February is national pet dental health month. Here we talk about how to keep your pet's teeth healthy for life.
How Does Dental Disease Begin?
When you have a puppy or young dog with pearly white teeth and perfectly pink gums it can be easy to forget about maintaining their dental health. However, even in these young, healthy mouths saliva, food and fluids combine to produce plaque, which, if not removed, may cause future problems.
Plaque is a natural part of your dog's mouth; it is a soft, sticky colourless film containing millions of bacteria that can be easily removed. When plaque is not regularly removed it will harden, eventually becoming tartar. Tartar attaches firmly to the tooth's enamel surface, it is noticeable because of its yellow or brown colour on teeth. The main concern with tartar is that it causes gum irritation, leading to gingivitis and gum disease.
Diseased gums can cause pain, abscesses and loose teeth as well as problems elsewhere in the body through the entry of bacteria into the bloodstream.
From an early age, familiarise your dog to having their face and mouth handled. This will help when it comes time for you or your vet to examine their teeth. Early and consistent intervention in dental health is best, the gold standard being daily tooth brushing with dog-specific toothpaste. Whilst daily tooth brushing is a commitment, it can quickly become part of your routine once you and your dog become familiar with the procedure.
If your dog will not tolerate having their teeth brushed there are still actions you can take to improve their dental health. Feeding dry food, particularly a diet formulated to help dental health will make a difference. Dental food kibble maintains its shape when first chewed, this has the effect of scraping plaque from the tooth surface. Chews and toys designed for dental health also act by scraping off plaque.
Which Dogs Get Dental Disease?
Any breed of dog can develop dental disease at any age, however there are some breeds that are more susceptible than others. Owners of Yorkshire terriers, poodles, miniature schnauzers, cavalier King Charles spaniels, Chihuahuas and Maltese terriers should pay extra attention to their pet's teeth, as these breeds are more likely to develop problems at a young age.
Four out of five dogs over the age of three show signs of gum disease, starting dental care early will help to keep your dog's teeth sparkling for longer. The more you can do to keep your pet's teeth clean, the less veterinary intervention should be needed.
Spotting the Signs of Dental Disease
Most often behavioral signs of dental disease are difficult to spot, your pet is likely to still be eating all of their food. Dental disease changes may be as subtle as becoming slightly more lethargic or less interested in playing with toys. As dental disease is more common in older animals, owners will often put these symptoms down to the aging process.
Other signs can be a change in eating patterns or preferentially chewing on one side of their mouth: certainly not obvious to even the most dedicated of owners. Do not feel bad if you have missed the signs of dental disease in your dog, the president of the British Veterinary Dental Association says that 'Even some of the most severe dental conditions result only in very subtle behavioral signs from the animal.'
As dental disease progresses you may notice your dog drooling, rubbing their face, facial swelling or even showing discharge from their eyes. If you suspect there is a problem with your pet's teeth, don't wait, book an appointment with your vet to have a full clinical examination.
Vet Dental Check
Your vet will check your pet's mouth as part of their annual vaccination consultation. When your vet examines your dog's mouth they are looking for signs of dental disease, as well as diseases of the oral soft tissue. They will look at the build of tartar on the teeth, how much there is and if it is reaching the gum line. Some dogs with very little tartar can still have gum disease, and those with lots of tartar may still have relatively healthy gums. Having a build up of tartar creates areas of irritation, inflammation and a warm safe environment for oral bacteria to multiply.
An asymmetrical build up of tartar on one side of a dog's mouth may be a sign that pain is causing the dog to use the other side of their mouth to chew.
Gums should be light pink and even in colour, areas of redness, bleeding or uneven surfaces show gum disease. Missing or loose teeth also show that there has been ongoing disease in a dog's mouth.
Do Not Accept Bad Breath
As our pets’ age their breath can become increasingly bad, this is called halitosis. Halitosis is caused by a build up of bacteria in the mouth. This bacteria is not only malodorous, it can also be dangerous to your pet. Just as with people, bad teeth can be a trigger for a host of other diseases. Bacteria from the mouth can enter the bloodstream and cause lethargy, kidney disease, heart and liver disease. Speak to your vet about having a dental health check if you notice halitosis, you may just catch any problems early.
Listen to your vet's advice, they may recommend at-home interventions, such as a specific diet, chew or toy to help keep teeth clean. They may also recommend a scale and polish, with or without other treatment, this will be done under routine anaesthetic. Routine anaesthesia is a low risk procedure and early intervention may reduce the need for an anaesthetic in later years when your pet is more likely to have additional health problems. Even in older pets, anaesthesia for dental procedures is very safe, although your vet may require a blood test prior to anaesthesia to check the health of their vital organs.
Frequently owners are amazed at the improvement in demeanor of their dog following treatment of painful teeth, particularly when there were no obvious signs of dental disease before.
Knowing how dental disease can affect your dog will allow you to take steps to prevent future problems and recognise when there is dental disease, meaning you can get early treatment.
Look out for some dental cleaning treats in your next Protect My Pet box!
Written by Lindsay Rose MA VetMB CertAVP CertVBM MRCVS.