ALL CREATURES ANIMAL CLINIC, LTD.
Mark Hale, DVM
DENTAL DISEASE IN DOGS AND CATS
Periodontal disease (problems in the area around the teeth) is one of the most common health problems in dogs and cats. It is estimated that 80% of dogs and 70% of cats over the age of 3 suffer from some level of periodontal disease. Just as in the human mouth, the process begins with plaque, which is made up of salivary proteins and bacteria. The bacteria irritate the gum, causing an inflammatory reaction known as gingivitis. If the plaque is removed by brushing, the gingivitis resolves. If the plaque is not removed it hardens into "tartar" or "calculus". Bad breath may be noted at this point. Inflammation continues and can result in loss of bone structure around the tooth. Eventually, the teeth become loose and fall out.
In addition to tooth loss, periodontal disease has other, more serious, consequences. The millions of bacteria in an unhealthy mouth can spread to other parts of the body, such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, and liver, causing disease in these vital organs. In small breed dogs with tiny jawbones, the bone destruction from periodontal disease can weaken the jawbone enough to cause a fracture. Periodontal disease can also be a very painful condition. We have probably all experienced the pain of a "bad tooth". Many dogs and cats endure this pain constantly, as we are often unaware that it exists since they cannot tell us in words.
The good news is that periodontal disease is completely preventable! Removing the plaque reverses the inflammatory process in the gums. As we know from our own experience, plaque removal is best accomplished by brushing. Dog and cat teeth are not as close together as ours, so flossing is not necessary. In order to be effective brushing must be done every day. A soft-bristled small headed toothbrush is best. Special pet toothpaste in such flavors as poultry or seafood help your pet enjoy the experience. Human toothpaste should not be used as it can cause upset stomach. Feeding special diets such as Hill's Healthy Advantage® or chewing on special toys can also help reduce plaque.
Once calculus is present, however, a professional cleaning is required. (Calculus is the brown or opaque discoloration usually starting along the gumline on the back molars). Although the bone destruction cannot be reversed, the inflammatory reaction can be stopped or slowed with proper treatment. Routine periodontal treatment involves ultrasonic scaling above and below the gumline. The frequency that these cleanings are needed will vary with each individual. Because your veterinarian cannot simply tell your pet to "hold still" these procedures require anesthesia. Although anesthesia has inherent risks, most veterinarians now have access to the same anesthetics used in human hospitals. These newer and safer drugs significantly reduce the occurrence of reactions. To further minimize this risk, your veterinarian may also recommend blood tests before these procedures are done. Extraction may be necessary if significant bone loss has already occurred. This can at least remove the source of the pain they may be experiencing.
In addition to periodontal disease, cats can develop "resorptive lesions" which can lead to pain and difficulty eating. Cells such as the ones responsible for removing "baby" tooth roots become activated and start to attack permanent teeth. The result is exposure of the nerve inside the tooth. Pain may be evident in behavior such as pawing at the face, drooling, or not eating. The current recommendation for affected teeth is extraction. At this time, because we do not know why these cells are activated, there is no known way to prevent resorptive lesions. Regular exams by your veterinarian will help to detect these lesions early, before they cause significant pain to your cat.
If you have more questions on your pets' dental health, please contact our office. A scheduled plan of prevention can provide your companion with a lifetime of fresh breath, clean teeth, healthy gums, and help keep your pet pain free and in overall good health.