The Importance of Dental Care for Your Pet
The world of veterinary medicine, like human medicine, is getting more and more specialized. Veterinary dentistry is one of those specialty fields. Years ago, pets were lucky if a veterinarian even looked in their mouths. Today, we are performing routine dental exams and dental procedures on many patients, young and old. When difficult extractions, crowns, and oral surgery are required, your veterinarian can perform these services or refer you to a veterinary dental specialist.
Because our pets are living longer, we need to keep their mouths healthy well into their golden years. This starts early in life. Certain dog and cat breeds are predisposed to dental problems. If the owner is made aware of this early, much can be done to keep that poodle or Siamese mouth as healthy as possible for as long as possible.
Small dog breeds are more prone to dental disease. It’s a fact. And, the toy breeds live a long time. Think about the tiny mouth and bone structure of a Maltese, for example. If teeth in a little jaw suffer from tartar, decay, and bone loss, and that dog lives to be 18, we need to start taking care of that mouth early. Otherwise, the dog will lose many of its teeth before it’s a geriatric. Worse than that, the dog can suffer and the teeth can be a source of infection, disease, and organ damage. Infections in the mouth can travel to the valves of the heart, the kidneys, and other organs, causing irreversible damage.
The same is true of many cats, purebreds having more dental disease than domestic cats. In certain cats with stomatitis, a disease affecting the oral cavity, it may be necessary to perform difficult, full mouth extractions to save that cat from severe pain and inability to eat. This may sound extreme but it is the treatment of choice for severely affected cats. I have watched cats with painful, bloody, smelly mouths go through total mouth extractions, and wake up and eat a full meal the next morning! They are relieved of pain and can go on to even munch on dry food again. Without this oral surgery, these cats would not survive a normal lifespan.
Many clients laugh at me when I talk about taking care of their pet’s teeth. It’s important to come up with a plan that fits the pets’ needs and that the client will comply with.
Take a young golden retriever, a breed that generally has excellent teeth with little intervention. That dog may only need a quick brush or dental solution rubbed on its gums three times a week. If the owner and pup get used to this easy routine early, there will be better compliance as the dog needs more care later in life. Not so with the two year old Chihuahua that was just adopted from a shelter. When you tell the new owner that her new dog already has dental disease, and that Chihuahua is trying to bite you in the exam room, you have a challenge on your hands.
Once this dog is feeling more relaxed, this owner may be able to perform some dental care. There are some pets and some owners, however, where a dental plan is not going to work at home. These feisty little pups may need their teeth cleaned professionally once or twice a year to keep their mouths as healthy as possible.
This is particularly true of cats. You can teach many owners how to use a dental solution on their cats’ teeth and gums, but some cats are going to be impossible to treat. Same is true for giving that cat a pill. I sympathize. I owned one! In these cases, alternative medication routes are available and that cat will have to come into the hospital to have its teeth cleaned. You don’t want to get hurt and cat bites can be serious. Remember what I said about nasty cat mouths and infection? You don’t want that nasty mouth chomping on your finger sending you to the hospital. Use common sense.
At your annual exam with your pet, listen to your veterinarians’ recommendations and do what you can. Learn how much dental care is possible at home and try to include dental care in your veterinary budget. If your vet discovers serious dental disease, don’t let it go. Taking care of these teeth, oral infections, and extractions early can insure a healthier mouth in the future.
One last thought. Most pets hate human toothpaste. It smells funny, tastes funny, has the wrong consistency. Yuck! But that chicken flavored toothpaste. Yum. Now you’re talking!
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian in Pelham, Mass. She shares her busy life with her husband, Andy, who manages the Animal Hospital; two rescue cocker wannabes; and a constantly changing number of felines. She is a regular contributor to Pets Adviser, a pet advice blog.