Anne K. G. Bazilwich, DVM
Sometimes I find myself holding my breath when I examine the mouths of my patients. Owners often describe a foul odor emanating from their pet or mention that they have noticed a difficulty eating. When I show the owners the disease that is present in the mouth, they are usually surprised. That is understandable since when is your average owner poking around their pet's mouth? But, when I ask if they would like to learn how to brush their pet's teeth, they look at me with a blank stare and say, "You want me to do what?"
Poor dental health does not only cause atrocious breath, which can lead to owners pushing their pets away in disgust; it can also start a vicious cycle of disease that can lead to death. It all begins with the development of plaque. When you scratch your teeth with a fingernail and collect that interesting film under the nail, that's plaque. The best way to remove plaque from the teeth is through routine brushing. I am not saying that it is easy brushing your pet's teeth, but it certainly can be done. The easiest way for me to brush teeth is with a dental fingertip brush that fits snugly over the index finger. I find that it allows for more control. Other people have found success with a child's toothbrush or by simply wrapping gauze or a dental sponge around their finger. It is not a good idea to use human toothpaste since your pet will inevitably swallow too much and become sick. Your veterinarian can recommend appropriate animal toothpaste. Ideally, you should try and brush your pet's teeth daily; but do it as often as you can, at least weekly.
If the plaque is not removed from the teeth, gingivitis will start to develop and tartar will soon form over the teeth. Gingivitis is an inflammatory process that causes the gums to look bright red rather than pink. The gums become sensitive and bleed easily. Tartar is that hard, yellow-brown substance that forms a thick layer over the tooth. Tartar attacks the sensitive, inflamed gums and works it way up between the gums and the teeth creating deep pockets of infection and periodontal disease that eventually destroys the teeth. When the problem has reached this level, not only is the breath very bad, but brushing alone will do little besides helping to prevent further buildup.
At this point, your veterinarian will probably have to intervene to improve the quality of your pet's mouth. A dental cleaning involves the use of an ultrasonic tooth scaler (that high-pitched, squeaky instrument your dentist uses on you that sprays water everywhere), a polisher, and usually a fluoride treatment. This procedure requires general anesthesia to ensure adequate cleaning of the teeth. If advanced disease is present, some teeth may need to be extracted. Animals do quite well with missing teeth and often find it easier to eat then when they had a mouth full of diseased, painful teeth. Another alternative is to take your pet to a veterinary dental specialist who has the training and the equipment to do everything from root canals to braces on your pet's teeth.
If periodontal disease is allowed to persist, not only will the teeth and gums suffer, the entire body will. The overload of bacteria that is present in the mouth enters the blood stream through the inflamed gums and deposits in major organs such as the kidneys, the heart, the liver, and even the brain. Serious and deadly diseases can result. It has been shown through research that some of the more common diseases that are seen in aging pets can be directly related to poor dental health.
So, what if you absolutely cannot brush? Maybe your adorable little feline turns into a ferocious tiger when you pull out your fingertip toothbrush? Or possibly your ten-pound terrier just will not sit still and you wind up with toothpaste on the ceiling? There are some other alternatives to brushing. Though brushing daily is best, if it means you would lose a finger, consider getting a pet mouthwash from your veterinarian. These products can kill the bacteria growing in the mouth and usually offer a special nozzle tip that allows the mouthwash to be squirted easily along the gums and teeth. Also, you can feed a dry food specially formulated to help prevent dental disease. Your veterinarian can help you select an appropriate diet for your pet. Dogs can be given hard objects to chew and gnaw on, and again, it would be best to seek the advice of your veterinarian in choosing the best hard object for your pet.
Eventually, even with the most stringent dental home care program, your pet will most likely need to have a dental cleaning. The frequency of these cleanings will vary from pet to pet and can depend on numerous variables from the dental regimen performed at home to your pet's genetics. Your veterinarian will be able to perform a complete dental examination and make the necessary recommendations for your pet.
Dr. Anne K. G. Bazilwich is a member of the Vermont Veterinary Medical Association. For more information visit www.vtvets.org.