By Candice Chiu, DVM
Click here for the pdf version.
Are you up for the tooth fairy’s challenge?
Step 1: Ditch your toothbrush, toothpaste, mouth wash and dental floss for 24 hours. Now, run your tongue over your teeth… Does it feel fuzzy?
Step 2: If you are feeling brave, scrape the surface of your teeth with fingernails…What you have under there is the amount of plague (biofilm or mass of bacteria growing on the surface of the mouth) built-up for 1 day.
Step 3: Sniff it, if you dare!
Step 4: Repeat step 1 for the next year... Congratulations! You now have doggie/kitty breath!!!
Anatomy of a Tooth
Despite the differences in number and shape of the teeth, you and your pets actually share similarities in the basic structure of the tooth:
Adult human, 32 teeth
Adult dog, 42 teeth
Animals are subjected to the same dental diseases as humans, such as gingivitis (inflammation of the gum), tartar build-up (hardened plaque), and periodontal disease (disease of the supporting structure of the teeth) to name a few. Therefore, it only makes sense that we pay some, if not the same amount of attention to their oral health.
What are some of the clinical signs that can alert you to potential dental disease?
- Halitosis (bad breath)
- Broken/fractured tooth
- Increased drooling
- Reluctance to eat/play with chew toys
- Sudden preferences for soft and wet food
- Favouring one side of the mouth when eating, or food being dropped from the side of the mouth
- Pawing at the muzzle
- Bleeding gums
- Discoloration of the teeth
- Inability to open or close mouth
- Facial asymmetry
- Draining tracts on the face
- Chronic eye infections with no known causes
- Chronic sneezing/abnormal discharge from the nose
- Growths in the mouth
Prevention Starts At Home
Sure you can come to us and have your pet’s teeth inspected, scaled, and polished every couple of years when the above problems are noted, but dental diseases are best prevented through daily practice of good oral hygiene. This, ideally, should be achieved through a combination of tools.
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, daily brushing of the teeth is the one of the best things you can do for your pets. This not only allows you to spend time with your pets, but also provides a chance to inspect their mouth for any unusual pathology. Most animals will accept brushing if it is introduced in a gentle, gradual fashion. It is generally best started when they are young, but some older patients do learn to accept this activity.
Watch this video to see how to brush your pet's teeth!
Remember that each animal is unique and there may be a trial and error period before you find what works best for you. A word of caution: as much as we love our animals and want to do what’s best for them, if there is any risk of you getting bitten or seriously injured, brushing their teeth may not be a feasible task, and your safety should come first.
It is better to use a toothbrush made for pets as they are softer, have a wider base, and are contoured to fit more comfortably in a pet’s mouth. For animals with tiny little mouths, a finger toothbrush, or a soft cloth or gauze wrapped around the finger can be utilized. The use of toothpaste is secondary to the physical action of the brushing; it can help an animal accept the brushing better, and some veterinary grade toothpastes contain enzymes that help to break down plaque when used long term.
Chew toys, dental sticks, or bones can all play a part in overall dental health. Chewing lets the animals rub their teeth on a hard surface which can dislodge plaque; it also encourages saliva production, which acts as a natural flush to rinse bacteria into the stomach to be digested by the gastric acid. Encouraging animals to drink more water can have a similar effect. How an animal chews may determine the type of chewing objects that are safe for him or her to have. It is important to observe your pets when any toys, sticks or bones are given. Generally speaking, chew toys should be slightly pliable to avoid fracturing the teeth, large enough so it cannot be swallowed whole, but not so big where they can break their jaws. Some animals can be very enthusiastic about chewing to the point where they cut their gums; again you might need to choose softer toys for these special ones.
There also a variety of dental “mouth rinses” you can add into your pet’s water to further improve their dental health. They either contain an anti-septic to keep bacterial counts low, enzymatic actions to help prevent plaque formation, or nutritional support for the teeth. Please note that they do not replace brushing teeth but every little bit helps, especially if the above mentioned activities are difficult to achieve.
In-Clinic Dental Procedures
Under general anaesthesia, more in-depth dental care for pets is performed in veterinary clinics. Their mouths can be opened up wide to access every single tooth. High speed ultrasonic scaling is used to break down tartar; the surface of each tooth is polished smooth to make it harder for bacteria to adhere to; the mouth is repeatedly rinsed to flush away any waste. With the animals asleep, we are also able to clean the area below the gum line, where a lot of plaque stays hidden from the naked eye. When a tooth is considered decayed or loose, it should be removed as it can act as a focal point from which infection can spread to the rest of the mouth (and body).
From time to time, we may discuss referrals to a dental specialist with our clients. Without going into too much detail: some teeth can be saved by endodontic work, fillings, and believe it or not, orthodontic work has been done in animals with extreme malocclusions. If there is some pathology in the mouth that is not immediately apparent, a dental radiograph can be done by a specialist to further investigate disease below the gum line.
We could write pages and pages on this dental health and diseases. In the end, common day to day prevention, similar to what you are already doing for yourself can help avoid lots of hassle and breaking the bank.
>> As well as being a strong advocate for dental care, Dr. Chiu has a keen interest in surgery and preventative medicine.
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