Pet Corner: National Pet Dental Awareness Month

By Dr. Jeff Castle

Sun columnist

The American Veterinary Medical Association established February as National Pet Dental Awareness Month each year to emphasize an area of pet care often overlooked by pet owners. Most pet owners are unaware of their pet’s dental problems because most pets show few signs of dental disease.

Proper dental care makes a world of difference to your pet’s overall health. Also, a great smile changes everything. Since dogs and cats can’t actually smile, this is simply a play on words. Though some dogs do lift their upper lips when they are happy and we call it smiling, it looks more like they are growling instead of smiling.

With pets, “a great smile changes everything” refers strictly to the fact clean teeth means their breath doesn’t smell bad and leads to better health. Certainly, it doesn’t hurt when those smiling dogs show off their pearly whites.

Dental disease is the most common disease in dogs and cats. Over 68 percent of all pets over the age of 3 have some form of periodontal or dental disease. Often, your pet’s bad breath is the only obvious symptom of dental disease. Most pet owners have experienced their dog or cat breathing that horrible stench directly into their face. The bad breath comes from tartar buildup which contains a lot of bacteria.

Periodontal disease is inflammation or infection of the tissues surrounding the tooth. Tartar accumulates on the teeth contributing to gum recession around the base of the tooth. Gum recession leads to unprotected tooth surfaces and then infection. If the infection goes untreated, tooth loss is likely.

The thin, invisible film buildup of bacteria on teeth is called plaque. If the plaque thickens, it becomes mineralized and hard which is visible tartar. The tartar irritates the gums causing inflammation and infection called gingivitis.

The oral infection can lead to other infections in the body. Tonsillitis is only one common type of secondary infection due to bad teeth. The bacteria causing the oral infection can actually get into the blood stream leading to liver, kidney and heart valve infections known as endocarditis.

Once your pet develops tartar on their teeth, it will be necessary to have it removed by professional scaling and polishing under anesthesia. Most of the time, antibiotics are necessary after the dental cleaning to combat the bacteria that are responsible for the gingivitis.

Tooth scaling is performed with ultrasonic cleaning equipment to remove the tartar both above and below the gum line. The tartar beneath the gum line causes the most significant gum recession. The teeth are then polished to help prevent further plaque buildup.

Sometimes additional procedures such as extracting a tooth need to be performed at the same time. It is impossible to determine the full extent of dental disease until the pet is under anesthesia. Plaque can begin to form in as little as six hours after your pet’s dental cleaning.

It is imperative to establish a home dental care program for your pet. There are many different things that pet owners can do to help keep their pet’s teeth healthy. Brushing your dog’s teeth is unquestionably the best preventative. Naturally, not all dogs will allow their owners to do this unless you get them used to it at a very early age. Brushing your pet’s teeth every day is recommended.

Feeding dry food and crunchy treats actually helps scrape the plaque off their teeth as they are chewing. Prescription treats with plaquefighting medicine in them are available, which makes prevention much easier. Also, several special pet mouth rinses can be used to help prevent plaque.

As always, your veterinarian should advise you on the health of your pet’s teeth. So, why not let National Pet Dental Awareness be a reminder to have your pet’s teeth examined this month? Many veterinary practices offer specials or discounts on professional cleaning procedures during February.

If you have any concerns about your pet’s dental health, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible to help ensure your pet lives a long, healthy and happy life.

Dr. Jeff Castle is a Clark County veterinarian.