone occur.


How often will my pet’s teeth need cleaning?

There is tremendous variation in how often an individual pet needs a dental cleaning, with genetics and home dental care playing the biggest roles. Some pets need yearly cleanings even with diligent home care, while others may be once every 2-4 years or even longer. Dental health is evaluated as part of the yearly wellness exam to determine your individual pet’s needs.


What kind of dental care can I do at home for my pet?

Brushing the teeth is one of the most important things you can do at home to maintain good oral health and to minimize the need for dental cleanings. We can help demonstrate how to brush your pet’s teeth, or there are several online tutorials available. For dogs, chew toys may help keep the teeth clean; however, it is very important to discuss appropriate chewing materials with one of our doctors or technicians to avoid digestive upset or chipped teeth. Some specially formulated diets may help keep the teeth clean; again, it is important to discuss this with one of our technicians or doctors to find an appropriate and effective option for your pet.

If you have any questions about your pet’s dental health, dental care, or dental cleanings, please feel free to contact our office. Have a happy Pet Dental Month!

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