Nobody wants to walk around with a toothache—in fact, you’d probably be quick to visit your dentist if you were suffering from oral pain. Pets can suffer from the same oral health issues, but they often hide their pain and make dental disease difficult for pet owners to recognize. Good dental health is key to your pet’s overall wellbeing, so the Gentle Touch Animal Hospital team is using National Pet Dental Health Month to refresh your pet dental health knowledge.
Pet dental disease progression
The bacteria that live naturally inside your pet’s mouth are attracted to the sticky plaque that builds up on teeth only a few hours after eating. After a few days, plaque combines with calcium in saliva and hardens into tartar, which cannot be easily removed. If plaque is not removed daily via toothbrushing or other oral care measures, tartar continues to build and bacteria proliferate above and below the gum line.
Over weeks, months, or years, the bacteria inflame and damage the gums, tooth-anchoring ligaments, tooth roots, and jaw bones. Eventually, the diseased teeth will fall out, but not without a lot of pain. This dental disease process is irreversible—lost bone and tissue are gone forever—making attention to oral health vital to prevent disease progression. Other dental conditions, including tooth fractures, tooth cysts, retained baby teeth, unerupted baby teeth, resorptive lesions in cats, and tooth root abscesses, may cause or complicate dental disease.
Pet dental disease warning signs
Many pets hide their dental disease, but you may pick up on subtle changes at home. Potential signs include:
- Bad breath
- Pawing at the mouth
- Facial swelling
- Chewing on one side or dropping food
- Irritability or social withdrawal
- Red, bleeding, or swollen gums
Which pets are affected by dental disease?
All pets will eventually deal with some degree of dental disease. Most pets are diagnosed with early signs by age 3 or 4, although some more likely will develop more severe or faster progressing disease because of breed or individual genetics. Cats develop unique dental conditions that may appear at any age, while dog risk depends heavily on size and head shape. Pets at increased risk include:
- Small and toy breeds
- Brachycephalic breeds (e.g., shih tzu, bulldog, boxer)
- Dolichocephalic breeds (e.g., greyhound, dachshund)
- Older pets
Reasons your pet’s dental health matters
Dental health may seem cosmetic, but the problem can have far-reaching effects on your pet’s body. Chronic dental pain can significantly hinder your pet’s ability to eat, play, and interact normally with family, and lead to a decreased quality of life. Pain is also closely intertwined with stress, which can lead to fearful interactions, anxiety, and reduced immune function.
In addition to the physiologic effects of stress, deep oral infections from untreated dental disease can spread throughout your pet’s body, causing permanent damage, altered function, and a shortened life, if the bacteria travel through the bloodstream to the heart, lungs, liver, or kidneys.
Pet dental disease treatment and prevention
Similar to human dental care, good pet dental health requires a combination of home prevention strategies and professional veterinary dental cleanings. Our skilled veterinary team members recommend annual wellness visits for all pets, during which they will assess your pet’s oral health and make treatment recommendations. If your pet is older than age 3 or has dental disease signs, we may recommend a professional dental cleaning.
A dental cleaning is better referred to as a comprehensive oral health assessment and treatment (COHAT), because our team does more than simply clean your pet’s teeth. We also use X-rays to evaluate the tooth roots, examine and record each tooth’s health, and perform treatments. Treatments are vital to remove decayed teeth, resolve existing infections, and prevent spread to neighboring teeth, and may include:
- Tooth extraction
- Tooth crown amputation
- Root planing
- Root canal therapy
A COHAT is always performed under general anesthesia, which keeps your pet and the veterinary team safe, prevents excessive movement and patient stress, and allows a complete, thorough oral examination. All pets are screened with blood work and additional tests, as needed, to ensure they are healthy and ready for anesthesia, and their vitals are closely watched throughout the procedure by a dedicated team member. Older pets and those with medical conditions can usually safely undergo anesthesia with a few minor adjustments.
Pet dental home care options
Dental home care is best started a few days after a COHAT, or in a young healthy pet without significant disease, because home care can remove only soft plaque and not hardened tartar. Toothbrushing is the gold standard, and should be performed daily for the best effect. It’s easier than you think! Check out this fear free toothbrushing video to get started.
Other dental products vary in effectiveness, so ask your veterinarian for recommendations before you purchase that dental spray from a social media ad. The Veterinary Oral Health Council also approves certain products, so you can feel confident choosing from this list.
In addition to consistent home care, most pets will require a COHAT at regular intervals throughout their lifetime. The frequency varies from six months to several years, depending on the pet’s individual risk factors and oral health history.
Your pet is a family member, and you want to ensure their good oral health to keep them happy and pain-free and help them live longer. Contact the Gentle Touch Animal Hospital team to schedule your pet’s next wellness exam or professional dental cleaning, or if you have any questions about your pet’s oral care plan.