It’s Pet Dental Month!
February 11, 2014
Did you know that February is Pet Dental Month? This is a good time to review dental disease in our pet dogs and cats and the importance of home and professional dental care.
Just like us, bacteria are the source of problems in the mouth for our dogs and cats. Bacteria both live in and contribute to forming plaque, the slimy biofilm that coats the teeth. When we brush our (or our pets’) teeth we are able to remove much of this plaque because it is soft, but it also reforms very quickly. Plaque and the bacteria that live in it may lead to several problems that regular dental care can prevent:
- Over time, and especially if teeth are not brushed regularly, plaque will mineralize to form tartar. Tartar is firmly cemented to the teeth and cannot be brushed off.
- Bacteria may secrete acids that damage tooth enamel, causing caries (cavities). This happens commonly in people, but uncommonly in pets due to differences in our diets (it is a result of bacteria using sugars as an energy source). However, our pets can form cavities, and they are as painful for them as they are for us!
- Bacteria, plaque, and tartar may stimulate inflammation in the gums known asgingivitis. This is most often seen as a thin red line right at the margin of the gumline and is an early and reversible stage of periodontitis (gum disease).
- Left untreated, gingivitis can lead to progressively more severe stages of periodontitis. Chronic gingivitis causes the gums to pull away from the teeth, forming pockets that harbor bacteria and allow plaque and tartar to accumulate (sub-gingival pockets). Over time, chronic periodontitis can lead to a breakdown of the connective tissue holding the teeth in place and even damage the bony socket of the tooth roots. This can cause pain and lead to infections or abscesses of the tooth roots, loose teeth, damage to the bone of the jaw, and tooth loss. Before modern dental care and regular use of products such as floss and toothpaste, these problems were very common in people.
- There is growing evidence that the pockets of inflammation associated with periodontitis may allow bacteria to invade the bloodstream and be introduced to other parts of the body such as heart valves or kidneys.
The good news is, there are options for both home dental care and professional dental care for your pet to prevent this progression of events. At home, the most important thing you can do is to brush your pet’s teeth (ask us for a demonstration at your pet’s next appointment). Provide appropriate chewing materials and using special dental diets as treats (such as Hill’s T/D) to help remove plaque and bacteria from the surfaces of the teeth.
When we do a professional cleaning here at the clinic, we are essentially doing the same thing a dentist who treats humans does: We scale the tartar from both the visible part of the tooth and from any sub-gingival pockets, do a thorough examination of the entire mouth including the inner surfaces of the teeth and gums and under the tongue, polish the teeth, and probe the gums for any deep pockets or problem areas. If problems are found, dental x-rays can be performed and any unhealthy teeth can be extracted or concerning areas of soft tissues can be biopsied.
The biggest difference between our dental cleanings and our pets’, of course, is that our pets do not cooperate with this process and must be anesthetized. Because of concerns about anesthesia, traditionally teeth were left alone until dental disease had progressed to a serious state before performing a cleaning. What we know now, however, is that patients whose mouths are cleaned at an earlier stage of dental disease are under anesthesia for shorter periods of time. In addition, although anesthesia is never 100% guaranteed safe, modern anesthetic drug choices, patient assessment, individualized anesthetic plans, and close patient monitoring minimize the risks and we perform procedures safely every day. Studies have shown that the risk of death in dogs and cats undergoing anesthesia is less than 1% overall (see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18466167 and http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9934922).
Due to concerns with anesthesia, offering “anesthesia-free dentistry” in various venues has become more common. However, an anesthesia-free scaling cannot thoroughly clean or probe the sub-gingival pockets where tartar and bacteria are causing the most serious problems and where it is most important to clean. Also, the teeth cannot be thoroughly polished, which is important to reduce any rough surfaces that bacteria find it easier to re-attach to after a cleaning. In addition, no matter how cooperative your pet is, it is simply not as safe to perform scaling in an awake pet who could be injured by sharp instruments if they move suddenly during the procedure.
As always, if you have any questions please feel free to contact the clinic and speak to one of our doctors. Your pet’s dental health is important to us!