“Hey Doc, can you check his teeth, his breath could kill an elephant. . .” As I moved closer to look in the dog’s mouth I realized he wasn’t exaggerating. With some trepidation, I gently lifted Max’s lip and got a better look (and smell ) of his teeth. .. Yuck.
Dental disease is probably the most common abnormal physical exam finding I see in both dogs and cats. From mild to severe, I encounter dental tartar, inflamed gums, record-breaking bad breath and loose, infected teeth pretty much on a daily basis. But aside from the bad breath – which makes it difficult to accept those loving kisses from your otherwise sweet companion- why should all pet parents be concerned about dental disease?
The answer lies in the infection and inflammation that occurs in response to the build-up of tartar and bacteria on the surface of the tooth and below the gum line. Once this occurs, the pet’s mouth becomes a source of chronic inflammation, and a reservoir for nasty bacteria just waiting for a chance to enter the blood stream and move on to other parts of the body. Studies in people have shown that inflammation and infection of the gums (or gingiva) is related to heart disease, kidney disease and increased risk of infection after surgery. We have every reason to believe that our pets are at the same risk when their mouths are infected too.
Once your pet has developed dental disease there isn’t a whole lot you can do at home to reverse it. Certainly once teeth have become infected to the point of looseness, they are done for and the only remedy is to have them extracted. Because tartar and bacteria build up under the gums, once it occurs, the only way to eradicate it is to have your pet’s teeth cleaned by your veterinarian. This dental cleaning involves examining, cleaning (even under the gum tissue), and polishing all of the teeth – just like you or I would have done by a hygienist. The only difference is that the majority of pets are not willing participants in this procedure (I know a lot of people who feel pretty much the same way!), and so require general anesthesia in order for the veterinarian and their staff to do a complete and thorough job of it.
The ideal thing for pet owners to do is to prevent dental disease in the first place. There are several ways to keep dental disease at bay, if not prevent it from happening at all. We all should be brushing our pet’s teeth every day. Now I will admit – this is a do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do moment for me. If you are anything like me, with a house full of children, dogs and cats, you will be lucky if the kids’ teeth are brushed – never mind the dogs. And unless your cats are much more go with the flow than mine, they will generally take one look at the little kitty toothbrush and fix you with a horrified look of “You are going to do what?!” So – if you can’t brush teeth, then take advantage of the multitude of products on the market that are geared towards dental health. Dental diets, treats and chew toys all have a beneficial effect on your pet’s oral health, as long as you encourage their use. If you have a pet that doesn’t like these things, consult your veterinarian for advice, and know that a dental cleaning may be necessary to eradicate disease that has already taken hold.
Hopefully, with a little diligence and help from your veterinarian, your pet can avoid stinky-elephant-killing-breath. And you can go back to enjoying those little loving “kisses”.