Pet dental disease is the single most prevalent disease affecting pet dogs, cats and even rabbits. The causes for this are many but generally the three main reasons are:
- We tend to feed our pets a softer and higher calorie content diet than they evolved to eat, meaning that they need to chew less to obtain the nutrients they need.
- Pets are living longer lives.
- Many breeds have been selected for physical characteristics that have led dental conformation away from the functional design of ancestor breeds.
Dental disease is usually present in some form by the time your pet is 4 years old. The earliest warning sign is usually halitosis (bad breath), also known as ‘dog breath’ and often considered normal. The bacteria living in your pet’s mouth causing this halitosis can lead to cause other health problems, particularly in older pets, including heart and kidney disease.
Dental disease begins with the accumulation of plaque along the gum-line, which becomes inoculated with bacteria (causing the bad breath). Plaque if left alone converts into tartar which is a concrete-like accumulation again starting at the gum-line but often progressing to covering the whole tooth or even building up to the extent the tooth is lost deep inside the large amount of calculus. Tartar is also full of bacteria and so infection and further odour occurs along the gum line, creeping under and irritating the gum (gingivitis) and then further into the periodontal space (the small gap between the tooth and the bone that holds it in place). Once infection gets into the periodontal tissues, the bone is reabsorbed, the tooth roots become infected and loose and the tooth will eventually fall out. Any of the stages beyond simple plaque cause significant pain and inflammation for the dog or cat and also constant ingestion of the bacteria from the mouth. Bacteria can also get into the blood stream across the damaged tissues, lodging in distant areas of the body causing further infection and disease.
Managing this serious and all too common disease:
- Have regular dental check-ups with your vet. Your vet will be able to examine your pet’s mouth and identify the beginning of tartar and gingivitis. They will recommend the best way to address this problem which may be to trial a dental diet (appropriate for very early disease only), or more likely it will be to book in for a dental procedure under general anaesthesia to remove the plaque and tartar and return your pet’s mouth to full health. Anaesthesia is always required to clean your pet’s teeth properly as the ultrasonic scaler must be placed up under the gum line on both the inside and outside surface of each tooth. A thorough job including the back teeth and inner surfaces is impossible in an animal that is awake.
- Regularly brush your pet’s teeth with a toothbrush and pet-only toothpaste. This must be done every day to be of benefit so it is important that this is made a rewarding experience for the pet (with praise, pats and treats) or the daily tooth-brushing will turn into a stressful experience for you both. There are pet toothbrushes available (finger brushes or with a handle) or you can use a toddler toothbrush. Dog or cat toothpaste is advised as swallowing human toothpaste can upset some stomachs.
- Water additives, mouth washes and sprays are all available to reduce the bacteria that promote tartar formation. These usually contain either chlorhexidine or an enzyme to breakdown the bacteria.
- Feed your pet food that requires chewing. From an early age, offer your pet a good quality, commercial dry food. Soft cartilage parts of meat are very good for removing plaque and tartar and soft bones if they tolerate them. Avoid feeding predominantly casserole type diets or tinned foods.
- A NOTE ON FEEDING BONES – Many dogs do not tolerate eating bones. They can cause serious diseases such as pancreatitis, gastroenteritis, acute constipation, intestinal obstruction, oesophageal obstruction, fractured teeth and intestinal perforation. Many of these problems require general anaesthesia and surgical repair as well as intense medical treatment. Many pets have died as a result of complications from eating bones. Many others have incurred large veterinary bills in treating the problems. If bones can be so bad, why do we recommend you feed them to your pet? Because other than tooth-brushing every day and feeding a dental specific diet, they are the most efficient way of managing dental disease at home. The rules to follow if you are considering feeding your pet bones are these:
- Feed only raw, fresh bones with minimal amounts of fat.
- Feed soft bones such as the knuckle end of a marrow-bone or brisket bones that allow the tooth to sink right into the bone structure. This is what scrapes the tartar from the tooth surface.
- Feed bones with lots of connective tissue and cartilage (rib flaps, chicken carcasses, joints) as the softer parts are excellent for cleaning teeth.
- Match the size of the bone to the dog. Do not feed bones that are small enough to be eaten very quickly – these are the ones that get lodged in the gut. It must take your dog some time to work through the bone, they must not swallow large chunks of it or swallow it whole.
- Avoid cutting open the long marrow-bone to expose all the marrow – this high fat meal is enough to cause pancreatitis or gastroenteritis in many dogs and obesity in others. The half-cylinder, hard compact bone also causes tooth root fractures of the largest carnassial tooth in the mouth. This requires serious surgery to remove the remains.
- If your dog suffers from any of the complications of feeding bones – forget it – look at other ways to look after your dog’s teeth.
- Watch your dog very carefully during and after eating a bone so if a problem does occur, you can get onto the correct treatment straight away. Watch for retching or vomiting, anorexia or signs of constipation. If you are worried about your dog, contact your vet right away. An x-ray can usually tell if a problem has occurred.