There are two types of dental care for pets: that given by the owner at home, and that given by the vet in the surgery. Both are very important to the wellbeing of our pets.
It is thought that two thirds of dogs and cats over 3 years old suffer from dental disease. This is not a cosmetic problem, although the appearance and smell from an affected mouth can be very unpleasant! More importantly, it is a cause of pain and ill health.
The most important type of home dental care is brushing the teeth. This is best started when the dog or cat is very young, even though we hope there will be no tooth problems at that age. This means that brushing will not hurt. Special veterinary toothpaste and a soft brush are needed, and it is important to brush every day. It might take time to get your pet used to the idea of tooth brushing, but at this age you can start gradually with paste on a finger and work up to introducing the toothbrush. Human toothpaste is not suitable for animals as they contain additives like fluoride which are meant to be spat out and not swallowed, but animals will lick their teeth and swallow the paste.
Some diets are specially formulated to help reduce dental plaque. The hardness and shape of the kibble help reduce formation of plaque and tartar.
Other products that can be used at home include mouth rinses and gels to rub into gums. Carefully designed chews and toys can also help to provide some mechanical cleaning of the teeth, but daily brushing is the most effective preventative.
Bacteria are present in all mouths, but only some of them cause a problem. They cause most problems when there is plaque on the teeth or in little crevices between the teeth and the gums. Plaque builds up over time in all mouths and is made up of substances contained in the food and the saliva. Over time, plaque hardens and mineralises to form hard calculus (or tartar).
In some breeds there is a higher likelihood of dental disease because of the shape of the head or overcrowding of the teeth. Another factor is the way the animal’s own immune system responds to the problem in the early stages, so you could have two animals with the same lifestyle and diet but with different amounts of dental disease. This immune response is particularly important in gum disease in cats (gingivitis).
Broken or cracked teeth provide a focal surface for plaque and bacteria, and so do retained temporary teeth. The so-called “baby teeth” usually fall out by about 6 months of age, to be replaced by the adult set. If a first tooth does not fall out and an adult tooth erupts alongside it, there is a crevice which traps food debris and allows bacteria to multiply.
Gum changes occur alongside dental disease, starting with redness and inflammation and mild discomfort, which can progress to the formation of pockets between the gum and tooth which will eventually destroy the attachment of the tooth.
When your vet examines your pet’s mouth, he or she will be assessing a number of things. After checking the general shape and health of the whole mouth, they will look for any lost, loose, broken or retained teeth. They will assess the teeth and gums for inflammation and calculus, and may need to use a probe at the gum edge. In cats in particular, they will also be checking for resorptive lesions, which occur when the surface enamel is lost, followed by the deeper structures of the tooth, eventually exposing the sensitive nerves.
If dental treatment is recommended, it will be carried out under general anaesthetic. Even in the most co-operative of patients, it is not possible to reach every surface of every tooth with the animal awake. It is also difficult to predict whether any extractions or x-rays will be needed until the teeth have been thoroughly cleaned. This also makes it notoriously difficult to estimate the cost in advance, but your vet should be able to give you a rough estimate or a range of possible costs if you ask.
As with any anaesthetic it is usually advised to have a blood test to check the pet’s general health, and in particular how well the liver and kidneys are working. This is because they are required to metabolise, or break down, the anaesthetic drugs. However, it does not mean that anaesthetics cannot be given if there is a problem with liver or kidney function; it usually means extra precautions will be taken, the choice of drugs may be different and intravenous fluids may be given. Most patients needing dental work tend to be middle-aged or older, but this does not make it too risky to give an anaesthetic. As long as the animal has been fully examined and blood-tested, the risks of the anaesthetic are often smaller than the risks from the dental disease itself.
Sometimes owners want to delay this type of treatment for as long as possible, especially if the dog or cat still has a healthy appetite, but this can make matters worse. If the animal is off its food because of dental disease, it is already quite advanced and will need much more treatment, and the animal’s general health may have deteriorated during the delay.
Antibiotics are often needed before and after a dental procedure. If bacteria from the infected mouth enter the bloodstream, there is a risk that they may settle in places like the heart valves.
The equipment used in a vet’s surgery for dental work is very specialised. An ultrasound descaler is used to remove calculus from teeth and another attachment is used to polish the teeth. Several hand held instruments are needed to do simple extractions. More complex extractions, where teeth have several roots, may need a full surgical kit. An x-ray machine and developer is needed for many dental cases so that hidden structures can be visualised. All of this equipment has to be sharpened or maintained and sterilised between each procedure.
Although the most common dental procedures carried out by vets are descaling, polishing and extracting teeth, dentistry for animals is becoming more sophisticated all the time and there are specialists available to deal with the most complex cases.
Regular examination of your pet’s mouth, both at home and in the surgery, is important in spotting problems early and planning the right treatment. As well as dental disease this can also help with early detection of mouth and throat tumours, which are not uncommon. Ideally the mouth should be examined at least once every 6 months.
A week or two after a dental procedure, when everything is healed, is a great time to start brushing teeth again, or for the first time if it wasn’t started as a puppy/kitten. If unsure about the brushing technique, ask your vet or nurse for advice or a demonstration.