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Sinking your teeth into pets' dental health

Dental health is often overlooked by pet owners.
Dental health is often overlooked by pet owners. (©istockphoto.com/cynoclub)
Last issue, we dived into a great question for cat and dog owners: What are the most overlooked yet important aspects of maintaining the good health of our pets? Weight control topped that list, but dental health is a close second.
When we check our patients’ teeth on their annual examinations, many look far from pearly white. Well-meaning pet owners often don’t realize the importance of dental care or know what they can do on a daily basis to help keep their pets’ teeth in better shape. Poor dental health causes some of the same problems in pets as in humans: periodontal disease and gingivitis, receding gums and subsequent tooth loss, decay, abscesses and infections.
We’re talking about much more than cosmetic problems and bad breath. The bacteria that create the plaque and tartar build-up leading to periodontal disease can enter your pet’s bloodstream and damage major organs, including the heart, lungs and kidneys. Poor oral health can shorten a pet’s life span by three to five years.
First, a few dental facts from peteducation.com:
  • Seventy percent of cats and 80 percent of dogs show signs of gum disease by age 3. Symptoms include yellow and brown buildup of tartar along the gum line; red, inflamed gums; and persistent bad breath.
  • Oral disease is a common finding in cats infected with feline leukemia virus, feline immunodeficiency virus and feline calicivirus.
  • Feline dental resorption lesions (also called cervical line lesions or neck lesions) are the most common dental disease of domestic cats and the most common cause of tooth loss. The lesions often begin below the gum line, so they may develop undetected.
  • Small dogs are more likely to develop periodontal disease than large dogs because the teeth of small dogs are often too large for their mouths, according to veterinary dentistry experts.
  • Broken teeth are fairly common, especially among dogs that regularly chew hard toys.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to prevent or limit serious dental ailments. Your first line of defense: brushing your pet’s teeth. It’s easiest if you start brushing when they’re young puppies and kittens. Choose an appropriate size brush for your pet’s mouth — either one made for pets or a child-size brush — and use flavored toothpaste made especially for dogs and cats rather than human toothpaste. There’s clinical evidence that enzymatic toothpastes create a plaque-reducing chemical reaction with the animal’s saliva, so just swishing the brush and toothpaste around inside your pet’s mouth for a minute or two helps.
Most pets aren’t cooperative enough to allow you to brush all tooth surfaces, so make a special effort to reach the molars in the back, which do the “lion’s share” of chewing work and have more crevices to trap food particles. Try to brush their teeth once a day, since the plaque-creating cycle takes 24 hours. Daily brushings are likely to cause a noticeable reduction in plaque and tartar buildup.
In addition, by brushing daily, you’re more likely to discover such problems as broken teeth or infections before they become very serious and get your pet checked by your veterinarian right away. Your veterinarian can perform many dental procedures, from cleanings to extractions. For pets needing more specialized special dental care, there are a growing number of specialty practices to which your vet can refer you, including the Animal Dental Center in Columbia.
In the absence of unusual problems, your vet will monitor your pet’s dental health on each visit and will let you know when it’s time for a professional cleaning. Though the interval varies from one animal to another, the American Animal Hospital Association generally recommends annual cleanings starting at age 1 for cats, small dogs and medium-size dogs, and at age 2 for larger dogs. This involves more than just cleaning your pet’s teeth. Your veterinarian will also do a full exam and take X-rays, which can detect otherwise invisible disease beneath the gum line.
A thorough dental cleaning does require sedation via general anesthesia. While anesthesia is never totally risk-free, a full pre-exam will ensure your pet is healthy enough for it. Serious reactions to anesthesia are rare; only about one in every 100,000 animals has any reaction. Throughout the procedure, your pet’s blood pressure and blood oxygen should be constantly monitored by a trained veterinary technician, IV fluids administered and pets kept warm. Your veterinarian will be happy to address your questions and concerns.
Dental cleanings are not cheap, but the benefits far outweigh the costs. They’ll save you money in the long run by preventing major dental problems requiring expensive treatment, keep your pets free of chronic discomfort associated with dental disease, and give them longer and healthier lives. 

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