An Ounce Of Prevention

Beach Metro News

By Dr. Nigel Skinner • September 20, 2011 • Print This Article
The old saying, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is never more relevant in veterinary medicine than it is in the area of dental health.  In practice it is amazing how much this one area contributes to the health and well being of our pets.

We have only relatively recently really started paying an appropriate amount of attention to our pet’s dental health. There are a number of factors that contribute to the development of dental disease in cats and dogs, genetics and diet certainly play a major role and the severity of dental disease from one patient to the next, despite being of similar age and having been otherwise given the same degree of care can be remarkable. Generally speaking though, while the rate of development and the severity may differ from one pet to the next, the general sequence is the same. When the teeth are not brushed regularly, layers of bacteria laden plaque soon coat the outer surface. This plaque develops over time into hardened tartar. The development of tartar coating the teeth changes the surface from smooth enamel which is not a particularly friendly environment for infection causing bacteria, into a rough pitted surface that is an ideal one for disease causing bugs. The constant presence of bacterial colonies on the teeth soon cause an inflammation of the gums known as gingivitis, the gums become red, swollen and begin to recede. The good news is that at this stage the damage is generally reversible, clean away the tartar and polish the teeth to restore the smooth, bacteria unfriendly, surface and the gums can heal quickly and completely. Unfortunately however if not treated what happens next is that the infection then heads below the gum line toward the roots and attacks the bone into which the teeth are anchored. This bone is quite quickly damaged as a result and that damage is irreversible.

Many people unfortunately make two mistakes when evaluating their pet’s dental health. One is that they assume bad breath is normal, the other is assuming that if they don’t show outward signs of discomfort everything must be fine. The truth is that while a little” doggy breath “is OK and we don’t expect our pets to have minty fresh breath, unpleasant odor in the mouth is caused by infection causing bacteria. More importantly, waiting until a dog or cat shows any outward signs of oral discomfort is a recipe for disaster; most pets are very stoic in this regard, retaining more than enough survival instinct to never let it be obvious that it hurts to eat until they simply can’t hide it anymore. It’s also important to note that in most cases the most severely affected teeth in cats and dogs are toward the back of the mouth, not the canines and incisors you can easily see; they can look great while the others are in terrible shape.

Your vet will always perform as thorough examination of a pet’s dental health as possible and will be able to advise you on how best to deal with whatever problems are there. Most pets will need at least one or two (some more) full dental prophylaxis treatments in their lifetime. This involves scaling and polishing the teeth under general anesthetic. It is probably the most significant preventative procedure we perform. Many owners become very wary at the mention of general anesthetic for their pets and should have the risks and benefits explained well and understand them fully. Dental treatment by its nature is most often (though not always) performed more on senior patients and we take the risks of anesthesia very seriously. As always, it comes down to the fact that the benefits must outweigh any risk at all. In the case of dental treatments the benefits are plenty. Very frequently I hear from pet owners who are stunned at the changes they see in their cat or dog following dentistry; remarkable changes in energy level, playfulness, sociability and appetite. I’ve had owners describe seeing their senior pet more playful and happy than they have seen them in years literally days following dentistry.

Talk to your vet about whether it’s time for your pet’s teeth to be scaled and polished, or what recommendations they have for maintaining optimal dental health at home. They will be happy to help, in a field dedicated to helping pets be as happy and healthy for as long as possible it’s one of the most rewarding things we do.