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The importance of dental care

Dental disease is really common in our pets - but sadly, it can be hard to recognise at home, largely because it builds up gradually. Some studies suggest that as many as 70% of cats and 85% of dogs over three years of age have significant dental health problems. In this blog, we’re therefore going to look at the problems that dental disease can cause, and how you can take action to minimise the risk to your pets. 

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What dental problems do dogs and cats develop?

Unlike humans, tooth decay (or caries) is uncommon in dogs and cats. The most common conditions we see are the result of a build-up of plaque and tartar on the teeth. After any meal, a thin layer of saliva, food material, and dead skin cells (from the gums) is left covering the teeth. In a remarkably short time (just a few hours), this is colonised by bacteria, forming a biofilm over the teeth. We call this mixture of bacteria and organic debris plaque.

If not removed, minerals in the saliva are incorporated into the plaque, turning it hard and brown or yellow. This hard, dirty-looking crust is called tartar, and is very hard to remove.

The biggest problem is that plaque and tartar doesn’t just affect the parts of the teeth that we can see, but also spreads below the gum line. Here, the body’s reaction to the bacteria causes gingivitis - inflammation of the gums. If untreated, the infection then spreads into the tooth socket (the “alveolus”), and begins breaking down the ligaments that hold the teeth in place. This periodontal disease is painful and eventually results in tooth abscesses or tooth loss. In addition, bacteria can easily enter the bloodstream resulting in heart disease, kidney failure, blood clots, and in some cases arthritis or strokes.

How would I know if my pet was affected?

Although animals do occasionally become so painful that they are unable to eat, this is usually the very last stage of the process - so just because they are still eating, it does not necessarily mean that their teeth are healthy. Symptoms of dental disease may also include:

  • Redness of the gums
  • Swelling or overgrowth of gum tissues
  • Halitosis (bad breath)
  • Discomfort when the face or muzzle is touched
  • Slow eating or altered appetite

Unfortunately, the true extent of many tooth problems cannot be detected externally. A full clinical examination by our vets can help, but to get an accurate diagnosis, we use our dedicated dental X-ray machine to examine tooth roots. This can show us a wide range of problems while they’re still below the gum line, letting us choose the most appropriate treatment much earlier than we otherwise could.

How can dental disease be treated?

The treatment of gingivitis or periodontal disease requires a dental here at the practice. We have a dedicated dental theatre, where your pet’s teeth can be examined fully under anaesthetic (it is not possible to fully assess an animal’s dental health while they are awake). Any diseased or infected teeth will be surgically removed, and the remainder cleaned, scaled and polished, to remove any remaining scraps of tartar.

Can they be prevented?

The good news is that the vast majority of dental issues are entirely preventable. The key is good quality home care - and that’s something you as the owner can do!

The mainstay of dental care is tooth brushing - just like it is for humans. Almost every dog or cat can learn to enjoy, or at least accept, having their teeth brushed, and it will save them suffering, and you time and money, later on down the line. We recommend you start with getting them used to the taste of toothpaste. Remember, it is vital that you use a pet toothpaste not a human one - the mint burns their mouths, and some of the ingredients are highly toxic to dogs. Initially, smear a little bit of toothpaste on their gums each evening. Once they’re used to this, get a finger brush (like those used to teach small children how to brush), and gently run it over the outside surfaces of the teeth. Eventually, they will be relaxed enough to brush inside their teeth too, and then you can change to a proper toothbrush. If you need any advice, please pop in and see one of our nurses who will guide you through the process.

In addition, it can be useful to use a pet mouthwash - these are liquids that are placed into the drinking water to slow down the build-up of bacteria. While less effective than brushing, they are better than nothing; the same goes for chews and dental diets.

If you think your pet may have dental problems, please make an appointment to see one of our vets. Even if you are concerned that your pet is too old or ill for dental treatment, do come and talk to us - there are often things that we can do to make it safe for even very elderly patients.

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