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Bad breath a sign of dental disease in pets

Yuck, dog breath! This is no laughing matter because it is one of many symptoms of dental disease and dental disease can shorten a pet's lifespan.

Besides bad breath, other symptoms of dental disease include: red, swollen and bleeding gums; loose, missing or discolored teeth;, exposed roots of teeth and difficulty with eating. According to Dr. Jeff Grognet, a health columnist for the American Kennel Club Gazette, 75 percent of dogs over three years of age have dental disease.

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Cats, dogs and other pet mammals rely on their teeth to obtain nutrition, relax and, if necessary, to defend themselves. Awareness of how teeth and dental disease develop may help owners to prevent to problems from occurring and possibly extend the lifespan of their pets.

The average puppy has 23 "baby" teeth (no molars yet) and normal adult dogs have 42 permanent teeth. Kittens have 26 baby teeth and develop 30 permanent teeth as adults. Baby (deciduous) teeth are usually shed between 4 to 6 months of age. Owners may find these "souvenirs" of their pet's babyhood in their pet's toys, bedding or stool if swallowed. The permanent adult teeth emerge gradually and fully develop when the pet is approximately six months old. Through chewing, animals learn about the world and dogs may relax and gain pleasure from gnawing on safe chew toys. Please note that some hard chew toys can cause dogs' teeth to fracture or chip. Veterinary dentist Dr. Ira Luskin recommends providing dogs with hard rubber toys such as" Kongs" or enzymatic-treated dental chew toys instead of hard processed bones advertised to promote dental care.

The teeth of house rabbits and pet rodents grow continuously throughout their lives and may require a veterinarian to trim them to prevent eating problems. Safe chew objects like cardboard toilet paper or paper towel rolls or boxes, natural untreated wood and hard rubber toys should always be available for these furry nibblers.

Dental disease starts with the formation of plaque, a soft film composed of food and bacteria. If not removed plaque hardens to form tarter, a yellowish substance visible on tooth surfaces. Bacteria in the mouth causes gum inflammation and the gum line to recede with corresponding breakdown of supporting bone. The effected tooth becomes abscessed and falls out after the roots are loosened. The incisors (small front teeth) usually have single roots and are lost quickly, however the teeth located further back have more roots and take longer to fall out. Broken or fractured teeth expose tooth pulp and bacteria invade the end of each root creating a painful abscess.

Bacteria also enter the gums and travel into the bloodstream throughout a pet's body including the heart, kidneys, and liver. Bacteria settle on the delicate heart valves and cause scarring, eventual leakage and congestive heart failure. Bacteria entering the kidneys may produce tiny abscesses resulting in kidney failure. The bacteria from dental disease cause infection of the liver and tissue damage.

A pet's diet may help or hinder dental health. A diet of only soft foods does not provide the abrasive action needed to remove plaque and tarter. Some pet food manufacturers have developed "oral care" dry food formulas that have larger pieces of kibble for cats and dogs. However diet and safe chew toys are not enough to prevent dental problems.

Dental care tips

To establish routine dental care for cats and dogs:

•Accustom your pet to allowing his mouth, gums, and teeth to be examined and touched. This can be introduced by smearing a small amount of canned pet food, flavored pet toothpaste, or peanut butter (not for pets that are sensitive to fatty foods) on your finger. Speak quietly and praise your pet.

•Always use toothpaste manufactured only for pets! Human toothpaste may irritate a pet's gastro-intestinal system or contain the toxic artificial sweetener xylitol.

•Use a soft child-sized toothbrush, a toothbrush designed specifically for cats or dogs or a pet toothbrush that fits onto a finger. Another option is to use pre-treated pet dental pads that fit around or onto a finger.

•Gently brush from the crown of the tooth to the gum.

•Brush your pet's teeth two to three times a week.

•Ask your vet to recommend a water additive as an aide that may reduce dental problems

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•Feed dogs and cats dry foods that provide abrasive action to tooth surfaces.

•Report the presence of unshed baby teeth to your vet. If left in place, these teeth may affect the alignment of permanent teeth and cause pain. Unshed deciduous teeth may require extraction by your vet.

•Notify your vet of symptoms of dental problems such as difficulty with eating, face rubbing, swollen, reddened or bloody gums. Also report if lumps or spots develop on your pet's gums or mouth.

•Do not attempt to scale your pet's teeth yourself! In untrained hands, a tooth scaler may cut grooves into tooth surfaces that form a path for bacteria to enter gum tissue.

•Please consult with your vet before purchasing chew toys because some may cause potentially deadly gastro-intestinal obstructions as well as tooth fracturing.

Despite a pet owner's best efforts, dental disease may still develop, therefore an annual veterinary cleaning may be needed for some pets.

Iris Katz serves as a member of the board of directors and as an educational facilitator for the Humane Society of Carroll County. Her column appears on the third Sunday of the month.

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