Brush Up on Your Pet's Oral Health

By Kevin Wilson, DVM, Pilchuck’s Small-Animal Department

In our busy lives, many people forget to floss their own teeth every day … so it is unlikely they are checking their pets’ teeth regularly. However, did you know that about 80% of dogs and cats over 2 years of age have significant dental disease? Did you know that dental disease can impact your pet’s health, quality of life and length of life?

Dental disease 101: Dental disease is classified based on the severity of periodontal disease. Tartar is a visible sign of dental disease but is cosmetic; the true problem exists below the gum line. Bacteria adhere to the tooth surface and create plaque, which will mineralize and form tartar. While brushing and proper dental hygiene can reduce bacteria and plaque, it is very difficult to safely remove tartar without a professional dental cleaning.

Once plaque and tartar are on a tooth, bacteria are able to migrate under the gum line where they damage the gum’s attachment to the tooth and begin to destroy the bone that surrounds the tooth root. This leads to pain, potential tooth loss, and even kidney, liver, and heart problems if the bacteria get into the bloodstream. 

Grading periodontal disease: In veterinary medicine, periodontal disease is graded on a scale of 1 to 4: 

  • Grade 1 is normal, pink and healthy gums with good attachment to the tooth. 
  • Grade 2 means some gingivitis and minor bleeding when probed.
  • Grade 3 means severe gingivitis, significant bleeding when probed, and some attachment loss of the gums to the tooth.
  • Grade 4 means severe gingivitis and bleeding, significant attachment loss, and bone loss. 

If the patient receives a professional oral exam and cleaning at Grade 2, the disease will resolve. Grades 3 and 4 are not reversible and likely will result in extractions and other oral surgery. Grades 3 and 4 also cause significant pain, even though your pet may not show it.

Signs of trouble: Recognizing dental disease in your pet is a very important part of keeping your pet healthy. Signs of dental disease are tartar, irritated or bleeding gums, foul breath, difficulty chewing, heavy drooling, and swelling of the face. If you have concerns, you should consult with your veterinarian. Also, at your pet’s regular veterinary visits, his or her mouth should be examined by the veterinarian for any concerns.

Prevention and care: Early recognition and prevention are the best medicine. Thankfully there are a variety of options to help prevent plaque and tartar accumulation, and thus prevent periodontal disease.

Brushing: Tooth brushing at least daily with pet-safe toothpaste is the gold standard for pet dental care. The mechanical action helps remove plaque before it becomes tartar. Many of the pet-safe toothpastes have antimicrobial action or plaque-digesting enzymes that keep working after the brushing is done. A word of advice: Start brushing your pet’s teeth early in life – that way it just becomes a part of the daily routine.

Chewing: Chewing is a pet’s natural defense to plaque and tartar accumulation. The abrasive action of chewing scours the tooth surface and stimulates the gums. There are many good dental chew treats and toys on the market. Purchase treats or toys that match your pet’s ability and desire to chew. Some pets may not chew on toys but will eat treats. Note that some may chew very aggressively and potentially break teeth on harder chew toys.

Topicals: Dental sealants are available that provide a waxy seal over the tooth surface to prevent plaque and tartar accumulation. Also there are many water additives and mouth sprays that claim to remove plaque and tartar. The Veterinary Oral Health Council has only endorsed a select few of these products, including Essential Healthy Mouth water additives and sprays and Sanos dental sealant.

The better job you do at prevention, the less dental disease your pet will develop over time. Just like humans, however, your pet may accumulate plaque and tartar or even develop periodontal disease in spite of your best efforts. At that point, the pet may need a professional dental cleaning and possibly oral surgery. 

In-depth oral exams, dental cleanings and oral surgeries should only be done under general anesthesia by a licensed veterinarian. Procedures done on an awake patient risk causing trauma to the gums, missing disease, and allowing aspiration of blood, fluid and tartar material into the lungs. General anesthesia allows the veterinary team to do a more thorough, more effective and safer procedure. This does increase the cost of the procedure, but it is worth the decreased risk.

Remember, prevention is the building block of a good oral health strategy. Work with your veterinarian to find a prevention program that is ideal for your pet!

Pilchuck Veterinary Hospital offers complete dental care for your pet, including dental prophylaxis (cleaning) and digital dental radiographs. Call 360.568.3113 for more information.