Think about the digestion process. One of the first stages of digestion occurs in the mouth. The tongue pushes the food back into the mouth and against the teeth, the salivary glands secrete digestive enzymes, and the teeth help to break down the food into smaller pieces to expose more surface area for digestion. Without this step, larger pieces of food make it to the stomach and more digestion must occur in the stomach and small intestine.
More than 85% of dogs and cats over 4 years of age have some degree of periodontal disease, which is defined as inflammation of the supporting structures around the tooth, including the gum tissue, cementum (a calcified substance over the roots of teeth), periodontal ligaments (which attaches teeth to the jaw bone), and the alveolar bone. It starts with plaque and bacteria, then progresses to calculus. Calculus, also known as tartar, is the hard material that eventually causes bone loss and tooth mobility.
Left untreated, periodontal disease will lead to tooth loss. This process is painful. Many people believe that if their pet is eating, they must not be experiencing any pain. This isn’t the case. Dogs and cats will eat because they must in order to survive, and they need to hide their pain (a sign of weakness in a pack). Only the most advanced stages of periodontal disease or an acute injury, like a fractured tooth, is likely to produce pain that will be noticed by owners.
Periodontal disease can also lead to infections elsewhere in the body. The bacteria in the mouth can get into the blood vessels in the gingival tissue and travel to other sites in the body to set up infections. Possible locations include the heart valves, lungs, liver and kidneys.
The best way to treat periodontal disease is to start with a veterinary examination and cleaning. Once the initial treatment is complete and your pet’s mouth has healed (generally about 2-3 weeks), home preventive care should begin. The ideal way to keep your pet’s mouth healthy is with daily brushing. You will need to start slowly if your pet is new to the process.
In addition to brushing, or if your pet will not tolerate brushing, there are a vast array of pet dental products available. These products include special diets, treats, chews, rawhides, anti-plaque water additives, toothpaste and more.
Always supervise your pet when using dental products. Almost anything that goes into the mouth can be a choking hazard (especially rawhides). With daily brushing, supplemental dental products, and regular professional cleanings, those pearly whites are more likely to stay put for your pet’s whole life.