Something to Smile About: How to Improve Your Pet's Dental Health

Closeup of dog's teeth
Not only is dental disease dangerous for pets, it can also be incredibly painful.

Imagine never brushing your teeth. Forget bad breath — that’s the least of your worries as a complex disease process starts to take over your mouth. Over time, your gums will become inflamed and begin to pull away from the teeth, forming periodontal pockets (gaps between the tooth and surrounding gums) that trap food and bacteria. As infection spreads, you may experience bone loss around your teeth, painful abscesses, tooth sensitivity, and even tooth loss. In severe cases of periodontal disease, oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream, permanently affecting organ function and causing other conditions much more serious than embarrassing halitosis.

Plan Ahead for Pain Management

Of course, most people brush their teeth twice daily and go to the dentist for yearly or twice-yearly examinations and cleanings. But a life without brushing is the grim reality for many dogs and cats. And just like their human counterparts, pets’ teeth are made of enamel, dentin, nerves, and blood vessels, making them just as susceptible to dental disease.

Not only is dental disease dangerous for your pet, it can also be incredibly painful. Pets hide pain well, so you might not know what’s going on inside their mouths. That’s why regular brushing and dental exams are a must. If you’ve never given much thought to your pet’s oral care, it’s time to educate yourself about the fundamentals.

When Do I Have to Start Worrying About Preventive Dental Care With My Pet?

As soon as the puppy or kitten teeth emerge, typically around 2 months, it’s time to start brushing. Although baby teeth are replaced with adult teeth, your goal is to get your pet used to the brushing routine, which should continue for life. If you start early, before bad breath and periodontal disease occur, your pets are more likely to keep more of their teeth into old age.

What Type of Tests Will The Veterinarian Do to Diagnose Dental Disease?

To determine if your dog or cat needs a professional oral assessment and treatment under anesthesia, your veterinarian will check the gum lines of the upper and lower teeth, looking for evidence of plaque buildup, tartar, and gingivitis. Plaque is a colorless film of bacteria that accumulates daily on teeth, and it builds up constantly unless brushed away. When combined with minerals from saliva, plaque forms tartar (also called calculus), a rough deposit that’s often visible on the teeth during examination. Bacteria love this environment and will continue to thrive if left unchecked. During your pet’s exam, the veterinarian may also rub a diagnostic test strip along the gum line to estimate the level of gum disease bacteria present below the gums.

Under anesthesia, your veterinarian will carefully examine each tooth, looking for periodontal pockets and other signs of lost tooth support. Oral x-rays can also help your veterinarian evaluate the dental structures below the gum line to determine if certain teeth need to be removed.

My Dentist Doesn’t Anesthetize Me For a Teeth Cleaning. Why Do You Have to Anesthetize My Pet?

People don’t typically need anesthesia because we can sit still, open our mouths wide on command, and let the dentist know if something hurts. For dogs and cats, anesthesia provides three important functions:

  • Immobilization. This makes it possible for your veterinarian to thoroughly evaluate each tooth both visually and with a dental probe, to clean above and below the gum line, and to take high-quality dental x-rays.
  • Pain control. Unfortunately, our pets often have far more severe dental disease than we do by the time they’re evaluated, so the necessary exams and treatments are more extensive and more painful.
  • Intubation. Anesthesia allows the veterinary team to place a tube into the trachea, or windpipe, so bacteria don’t enter the respiratory system during dental procedures.

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