We all know that seeing a dentist regularly and taking care of our teeth at home is crucial if we want to keep our mouths healthy and pain-free. It shouldn’t be too surprising that the same is true for dogs and cats. Unfortunately, most pets do not benefit from proper oral care and develop serious periodontal disease as a result.
Bad breath is often the first sign of dental problems in pets, which owners tend to write off as being a normal part of living with dogs and cats. The smell develops when plaque, a sticky mixture of saliva, food, and bacteria, and tartar (mineralized plaque) accumulates on the teeth. The bacteria and rotting food in plaque and tartar produce foul odors and also irritate nearby gum tissue resulting in gingivitis. Other signs of periodontal disease include oral pain, a reluctance to eat, weight loss, irritability, sneezing/nasal discharge, and facial abscesses.
Periodontal disease is classified by the severity of the changes in oral tissues that is caused by plaque and tartar on teeth. When gingivitis alone is present, pets are said to have stage one periodontal disease. By stage two, increasing inflammation has caused the gums to pull away from the teeth forming periodontal pockets where more plaque and tartar can develop. When these pockets are deeper than five millimeters, indicating that underlying bone is being eroded, stage three periodontal disease is present. Stage four is the most severe form of periodontal disease, characterized by a loss of more than 50% of the bone surrounding one or more teeth. Research has also shown that periodontal disease is associated with damage to the kidneys, liver, heart, and lungs.
Once periodontal disease is present, it must be treated by a veterinarian. Plaque and tartar are removed from all surfaces of the teeth, including under the gum line, using special instruments. The teeth are then polished and fluoride and/or other protective products are applied to the teeth. When significant damage to the teeth or their surrounding tissues is evident, tooth extractions or other types or oral surgery become necessary.
Professional dental cleanings for dogs and cats are not cheap, in large part because they require the use of general anesthesia. So once a pet’s teeth are clean, it benefits everyone involved to keep them that way with daily brushing sessions using a toothpaste designed for pets. When brushing is not a reasonable option, giving dogs and cats dental chews every day (e.g., Greenies or treated rawhide treats) to help remove plaque and tartar is a good alternative. Specially designed foods and mouthwashes are also available. Products that carry the Veterinary Oral Health Council (VOHC) seal have been proven to help remove plaque and tartar from pets’ teeth.
Good home care does not eliminate the need for routine dental prophylaxes. After all, people who brush and floss every day still have to see their dentists. But when used regularly, pet dental care products can extend the time between dental cleanings and keep dogs and cats comfortable and healthy.