Updated: Feb 1, 2022
What is Dental disease?
Dental diseases are specifically called Periodontal diseases. They are mainly the result of infections and inflammation of the gums and bones that surround and support the teeth. Dental diseases are very common in cats and dogs and after the age of three years, about seven out of ten pets have some kind of tooth disorder. Irreversible damage is done to the cat's or dog's teeth, gums and jawbones if left unattended. In its early stages, dental disease is called gingivitis, where the gums become swollen and red, and they may bleed.
As the disease advances unattended, in its more serious form, it is called periodontitis, where the gums pull away from the tooth, and the teeth may loosen and even fall out. Periodontal disease is mostly seen in adult companion animals and together with tooth decay, they are the two biggest threats to dental health. Dental disease can be prevented by stopping the build-up of plaque.
How can dental disease be detected?
When plaque, which is colourless, remains uncleaned from teeth for an extended period of time, it forms tartar which is usually yellow-brown in colour. This process takes about two weeks, but some animals, including man, who are more preconditioned to tartar build-up may experience it in a much shorter time frame.
Tartar (sometimes called calculus) is the hard calcified deposits that form and coat the surface of the teeth and gums. It is formed when the bacteria naturally occurring in the mouth mixes with remnants of food particles to form a sticky film known as plaque. When plaque is left untreated, it hardens and discolours, forming into tartar. Besides the visible tartar, there may be other indications of disease.
Foul breath (halitosis) is very common and the pain resulting from an advanced dental disease may cause difficulties in eating. Dogs that dribble excessively, sometimes the dribble flecked with blood or if the dog shows signs of pain and discomfort such as head shaking and pawing at its mouth, it may have problems with its teeth. Tartar is terrible for the teeth and gums. It is unsightly, leads to the decay of teeth by building up and growing bacteria that eat away at the lining of the teeth, the enamel.
What is the relationship between dental disease and the pet's health?
The tartar hidden below the gum line is the main cause of problems. It contains bacteria that will attack the surrounding gum tissue causing painful inflammation ('gingivitis') and the infection can track down to the tooth roots. Pus may build up in the roots and form a painful abscess. This inflammation wears away tissue from the gum, bones and teeth and, as the disease becomes more advanced, the teeth loosen and fall out. Bacteria and the poisons they produce can also get into the bloodstream and cause damage throughout the body in organs such as the kidneys, heart and liver.
How is the dental disease treated?
If a pet has advanced dental disease and is in obvious pain, x-rays of the pet's head may need to be taken (under general anaesthetic) to see whether there are any deep abscesses. Any loose teeth are then removed because the disease is too advanced to be treated. Antibiotics are usually administered before doing the dental work in case of signs of infection. The tartar is then removed and the remaining teeth cleaned, usually with an ultrasonic scaling machine or a standard dental kit.
Finally, the dog's teeth are polished to leave a smooth surface that will slow down the build-up of plaque in the future. However, it is inevitable that the plaque will re-appear, hence, to keep your dog's teeth in good condition, regular scaling and polishing is necessary, and it is advisable that this is done in intervals of between six and twelve months.
Can diet change help control dental disease?
In the wilderness, animals' teeth are much cleaner because their diet contains harder materials than are found in commercially tinned or packaged foods. Cats and dogs naturally eat the bones, fur, etc of their prey which wear away the deposits of tartar.
Replacing soft foods with dry or fibrous materials slows the build-up of plaque. The extra chewing involved helps control infection because it stimulates the production of saliva which has natural antibiotic properties. Special diets are available to help maintain clean teeth.
How else can a pet's teeth be kept clean?
Brushing a pet's teeth is just as important in preventing dental disease as brushing our own. Ideally, a pet should get used to having its teeth cleaned from an early age. Wrapping a piece of soft gauze around your finger and gently rubbing the pet's teeth should get it used to the idea. Gradually, a toothbrush specially designed for dogs or a small ordinary toothbrush with soft bristles is introduced. Toothbrushes which fit over the end of a finger are available for cats and dogs, together with suitably flavoured toothpaste that pets enjoy. There are also some mouthwashes and antibacterial gels that help reduce plaque deposits and prevent infection. Do not attempt to use human toothpaste which will froth up in the mouth, pets do not like the taste and it could do serious harm.
What if the pet dislikes its teeth brushed?
Initially, pets may resist brushing of teeth. However, with gentleness, patience and persistence most pets get trained to accept having their teeth cleaned. A regular brushing daily or at least thrice a week significantly reduces the risk of companion animals suffering serious dental problems or the need for frequent general anaesthetics to treat advanced dental disease.
Preventative healthcare is very important. Regular brushing of pets' teeth from a young age prevents the need for veterinary dental attention.
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