Nothing but the Tooth! A Case for Dental Cleanings and Dentistry Facts

Regular brushing is just the first
step to healthier teeth.

Each year, February is designated as Pet Dental Health month and there is far more to know about pet dental health than “feeding dry food helps.” Keeping your pet's teeth and gums in good shape has many health benefits in addition to the sparkling fresh breath. Now is the time to schedule that checkup for your pet to ensure the best dental health possible.

“Dog or cat breath” is often a sign of periodontal disease in pets. Even if you feed your pets dry food, this isn't enough. True, crunchy food and other chewable snacks can help a little with tartar buildup, but I think deep down you know that eating crunchy Cheetos doesn't take the place of brushing and flossing. Why would you think it was any different for your pets? The pungent odors coming from your pet’s mouth are a sign of uncontrolled persistent infection in the mouth.

Basic treatment for dental disease involves general anesthesia, use of an ultrasonic scaler to remove tartar both on the crowns and under the gums, and polishing of the teeth. Many vets recommend or require pre-anesthetic blood work; this is a sign they are practicing high quality medicine and don't want to take the chance that a pet will have an underlying medical problem, such as weakened kidneys, that would put the pet at an increased risk for anesthesia. When the animal is asleep your vet has the ability to evaluate each tooth thoroughly. X-rays can show the status of the tooth roots in the bone. Rotten teeth, among many dental problems, are cause for extraction. Many pets end up losing large numbers of teeth during dental procedures. While pet parents are initially distraught at hearing that Fido needs seven teeth extracted, pet parents are usually shocked and thrilled at how much happier and perkier their pets are.

The fact that effective dental work requires anesthesia (yes, I said fact and will discuss anesthesia-free dental work here) is a big concern for many pet parents. I fall among those people. In fact, I don't do anesthesia on my own pets because I morph into more of the apprehensive pet parent and less of the veterinarian-in-charge. Anesthesia is not something to be decided lightly, but routine dental cleanings are a necessary part of pet health. Rotten and diseased teeth pollute the body with bacteria that cause organ damage, pain, and other health problems, including shortening your pet's life span. Anyone who has ever had a toothache knows that living with that continuous pain is no quality of life. Emergency human dentists are able to charge a premium because of this very reason.

The anesthetics we have available today in veterinary medicine are very safe and the highest quality. Many vets use the same anesthetics that human doctors use! Pre-anesthetic blood work can look for hidden problems as I mentioned, and excellent monitoring and supportive care measures are available, such as IV fluids, blood pressure monitoring, and electrocardiograms. I bet you didn't know that many vets will calculate all the emergency drug amounts for your pet and pull them up, label them, and have them ready right on the anesthesia cart while your pet is under. We don't just cross our fingers and hope for the best. Vets are usually of the prepared, type-A mentality. With excellent precautions and an eye for detail, it is extremely unusual to have any problems, even for older patients.

Of course, the ultimate goal should be to prevent dental problems rather than have to fix them. Getting teeth cleaned before they go past the point of return gives us a chance to save them, and is much less expensive for you and easier on your pet. At home, the best thing you can do for your pet’s teeth is to brush them, which is indeed possible with some patience and determination on your part. In order to be effective it needs to be done at least every other day. Ask your veterinarian or the veterinary technician for a pet teeth-brushing demonstration on your next visit.

Some take home dental facts:

  • When it comes to permanent teeth, people have 32, cats have 30, and dogs have 42.
  • Periodontal disease is the most common disease in dogs and cats seen by veterinarians.
  • Think your pet's teeth look great? The majority of the canine tooth is root and lies beneath the surface, kind of like an iceberg. Just because you think the tooth above the gum line looks healthy, we still need to probe below the gum's surface to better evaluate this. X-rays let us further evaluate the tooth root.
  • Think your pet's teeth are just discolored but healthy nonetheless? The overwhelming majority of discolored teeth are no longer alive and are sources of infection waiting to progress.
  • The most common oral malignancy in the dog is the malignant melanoma, but most oral masses in dogs are benign.
  • The overwhelming majority of oral tumors in cats are malignant (squamous cell carcinoma).
  • Small dogs are more likely to develop periodontal disease than large breed dogs because the teeth of small dogs are often too large for their mouths.
  • Without proper dental care, far more than half of dogs and cats show signs of oral disease by age three.

Don't delay! Dental cleaning is not a cosmetic procedure. Periodontal disease is progressive and painful. The key to good optimum oral health is regularly cleaning the teeth and putting a home-care program in place long-term.

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