Why is it important that I look after my pet’s teeth?
Our cats and dogs cannot make sure that their teeth and oral health are in good order. They’re not able to brush their teeth twice daily nor willing to go to the dentist every 6 months, so we must take care of their teeth for them! Some dogs can be a little shy of their mouth being opened if they are not used to it, and so it makes sense to make a mouth examination part of your general puppy training (along with looking in the ears and looking at the feet – all sensitive areas) to get your dog used to this type of handling.
Poor dental hygiene can cause chronic (long term) pain and discomfort for your pet. As owners, we are often unaware of this discomfort because most animals will just put up with it. Dental disease in an older animal can cause them to be “just not right” and this may mistakenly be attributed to “old age”.
If there is infection in the mouth, it can allow bacteria into the blood stream which can lead to infections elsewhere such as the kidneys, heart, lungs and liver, which can be very debilitating.
Regular check ups with your veterinary surgeon are essential for your pet’s oral health. Your pet’s mouth will be examined as part of any routine examination and health check.
How will I know if my pet has bad teeth?
The first thing to do is to look in your pet’s mouth. Bad breath (halitosis) is caused by bacteria in the mouth, so this may alert you to the presence of dental disease. If plaque is not brushed away, it mineralises into hard brown tartar which sits up around the gums and causes them to inflame (gingivitis). The gums are red and sore and bleed easily. Over time the tartar and gingivitis lead to gum recession and periodontal disease (disease of tissues surrounding the tooth) and this causes the associated teeth to become loose, painful and even fall out. Bacteria can penetrate from the diseased tissue and proceed down into the root, causing a root abscess.
If the disease is severe, affected animals may eat on one side of their mouth, lose weight or generally seem off colour. Older cats especially may start to look rather tatty as they may not groom themselves so well.
When dental disease is suspected the animal should be examined by a vet.
What will the vet be able to see?
A veterinary dental examination will involve a thorough assessment of the mouth and also a general health examination. The patient’s general health will be assessed to make sure that there are no consequences secondary to the dental disease elsewhere in the body, and also to ensure that the patient is well enough for a general anaesthetic, should dental treatment be advised.The vet will look for tartar, gingivitis, periodontal disease and any lumps or bumps. Sometimes the gums can over-grow as a response to inflammation, but in other instances oral masses may be encountered, possibly benign gum masses which are common in certain breeds of dog, especially Boxers, but in some cases, other more serious tumours.
Cats can develop erosions of their teeth called ‘neck lesions’ or ‘feline resorptive lesions’ which are very common and can be very painful. They are caused by the body’s own immune system attacking the enamel of the teeth and causing holes to develop in it. These lesions can be rather small and subtle.
Some tooth fractures are very obvious but in other instances they also may be very fine and subtle. Any fractures which extend into the pulp cavity (where the nerve is) will cause pain and eventually lead to tooth-root abscesses.
Many dogs have worn teeth due to chewing – these patients need to be carefully assessed as, whilst such teeth may cause no problems in some, they may be a source of significant pain in other individuals.
Younger pets need to be assessed also. Sometimes temporary (‘milk’) teeth do not fall out at the correct time and so can cause problems for the adult teeth as they come through. In addition, malocclusion – a condition in which the teeth or jaws are not perfectly aligned – is quite common. Generally malocclusion is just a cosmetic problem, but if the teeth dig into the gum or hard palate it can cause pain and infections.
What can I do to keep my pet's teeth clean and mouth healthy?
The diet that your pet eats can be very important in preventing tartar build-up on its teeth.In terms of commercial diets we tend to recommend good quality dry foods rather than wet (tinned and sachet) foods, as the latter tend to stick to the teeth more, allowing the rapid build-up of tartar. Some diets are especially designed to help to clean the teeth by using increased kibble size, and a firm, rough texture which scrapes down the surface of the the tooth rather than just breaking up as a conventional biscuit might. Other biscuits have enzymes which reduce plaque (a precursor to tartar). If you are considering changing your pet’s diet, please speak to your vet first. Diet changes must be undertaken very gradually, especially moving adult cats over to dry food when they have been used to a wet diet only. Some animals may have conditions where dry food or altering diets may not be appropriate, especially conditions causing increased urine production, or urinary cystitis.
Dental chews can be extremely helpful and convenient, especially for dogs. We like the Dentaflex chew as it is firm but bends, takes time to chew and only given to your dog twice weekly. They are lower in calories than Dentastix too.
Cats generally are not too interested in chews, although there are some available (we carry the Pedigree Dentabix which are a very crispy biscuit).
With any chews you should take care that they are not too rich – some dogs can get upset tummies if they have chews too frequently. It is important to get a chew which is appropriate for the size of your pet. If they are too big, they may be difficult to ‘deal with’ and if too small, the pet will chomp through them too quickly and not reap the benefit.
But whatever they chew, it must be able to bend. Dental and mouth injuries are all-too-common with the rigid-style chews e.g. Antlers, recently made popular, but which are certainly not suitable as a dental chew or anything else. For the same reason, we do not recommend that dogs chew on bones – cooked bones are also especially prone to splintering and causing damage to the gut. Even raw bones can cause gut problems and, although they tend to keep tartar off the teeth, they can chip the enamel and cause dental fractures. Please bear in mind that we tend to see the “what went wrong” cases!
Tooth brushing is the best way of keeping the teeth clean. Both cats and dogs will generally allow tooth brushing, if it is started as a routine at an early age. It is very important to use a bespoke pet toothpaste. Human toothpaste is bad for animals because they swallow ingredients which can harm them. In addition, most animals really enjoy the flavours of pet tooth paste – usually yummy malt, fish or poultry!! You can brush with specially-designed brushes made for pets or a child’s tooth brush. Don’t start cleaning your pet’s teeth while there is painful gingivitis present, as this will be painful and create an aversion to toothbrushing in the future. Seek veterinary dental treatment first and then start when the inflammation has settled down.
Some mouth washes are available for pets. Where the pet is compliant, these antibacterial washes reduce bacterial load and therefore reduce the ability of bacteria to create plaque or form bacterial toxins which can cause inflammation. Please be sure that any wash does not contain xylitol, as this is poisonous for pets.