Protecting Your Dog from Dental Dangers

Tracy Libby
Dog Dental DangersDisgusting dog breath? Could be a sign of periodontal disease!

Have you noticed your dog does just about everything with his mouth—eating, fetching balls, toys and sticks, and chewing on bones and any number of ghastly and offensive delicacies? So it's no surprise that broken teeth, as well as other painful dental problems, are common in dogs. Depending on a dog's temperament and personality, the signs of discomfort may be subtle.

Because some dogs are very stoic and don't exhibit signs of pain until the problem has progressed to an advanced and sometimes irreversible stage—owners may not realize there's a problem.

By understanding what to look for you can better recognize the signs of two major canine dental problems: periodontal disease and fractured teeth.

Periodontal Disease

Don't ignore your dog's bad breath! It's not normal, and it's a tell-tale sign that something is wrong. Bad breath, tartar accumulation, and red, swollen gums are classic symptoms of periodontal disease. More than 80 percent of dogs develop some degree of periodontal disease by age 3, the American Veterinary Dental Society reports, making this the No. 1 dental disease affecting adult dogs. Compared with other canine diseases, it's often overlooked or neglected by owners, even though it's completely preventable with proper care.

Periodontal disease is the progressive loss or destruction of the tissues that hold the teeth in the jaws. It starts the same way in dogs as it does in humans - with plaque buildup around and under the gum line. One milligram of dental plaque contains millions of bacteria!

When the bacteria come in contact with the gum, or gingival, they provoke an inflammatory reaction known as gingivitis. This is easily identified by the yellowish-brown crust on the teeth and the reddening of the gums. In the earliest stages, when only plaque and minimal tartar are present, gingivitis is reversible.

Treatment at this stage is relatively straightforward and includes a thorough oral examination and professional dental cleaning, which means your dog will need to be anesthetized. While he is asleep, the veterinarian can remove all the tartar from the teeth, below the gum line, and between the teeth—a nearly impossible task with a conscious animal. (Some clinics advertise no-anesthesia procedures. Be sure to discuss with your veterinarian the pros and cons of both practices.)

Left untreated, the bacteria can spread under the gum line, causing deep pockets between the teeth and gum. These pockets encourage more bacteria growth, causing infection in the deeper periodontal tissues — a condition known as periodontitis. In this stage of the disease, the tissues and bones that support the teeth erode, resulting in pain and eventual tooth loss. In advanced stages, bacteria can enter the bloodstream, causing secondary infections that can damage your dog's heart, liver, and kidneys.

Periodontitis is irreversible, but in some cases, treatment can slow the progression of the disease, prevent infection, and ease pain.

Treatment for periodontitis generally includes a professional dental cleaning and, depending on the severity of the disease, may include tooth extraction, or periodontal surgery to clean the root surfaces or remove excessive gum tissue.

The cost of a professional dental cleaning varies depending on the dog, the condition of his mouth, whether or not pre-anesthesia blood work is required and, of course, the location of the veterinary clinic. Costs can range from $70 to $350, but I've heard stories of costs running as high as $500. The price tag can jump by hundreds or thousands of dollars if periodontal surgery is required.

Prevention Is Key

The least expensive method of keeping your dog's teeth and gums healthy is prevention. Tartar can accumulate within 24 to 36 hours after professional cleaning, therefore regular at-home tooth brushing is essential—and the most effective means of removing plaque. For less than $25 you can purchase a tooth brush and doggie toothpaste to keep your dog's pearly whites clean, healthy, and tartar free all year.

Providing your dog with dental chew toys, water additives or gels, and a diet that includes a balanced, premium food, or a food specifically designed to reduce the accumulation of plaque and tartar, can also be helpful. When choosing products for dental health, from water additives to special chews and foods, a good place to start is the Veterinary Oral Health Council. The more diligent you are about at-home dental care, the less veterinary intervention will be necessary.

Fractured Teeth

A few years ago, our Australian Shepherd broke his canine (that big fang tooth). We opted for a root canal, which saved the tooth. Not long after that, the tooth broke again—this time at the gum line. The only option was to extract the tooth. When all was said and done, the veterinary bill for the root canal and extraction set us back about $1,600.

Veterinarians say broken teeth are very common—with some clinics seeing several cases a week. Like humans, dogs with fractured teeth can suffer a great deal of pain, especially if the broken tooth exposes the pulp, the soft inner portion of the tooth containing blood vessels and nerve tissues. If a broken tooth goes untreated, it can create a super-highway for bacteria that lodges in the damaged tissue, causing inflammation and abscesses. Eventually the tooth dies—becoming a bacterial haven. As with periodontal disease, the blood vessels in the area pick up the bacteria, spreading it to and infecting other areas of the body — most specifically, the liver and kidneys.

Any tooth can break, but the most commonly fractured teeth are the canines and the upper fourth premolar. It's the main “chomping” tooth and is susceptible to fractures. Dogs usually break their teeth chewing on hard bones, rocks, ice cubes, and, yes, chain-link fencing. Fighting or fence fighting is a common cause of broken teeth — especially canines. Trauma, such as being hit by a car, can also lead to broken teeth.

With the canines or incisors—you can sometimes see the tooth is broken because those teeth are more visible. Other times, you may notice clues, such as bleeding, pain when you touch a tooth, or facial swelling inside or outside the mouth. Some dogs have difficulty eating, may avoid chewing on one side, or they may not drink very cold water. Again, some dogs are very stoic and show little or no signs of discomfort. Owners can mistakenly think that because a dog shows little or no signs of pain—he's not in pain.

Treatment depends on the dog's age and the time between the fracture and treatment, as well as which parts of the tooth are broken and the break's severity. If only the enamel is broken, treatment may be minor, such as smoothing the sharp edges to prevent irritation to the lips or tongue. More serious breaks may require removal, a root canal, or a crown — not unlike the dental procedures performed on people.

Veterinary dentistry has come a long way, but awareness, prevention, and regular check-ups remain the best approach to dealing with and preventing dental problems.

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