Ready… Aim… Brush!

In keeping with the theme for Animal Health Week, we bring you information on an area of preventative care that can do so much for your pet’s overall health:

Dental decay can cause bad breath and a host of other health problems for your pet. Here’s how to help everyone breathe a little easier.

dental kitten

Think for a moment what it would be like not to brush your teeth.  Ever.  Meal after meal, day after day.  Yes, there would be that initial urge to shave your tongue, but as the days wore on, the stale taste in your mouth would become more than just a nuisance.  As the condition of your teeth grew worse, you probably wouldn’t feel quite right about yourself.  You might not be able to eat all the foods you used to; hot or cold liquids could be a problem too.  You might even become a bit irritable.  Inevitably, even if they didn’t say it out loud, friends and loved ones would be thinking:  “Dog breath.”

Well, unless you are a dog, you’ll probably never have these problems.  But it happens all the time to pets.   Dental disease affects approximately 85% of pets over the age of one.  According to veterinary researches, if your dog is older than age five, there is an excellent chance (nearly nine in 10) that gum disease already has claimed some of the bone surrounding his tooth roots.  If your dog is older, and the bacteria from oral infection find their way into the blood, it could lead to complications involving the heart, liver, or kidneys.

Cats don’t get off any easier.  When they have dental problems, it’s not unusual for them to refuse to eat or drink.  And you know cats; they can keep this up until they become seriously ill.  There’s simply no way around it:  If you want a healthy pet, you can’t ignore his teeth.

Signs/symptoms your pet is suffering from periodontal disease:

  • Excessive salivation
  • Red & Bleeding gums
  • Receding gums
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Tartar
  • Loose teeth

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Understanding Calculus

Dental problems in pets begin the same way they do for you–with plaque.  Plaque is a bacterial film that forms continually in the mouth and leads to periodontal disease, a progressive condition that marks the beginning of the end for gums and teeth.

Plaque begins with the accumulation of food particles in the narrow space where each tooth meets the gum.  As saliva and bacteria in the mouth mix with the food particles, the bacteria multiply and then die, leaving waste products in the process.  But hang on, it gets even worse.

The body responds by sending the bacteria-fighting cells to the gums, which causes them to become inflamed and to ooze chalk-like minerals.  These minerals calcify and harden into what is known as calculus.  Meanwhile, the narrow channel between tooth and gum is no longer quite so narrow because plaque and calculus (which together are known as tartar) continue to accumulate until a pocket of pus forms at the gumline.

As this cycle repeats itself, the tooth further separates from the now receding gum, creating an even larger pocket of debris.  Eventually, this uninviting miasma will become so toxic that the tissue around the tooth dies; the ligament that attaches tooth to bone separates; and the thin layer of bone that supports the tooth erodes.  Soon, the tooth will loosen and fall out.

It’s enough to make you haul off and brush your dog’s teeth right now, isn’t it?  Well, that’s precisely what all pets need.

“The thing to do for your pet is what anyone would do for himself,” says Dr. Charles Williams, a board-certified veterinary dentist in Fairfax, VA.  “You want to practice preventive health care rather than wait for an irreversible disease process.”

Dr. Williams also cautions against reacting too slowly to pet dental problems.  “Take bad breath, for instance,” he says.  “This is a sign of poor oral health, but the trouble is, if you wait until you see this sign, you already are at such an advanced state of degeneration that, for the most part, things can be just too far gone to really do a good job.

“In the past, we typically used the amount of calculus visible on the teeth as a measure of oral health.  You know: ‘do they look bad?  Do they have a heavy tartar on them?’  If the answer is no, we used to say ‘Gee, there’s no need to do anything for this dog’s mouth.’  That’s a mistake.”

Veterinarians aren’t making that mistake anymore, and there’s no reason for you to make it either.  If you take dental care seriously when your pet is young, you can prevent these problems and allow the animal to keep a full set of teeth throughout his life.  But even if the animal isn’t so young, correcting dental problems to whatever degree possible will give you a happier, healthier pet.

 Getting Good “prohy”

“I wasn’t aware that anything could be wrong with an animal’s teeth,” says Ellie Gilanshah, whose 8-year-old Maltese, Bo, receives regular dental care at Dr. William’s Blue Cross Animal Clinic.  “He’s so much better now; his teeth are clean, and he doesn’t have bad breath.  I wish I’d known about checkups and brushing when I got Bo.  Now I tell my friends about it, too.”

“Good prophy for pets should be very much like the procedures you have performed when you go to the dentist,” says Dr. B. Jean Hawkins, [past president of the American Veterinary Dental Society]: Radiographs should be taken if they’re warranted, and the gingiva should be examined under the gum line to see if calculus is there, and if the teeth are loose.  Root planning should be scaled, and polished.”

Sub gingival cleaning, or removal of debris and calculus below the gum line, is one of the most important aspects of the professional dental work-up.  As this is done, the technologist will actually plane or scrape the root of the tooth until it is clean and smooth.  Polishing not only cleans each tooth’s enamel, it makes it more difficult for plaque and calculus to reattach.  You can even request a fluoride treatment.  Your pet will have to be put under general anesthesia for these procedures.

The next step is to pick up where your veterinarian leaves off.  That means brushing all 42 of your dog’s teeth.  You lucky cat owners have only 30 teeth to brush.

“Dental care in the clinic is only as good as the follow-up care in the home,” says Dr. Peter Emily, the director of animal dentistry at Colorado State University’s College of veterinary medicine.  “If an animal has periodontal disease you can clean it up.  But if the same circumstances that led to it being there in the first place continue, he’ll end up right where he was; it’s just a matter of time.  You have to intercept this.  The home care routine will change things.”

What exactly is the home care routine?  Feeding high-quality “hard” or dry rations (and no table scraps or sweets), providing hard rubber chew toys to exercise the periodontal ligaments, and most important, cleaning the mouth and teeth by brushing.  (See the box on below)

“No matter how much or how little home care there is, there needs to be a relationship with the professional,” says dental specialist Dr. Williams.  “Home care can reduce the amount of professional care necessary, but it takes both to ensure good long-term oral health in a pet.  One of the rewarding things about specializing in dentistry as opposed to say, cancer therapy, is that we almost always help our patients.”

kitten-with-brush

Put my finger where?  A Guide to Brushing your Pet’s Teeth

Two considerations could get in the way of brushing your pet’s teeth.  Number one you don’t want to do it, and number two, your pet doesn’t want it done.  But don’t worry–you brush your own teeth, don’t you?  It’s part of your routine, and that’s how you should approach the challenge with your pet.  First of all, understand that if brushing is to be of any value to your pet, it must be done at least every other day.  Plaque mineralizes into calculus in 24 to 48 hours.

Second, try to create a habitual routine by choosing an appropriate time and place, and sticking with it–like in a comfortable chair, after you’ve both had supper, and before the evening walk, or just before a pleasant daily activity, like playing ball.  And third do your best to make brushing fun; use lots of praise.

When you come to the moment of truth–putting your fingers inside your pet’s mouth–it probably will be for just a few moments, but you can build from there.  Start slowly, merely touching the muzzle and talking to your pet to help him relax.  Your veterinarian can show you the best way to open the mouth, usually by grasping the lips toward the rear of the muzzle.  Begin handling the mouth gently, and eventually stroke the animal gums and teeth.  If you accomplish this much in the first session, you’re doing fine.

To help cats tolerate having a brush in their mouths, Dr. Peter Emily of ColoradoState suggests using the water from a water-packed can of tuna.  Just strain it, put a little on a toothbrush, and let a hungry kitten chew on it.  Later, you can switch to using a pet toothpaste.

For dogs, Dr. Emily says to “use a little warm water and garlic salt.  This taste is very palatable to a dog.  And if you take a puppy, especially a hungry puppy, and let him chew a while on a toothbrush that’s been dipped in the water and garlic salt, you’ll have the psychological lock established right away that “this tastes good… it’s OK.’ From that point on, you can start brushing.”  When you do start brushing your dog’s teeth, remember that the accumulations of plaque and calculus are greatest on the sides of a dog’s teeth facing the cheek, because this is where the salivary gland duct openings are.

When gathering the tools you’ll need, don’t reach for toothbrush or toothpaste designed for human mouths; the brush will be too large and too firm, and the paste can cause your pet stomach problems.  Your veterinarian will have the right materials to use and can show you how to use them the right way.  What’s most important is that you and your veterinarian work to establish–and then stick with — a routine.

The two biggest points to remember are:

1) If your pet’s mouth is sore or you suspect there may be a problem, DO NOT start a home dental routine. See your veterinarian first. Your pet may need professional care.

2) Training your pet to accept dental care makes all the difference.

If you are having troubles please call us 306-545-7211. No animal will naturally want you to stick things in their mouth. We have lots of tips and tricks that may help.

For more dental information see our post: The Importance of Dental Care

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