February 2012

Dental Care for Pets

Author: Dr. Kirk Dixon - Hilton Head Vetrinary Clinics

“But Doc, why does Fluffy need his teeth cleaned when he only eats dry food?” This is one of my favorite questions regarding dental care. The owners are truly puzzled. To their question, I have a simple answer. “Imagine what your teeth would look like if you never brushed them and only ate croutons?” Seriously, can you imagine that reckless behavior? If we followed that rule for our own teeth, we would have fewer teeth in our head than the number of years a person can serve as president of the United States.

So if you would never treat your own teeth with such disrespect, why ignore your pet’s teeth? Do you know that 80 percent of dogs and cats have dental disease? Do you know that bad teeth can actually lead to heart disease? When you have bad teeth, your body is constantly being showered with bacteria. Those bacteria can settle anywhere and cause an infection, but the heart valves are very susceptible. If infected, the valves can get rounded off, start leaking (causing a heart murmur) and eventually lead to congestive heart failure.

Even if heart failure doesn’t happen, infected teeth can make a dog miserable. Every time I have to pull a lot of teeth from an animal, without a doubt they feel so much better afterward. My favorite story was an elderly woman who owned an elderly Yorkshire Terrier. The dog’s teeth were horrible. I begged and pleaded for a year to convince her to let me do a dentistry. Finally, she consented. When she came in to pick up the dog that afternoon, I told her everything went well but I had to pull 16 teeth (dogs have 42 adult teeth, cats have 30). You would have thought I just confessed to being a serial killer. She started verbally ripping into me. Over and over again she kept repeating, “I can’t believe you did that to Missy.”

She took Missy home, and I didn’t see her for two to three weeks. One day she came in for supplies, and I asked her how Missy was doing. She gave me a huge smile and said, “That was such a great idea that we had. Missy is so much more energetic; she is eating better and is so much happier.” I thought it was hilarious that it was my entire fault the teeth were pulled but it was our success when it turned out so good.

All kidding aside, bad teeth are a horrible drain to the health of anyone. Good teeth are a blessing. I had one patient named Chester. He was a Dachshund that I saw since he was a puppy. The owners believed in dental care and would bring him in two or three times a year to have his teeth cleaned. I couldn’t believe how easy and enjoyable it was to clean nice teeth. I never before had that privilege. I would feel guilty because it was so easy, and I would give deep discounts for the cleanings. Nine years passed, and I could not believe how great his teeth were. Up to that point, he never lost a tooth and his gums were perfect. He moved away, but I’m sure his teeth were always great. On the other hand, I have patients as young as two years old who are already losing teeth due to dental disease.

Dental disease in dogs and cats is similar but different. Contrary to people, almost all dental disease in dogs and cats is periodontal (roots and gums) in nature. They rarely get cavities unless secondary to a broken tooth. In dogs, plaque forms from food particles and, with time, it incorporates minerals to become rock hard. It starts at the gum line and initially irritates the gums (gingivitis). That irritation causes the gums to recede. As the gums recede, the tartar fills in behind it. Eventually the root is exposed. Once the tartar gets on the root, the tooth will eventually be lost. The reason is that the crown of the tooth is very slippery and, once cleaned, can stay that way for a while. On the other hand, the root is very rough as it is intended to allow the body to grip it. The problem is that almost immediately after removing tartar from a root, it will start accumulating again. You just can’t clean the teeth often enough to stop the progression; the tooth will become loose and need to be pulled.

In cats, the tartar will cause gingivitis, but instead of the gums receding, it initiates a process where the body starts dissolving the roots (they are called resorptive lesions). The roots can be dissolved to a point the root is incorporated into the bone of the jaw and the tooth breaks off. Once this process starts on a tooth, it can’t be stopped. Hence prevention is so important.

The only effective way to clean teeth is with anesthesia. I have known of many groomers who claim they will clean the teeth with a hand scaler, but it is very ineffective. Even if you can get to some of the outer surfaces, you can never get the inside of the teeth. So you need anesthesia to hold the animal still. An ultrasonic scaler is used that produces sound waves to vibrate the tip of the device and break the tartar away. The teeth are then polished to make them as shiny and slippery as possible to slow down future tartar growth. However, no matter how clean the teeth are, it is like vacuuming a rug. As soon as you vacuum the rug, dirt starts accumulating again. Dental care is a maintenance process. It needs to be redone at regular intervals. Some dogs can go years between cleanings while others require it more than once a year. Hard food will slow down accumulation but not prevent it. There are dental treats and chews, mouth sprays and water additives that help prevent bacteria growth, which might slow tartar accumulation but won’t prevent it. Brushing is great, but not many people are able to do an adequate job. So to me, dental cleaning is the most reliable and effective answer. If you become a believer, your pet will be healthier and have fresher breath!

For more information, call or visit Hilton Head Veterinary Clinics, located at Mathews Dr. on Hilton Head Island, (843) 681-2890, or at Okatie Village, Okatie, SC., (843) 705-9959.

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