February is National Pet Dental Health Month

by Melissa Nelson, DVM

Did you know that most cats and dogs have moderate periodontal disease before the age of four? Many will have mild to moderate disease before the age of two! Yet most pet owners are unaware of the most common disease in their pets, or are unwilling to treat it. That’s why there is a National Pet Dental Health Month. Dental disease is not just “bad breath.” It is a condition that can lead to pain, weight loss, tooth loss, and other problems.

How Do Periodontal Problems Affect Pet Dental Health?

Periodontal problems and pet dental health issues start when bacteria in the mouth form plaque and minerals in the saliva cause the plaque to form tartar.  Tartar is the hard, discolored material on your pet’s teeth that becomes obvious when pointed out by your veterinarian.  Periodontal disease occurs when tartar spreads beneath the gum line and erodes the structures supporting the tooth, leading to tooth infections, gum recession, bone loss, loose teeth, and in severe cases, fractured jaws.  The bacteria do not just cause local damage to the mouth.  They can also be responsible for infections in the heart, kidneys, and other organs.

What Can You Do to Keep Your Pet’s Teeth Healthy?

When tartar is found on the outside surfaces of the teeth, your veterinarian will recommend a dental prophylaxis to determine and treat the amount of disease present. Then, he or she will recommend a regimen at home to help keep the teeth healthy.

There has been recent public controversy involving pet dental care, thanks to a popular television news program which described veterinary dentistry as expensive and unnecessary.  But the cost of a dental prophylaxis is not in the cleaning of the teeth.  Instead, the bulk of the cost is due to the practice of safe anesthesia, dental x-rays, probing of gingival tissues for pockets to assess tooth and gum health, and extractions, pain medications and antibiotics when needed.  Safe anesthesia often involves blood work and always involves monitoring of important vital signs just like human procedures.

Many people balk at the idea of anesthesia for dental care for their pets.  But when you think about it, if you went twelve years without ever brushing your teeth, you’d probably be pretty uncomfortable having them cleaned!  Having our gums poked and probed can hurt, which has spawned the concept of sedation dentistry for humans.

The American Animal Hospital Association 2013 Dental Care Guidelines state that cleaning a companion animal’s teeth without general anesthesia and intubation is unacceptable and below the standard of care.

After a dental prophylaxis, your veterinarian will recommend products to help delay or prevent periodontal disease.  These products are designed to decrease the number of sedated procedures your pet will require.  They are not a substitution for veterinary visits, however, and most pets will require several dental procedures during their lifetime to keep them healthy.

Dr. Nelson graduated from the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine in 2002. She first practiced in Michigan, and then practiced in Hickory, NC before becoming the new owner of Asheville’s Skyland Animal Hospital.

photo credit: cat #794 via photopin (license)