One of the things I find hardest to convince people to do is getting their pet, cat or dog, some dental work.
Sometimes, people are reluctant because we have to put their pet under anesthesia, and that’s understandable. Anesthetic death is a real possibility any time an animal, healthy or otherwise, goes under. However, anesthetic death in an apparently healthy animal with no cardiac disease or other serious issues is exceedingly rare and not something that should prevent dental care from occurring.
Other, less “valid” reasons, include everything from “when I was young, my parents never took the animals in for dentals!” to “but she’s still eating; if her teeth needed work, she wouldn’t eat.”
The overwhelming majority of animals are incredibly stoic when it comes to various ailments. It’s one of the reasons it can be so hard for owners to note illness in their pets: the animal’s instincts will encourage it to keep acting “normal” until disease is so bad that it just physically can’t anymore.
Dental work isn’t something a pet owner should consider only when something dramatic (think a bleeding, fractured tooth) happens. Periodontal disease (disease of the periodontal tissues - the gingiva, the periodontal ligament, the cementum, and the alveolar bone) is the most common dental disease in dogs and cats, affecting more than 80% of dogs and 70% of cats over three years of age(American Veterinary Dental Society). Certain breeds are more prone to periodontal disease than others. Small breeds and brachycephalic (short-faced) breeds are over-represented. Their teeth, often crowded into small mouths or misaligned due to breed conformation, can form more pockets and crevices for bacteria to collect in.
Periodontal disease encompasses disease ranging from gingivitis (Stage I) all the way to severe gum infection and loss of bone surrounding the teeth (Stage IV). A quick look at the stages below:
Image source: moffittanimalclinic.com
That chart features a dog’s teeth, but the same applies in cats.
I find that clients with pets falling into the stage I-II range are often the most resistant to allowing dental cleaning on their pet. My guess is that, at this stage, to many pet owners, the teeth don’t look “bad.” People agree that their pet has tartar and gingivitis, but they seem to think that, for a dog or a cat, that’s okay and “normal.” They rarely know that a lot of the disease in a pet’s mouth is actually below the gumline, where we can’t see it, and what’s visible is not as bad as what’s underneath. They also don’t seem to really grasp that cleaning the teeth before they look like they’re going to fall out of an animal’s mouth is actually the idea.
Why is it so important to get an early handle on periodontal disease? Here’s a few good reasons.
1. As periodontal disease gets more severe, infections in your pet’s mouth can seed bacteria throughout the body, and those bacteria can damage your pet’s various organs, such as the heart, kidneys, and liver. Weakening of the bone due to infection can also cause oronasal fistulas (openings between the mouth and the nasal passages) and jaw fractures.
2. Putting your pet under anesthesia for a periodontal treatment can help the veterinarian diagnose other problems in the mouth that can be difficult to see on physical exam. Identifying an oral tumor, tooth resorption, or other oral disease is much easier when the pet is asleep. Awake pets, especially those experiencing oral pain, can be difficult to examine while awake, and important findings may be missed. Likewise, it is tremendously difficult to impossible to examine the surfaces of the teeth facing the tongue in an awake patient; examination of those surfaces can be performed quite easily during anesthesia.
3. Periodontal disease can make it harder to handle other disease processes in your pet. A well-known scenario is the diabetic dog or cat. With diabetes, an inflammatory process anywhere int he body can make said body more resistant to insulin, leading your pet to need more and more with less and less control being gained. Numerous are the kitties I’ve seen that have seemed to stop responding to their insulin doses…only to re-regulate once their mouths have been cleaned and infected teeth pulled out.
4. Getting an early handle on periodontal disease by cleaning before the mouth is a disaster means an easier procedure, and that translates to a shorter anesthesia time. The risk of anesthesia rises the longer a pet is under, so it’s far more ideal to have a quick cleaning than to have to tangle an infected mouth full of necessary extractions. That takes much longer and increases risk to the patient.
5. Even though your pet may seem like he’s eating fine, pain from periodontal disease cannot be ruled out. As I mentioned before, many animals will continue to act “normal” even when some amount of pain exists. They may still continue eating even with terribly diseased mouths. Animals often don’t show their pain as obviously as humans do, and providing timely dental work for your pet is a significant part of welfare.
Take-home message: if your vet is recommending a dental cleaning, or extractions, or some sort of dental work, for your pet, it’s likely because it’s necessary. Your pet’s teeth are a crucial part of his/her wellbeing, and periodontal disease is a very common, yet often minimally-treated, part of veterinary medicine that can really affect your pet’s overall health.
Resources: American Veterinary Dental Society (http://www.avds-online.org/newweb/index.php)