“My pet is still eating so the teeth can't be that bad”. This is a sentiment that we hear often but it couldn't be further from the truth. In order to survive our cats and dogs must eat so they will only stop eating when they are in complete agony. Just think how painful a single problem tooth can be in yourself and now imagine what it must be like to have a mouthful of problem teeth. This is often the case in our older cats and dogs and can necessitate multiple extractions.
Dental disease starts off with a thin layer of bacteria known as plaque. If plaque is allowed to persist it develops into tartar (also known as calculus) which is the yellow substance seen on diseased teeth. The problem can extend below the gum line and down into the tooth root and as dental disease progresses further, infection starts to physically destroy the bone that holds the teeth in place and the gums start to recede. Eventually enough bone loss occurs such that teeth will fall out by themselves, but because dog and cat teeth have very long and up to 3 roots, this means that painful infection can be present for a long time before this occurs.
As with so many things, prevention is far preferable to treatment. There are several excellent home prevention strategies that can help slow or prevent the progression of dental disease. The best of these is tooth brushing; this is, after all, why we should brush our own teeth at least twice daily. Surprisingly, many of our dogs and cats readily accept brushing, especially if it is started while they are still young. The more often the teeth are brushed the better but at a minimum it should be twice weekly.
If brushing is not possible then dental diets are the next best preventative measure. These are designed to be a size that has to be chewed, as opposed to swallowed whole. They also have a rough texture that acts to scrape the teeth clean with every bite. Hills TD is the best diet for this although some other super-premium diets also have a dental benefit.
Chews such as Dentastix can help in those dogs that do spend the time gnawing them. Often however they are simply bitten into chunks and swallowed so, while they may be a nice treat, they often do little for the teeth. They also have calories and so the normal diet should be adjusted to prevent obesity. Feeding bones can be associated with severe complications such as intestinal obstruction and fractured teeth, so we don’t usually recommend these.
The final option is an oral gel or water supplement which contains substances that help control oral bacteria - a bit like a mouthwash in humans. Even with optimal control however, dental treatment can still be required.
Once tartar forms, then only scaling the teeth under anaesthetic can remove it properly from both above and below the gum line. In the early stages of disease this will be all that is required to get the teeth looking as good as new. Once the disease progresses, extractions can be necessary if the bone loss is too great. If these teeth were left in place, painful tooth abscesses and bone infections would eventually recur.
Dental extraction is a form of oral surgery and can be very involved requiring the creation of gum flaps and burring away bone to enable complete extraction of the roots. Dental x-rays may also be needed to fully assess a tooth and help decide if extraction is required or not.
The cost of extractions can quickly mount and so it is much better from a cost point of view, as well as the comfort of your pets mouth, to intervene before extraction is required.
Owners often comment that their pet is behaving like a youngster again after having had dental treatment. It is amazing how much our pets can tolerate without complaining and the pain they must have been in only becomes apparent once it is removed.
September is AlphaPet’s Dental Awareness Month where we are encouraging owners to pay attention to their pet’s dental care and make sure none of them is suffering in silence.