Here in the US February is officially Pet Dental Health Month. With this in mind, I'm going to post a few things about dental care this week.
Do you know what the most commonly diagosed disease is in pets? Diabetes? Heart murmurs? Diarrhea? Kennel cough? Nope, none of those. It's dental disease! Tartar, gingivitis, and periodontal disease have a much higher incidence rate than any other disease or disorder. Yet surprisingly many pet owners don't do much about it, resulting in health risks and discomfort for their pets. There seems to be a perception among many clients that dental issues really aren't a big deal and are optional to treat. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I want to spend some time debunking some myths surrounding dental disease. Here are some common misunderstandings, in no particular order.
1. My parents never had their dog's teeth cleaned and he lived to a ripe old age. This whole thing has been blown out of proportion. In the veterinary profession there is a joke that about 20 years ago we discovered that dogs have teeth, and about 10 years ago we discovered that cats also have teeth. Decades ago dental care wasn't emphasized and the risks were not appreciated. Medical understanding evolves over time, and what we know now may not have been a generation ago. Vets who practiced 40 years ago weren't taught much (if anything) about periodontal disease. I graduated from vet school 15 years ago, and I had one lab and maybe a couple of lectures on dental disorders. Over the last few decades our knowledge of disease processes in general has expanded, and this includes things in the mouth. Just because something wasn't done in our parents' generation doesn't mean that there isn't valid reason to do it today.
2. A little tartar really isn't a big deal and doesn't cause problems. Think about this for a minute. Do you think your dentist would be okay with you having "a little bit of tartar". Certainly not. We are supposed to have our own teeth cleaned every six months, even if we're brushing and flossing appropriately, in order to prevent periodontal disease. Tartar of any amount is unwanted and begins the process that can lead to periodontal disease. Additionally, much tartar is below the gum line where we can't easily see it on an exam, so "mild" tartar may actually be more of a problem than it initially appears. We also don't want to go from tartar and gingivitis to periodontal disease because of more serious health risks (see the next point).
3. Dental infection only causes bad breath. Tartar causes gingivitis, which can lead to infection under the gums and in the bone of the jaw. When the bone is severely infected it begins to deteriorate and causes teeth to loosen and fall out. But bad teeth isn't the most serious consequence of periodontal disease. When gingivitis and periodontal disease are present bacteria in the mouth have access to the blood stream and can spread to other parts of the body. Dental disease is known to lead to liver and kidney infections, heart murmurs, diabetes, and other serious diseases. Regular dental care and early dental cleanings (see point #2) can prevent the mouth from getting this severe.
4. My old dog is just getting slow and the tartar doesn't cause her any problems. Many people think their pets are just getting old and slowing down because of age. Yet periodontal disease may actually be the problem. I have seen many cases where an old dog has severe infection in its mouth and gums, we do a dental cleaning, extract infected teeth, and put the pet on antibiotics. It's very common for those owners to come back later and say that after the dog recovered they were playful and more active, acting much younger. Periodontal disease is painful! And because it's common in older pets owners may make the assumption that reduced energy is due to age when it is actually due to dental infection. Clearing the infection makes them feel better. But preventing infection is even better!
5. It's too dangerous to put my pet under anesthesia, especially at his age. I often tell my clients that age is not a disease. If a pet's heart, cardiovascular system, and organ functions are normal, anesthesia on a 15 year old dog or cat is not going to be at a significantly higher risk than on a one year old pet. Safety with anesthesia is related to multiple factors, and only part of it is the patient's health. The safest anesthesia involves pre-anesthetic blood testing (to screen for anemia, infection, and organ dysfunction), the right induction agent and gas anesthesia, IV fluids, and full monitoring equipment (ECG, pulse oximeter, and blood pressure). Unfortunately, there is not only one anesthesia protocol that every veterinarian uses, so the particulars of a procedure will likely vary (sometimes considerably) between practices. If a pet has a medical condition it becomes a whole different ballgame, and the dental cleaning may be more risky. However in the large majority of patients, the risks associated with dental disease are far greater than any risks of anesthesia, even in geriatric pet (see all of the above points!). Talk to your vet about the type of anesthesia that they use, and if your pet is a good candidate.
As you can see, there are many good reasons to have a dental cleaning done on your pet and very few reasons not to. Take this opportunity to have your pet's teeth evaluated and if your vet recommends a dental cleaning, take what they say seriously. It could significantly improve your pet's health and life.
Stay tuned, as next I'll discuss things that you can do to help your pet's teeth. Plus, a contest and giveaway!!! Yes, you can actually get free stuff!